“The weave and rhythm of the city, particularly the contrast between the Old and New Towns and their urban forms, is unique. In the Old Town, the buildings are narrow and vertical; in the New Town, they are horizontal and proportional. We have to work within that spirit.”
The Director of Edinburgh World Heritage, Adam Wilkinson, is considering what makes Edinburgh special as the capital celebrates the 250th anniversary of the New Town and the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. Adam and his team are tasked with safeguarding the urban character that makes the capital so renowned across the world.
“Of course it is a living city; Edinburgh is at the centre of a nation,” he explains. “It is a dynamic place with many different pressures on it, whether this is from the 68,000 commuters who come here every day, 500,000 residents or four million visitors a year. What we try and do is use conservation as a tool for all these people’s objectives. So, how can we use heritage to support social objectives around community? How can we use heritage projects to support the economy of the city? And how can we use it to support the environment of the city?”
An independent charity, Edinburgh World Heritage was established in 1999, bringing together two existing organisations: the Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee and the Edinburgh Old Town Renewal Trust. Now working in partnership with the City of Edinburgh Council and Historic Environment Scotland, the organisation strives to conserve and enhance the capital’s World Heritage Site, which encompasses the Old Town, New Town, the West End and the Dean Village.
“If you can improve the general atmosphere of an area and change people’s perceptions, it encourages investment”
There are three facets to Edinburgh World Heritage’s programme of conservation: funding, learning and outreach, and advocacy. Firstly, refundable grants for private owners encourage the upkeep of the city’s tenement flats. When the property is sold, the funding is recompensed and used for the maintenance of statues, monuments or other spaces in the city. “If you can improve the general atmosphere of an area and change people’s perceptions, it encourages investment,” says Adam.
For instance, Adam cites an urban renewal initiative with residents of the Royal Mile, which will transform twelve of the steep, narrow closes and alleyways around their homes. The residents will help to develop briefs, which will then be executed by interior design students primarily through the interpretation of light. “Some of the closes have issues with poor lighting and have neglected nooks and crannies,” he says. “So it’s about interpreting the closes, drawing visitors in to explore them, improving security, and supporting the businesses in that area.”
The second facet, learning and outreach, revolves around using heritage to tell the city’s locals and visitors the story of where they are from and who they are. Another major project in the early stages of development is the conversion of the Tron Kirk, an Edinburgh architectural treasure that was built almost 380 years ago. “We intend to turn the category A listed building into the starting point of your journey in Edinburgh, whether you are a resident or a visitor,” says Adam. “It will create a space for learning and interpretation activities around the stories of the Old and New Towns, as well as commercial space.”
“We need to continue to find ways of ensuring that tourism respects the residential population”
The final facet is advocacy, which concerns the quality of new development and ensuring it is in harmony with the neighbouring environment. Yet, Adam believes that the main threats to the World Heritage Site are those that are the result of the city’s success: “One is development pressure and inappropriate development, but we are very lucky that we don’t have a huge number of inappropriate developments. We always speak to the developers as early as possible with the planners to discuss what may have an impact and whether it works with the character of the city. Another threat is the way parts of the city are used through tourism. We need to continue to find ways of ensuring that tourism respects the residential population.”
What can Edinburgh’s locals do to help in the conservation of their city? “Very often people do feel quite helpless, but they can engage with the planning system. It’s also really important to engage with the 2050 Edinburgh City Vision [a project to develop a vision for the city for 2050, facilitated by the City of Edinburgh Council] and think about what is best for the city and what they want to see protected and guarded. And of course, they are very welcome to support us as an organisation.”
Adam will be speaking at the EICC’s first Innovation Nation lecture of 2017, Innovation Heritage, which will be held on World Heritage Day on 18 April. Find out more here.
How you can celebrate
The Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017 is a twelve-month celebration of the country’s spectacular World Heritage Sites, historic battlefields, ancient monuments and cultural traditions. Here is a small selection of the year’s events that you can enjoy in and around the capital.
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Scotland in Six – World Heritage Day
On World Heritage Day 2017, Scotland’s six heritage sites will be brought to life with six jaw-dropping events. In Edinburgh, the streets of the Old and New Towns will be filled with a cacophony of competing medieval and classical music. Find out more here.
The Weaver’s Apprentice
Dovecot Studios will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the deaths of their founding master weavers, John ‘Jack’ Glassbrook and Gordon Berry, with a special exhibition that highlights the legacy of their work and the apprentices who followed in their footsteps. More information here.
Described as a ‘blaze of contemporary colour’, Tradfest kicks off the summer with more than 90 events themed around traditional arts and culture. Two special strands for the designated year – Local Cultures and The People’s Heritage – will endeavour to connect creativity with heritage. Find out more here.
Dig it! 2017
Dig It! shines a spotlight on Scotland’s archeological sites with a year-long programme of events that includes storytelling, art exhibitions and of course, digs. There are a number of events happening in and around Edinburgh, including guided walks around Arthur’s Seat and a water safari at Linlithgow Palace (a short train ride from Edinburgh’s city centre). Find out more here.
Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites
The legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites is shrouded in much mystery and elicits many misconceptions. A new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland seeks to tell the real story of the Young Pretender and this turbulent period of history. More information here.