Edinburgh World Heritage has been working collaboratively with the City of Edinburgh Council on the development of appropriate proposals for public realm enhancement in George Street. EWH is wholly in support of the Council’s Net Zero By 2030 target and the wider efforts to reduce vehicular traffic, increase cycling routes and enhance the pedestrian experience in the city centre.
The urban design of Edinburgh’s New Town lies at the heart of the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage Site. As the Atkins Consultant team described at their recent presentation to Councillors, Edinburgh’s First New Town is recognised as a highly significant example of historic urban design, one that became a major influence on European urban planning throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Edinburgh city centre’s UNESCO World Heritage Status is based on the significance of the quality of urban design in the New Town and its juxtaposition with the Old Town. James Craig’s original 18th century layout emphasised the architectural, using classically-influenced building design and street form to focus views towards gardens, parks and countryside rather than incorporating trees within streetscapes. George Street exemplifies this, with its position on the land ridge chosen to provide views to the north and south, and to the generous spaces of Charlotte Square and St Andrew’s Square to the east and west. Historically, this was therefore characterised by spacious and uncluttered high-quality setted streets which provided a very clear distinction between built form and urban space – punctuated by landmark memorials and terminal views. It is important that any intervention seeks to conserve or enhance this historic character and quality. Proposals to review this highly important city streetscape represent a vital opportunity to address detrimental parking, commercial and other visual clutter.
The current design proposals for George Street are the result of considerable consultation to date, and we note that significant response to our advice is reflected in the development of proposals over time. Following a collaborative design discussion with CEC and Historic Environment Scotland, during which a number of potential landscape solutions were presented by the Consultant Team, it became evident that the Council’s preferred option may be to locate a maximum of 8 trees at either end of the street within the raised planters already agreed as part of the current design.
We recognise the environmental benefits of tree planting within the World Heritage Site where appropriate, to help to mitigate climate change problems, however from a World Heritage Site perspective our preference would be to not introduce trees on George Street, but to consider other more appropriate sites to locate additional tree planting. The introduction of trees to the current design scheme for George Street, at a late stage in the process, raised concerns that the current design, accepted as being sympathetic to the historic environment, may be compromised and that the architectural integrity of this highly important historic street may be diminished, threatening aspects of Edinburgh’s Outstanding Universal Value.
Whilst from a heritage perspective it would be ideally advised to avoid trees altogether on George Street, if clear and convincing justification is provided for trees in public interest terms, then, on balance, with the current condition of George Street, we consider that the introduction of a maximum of 8 trees will not have a major impact on the OUV of the World Heritage Site. When viewed from a distance along George Street, these tree clusters will visually merge with the greenery of the squares behind. The proposed planting positions do not interrupt views of existing key buildings. When mature, the trees will be at an appropriate scale to draw the eye down from the taller, older trees in the squares to the lower level of the street planting, enhancing the overall integration of the design within the street. The clusters will, when in full leaf, provide pleasant, shady areas.
Given the specifics of this case, Edinburgh World Heritage is content to support the addition of a maximum of 8 trees in total to the design scheme, in the proposed locations at either end of George Street.
We look forward to continuing to work constructively with our historic city management partners, providing our expert advice to ensure that the details of the plan remain sympathetic to the historic character of George Street, which is one of the most architecturally important streets in the World Heritage Site.