“Edinburgh has never been doing so well as it is now. If we build for the future while we’re on this rise, it’ll make for much better planning”
The Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Frank Ross, speaks of his home city with more than a sense of civic pride. It is a personal pride. It is a belief that Edinburgh, in addition to the plethora of its past achievements, is a city of the future on the cusp of changing the world.
“I genuinely believe that,” says Frank. “What an incredible place to live, work and play. I’m still arguing with the Mayor of Wellington in New Zealand about how they managed to pip us to number one in the worldwide quality of life rankings,” he jokes.
“But in all seriousness, look at where we are today. We’re ranked second in the world for quality of life. We’ve got the most educated workforce in the whole of the UK. We’re way ahead culturally through our festivals and our heritage. We’ve got a big, value-added economy, and instead of being dependent on just one industry sector we’ve got several growing at the same time.”
Frank isn’t the only person who’s proud of these facts. Last year he decided to cement that pride with other city stakeholders. The result was the 2050 Edinburgh City Vision – a unifying force with the potential, Frank explains, to bring together influential organisations and citizens to achieve what none could do individually. As a city of the future, Edinburgh would shape that future.
So why establish a vision now? There are two main reasons, according to Frank. The first is to do with politics, or rather the absence of it. “Our city vision isn’t about a specific political party or any particular ideology. It’s about allowing the city to tell us what it wants to be through its people, its businesses and its organisations. The role of Lord Provost is apolitical, and so with me leading the initiative there’s no political bias at play.”
The second reason is to do with prosperity. “The time to build something for the future is when you’re being successful,” says Frank, “Edinburgh has never been doing so well as it is now. If we build for the future while we’re on this rise, it’ll make for much better planning.”
As for why 2050 was chosen to be the year in vision, that comes down to possibility. “We’re looking at what’s possible in the long-term,” says Frank. “Our vision goes beyond the concerns of the latest headlines, the politics of the next election or the standard cycles of business. Had we given the vision a shorter horizon we’d have ended up getting involved in these things and started thinking about strategies, plans and solutions to individual problems – and that would have limited our view of what’s possible as a city.”
The emerging vision
While it’s not possible to fully imagine what Edinburgh wants to be in 2050, the work has very much begun. The first year of feedback has resulted in a broad range of action areas which will be developed as part of the vision. At present, these include plans to make Edinburgh carbon neutral, eradicate poverty as we understand it today, reimagine public space in the city and make Edinburgh more caring.
“These action areas came about following input from individuals and organisations in Edinburgh, including several schools,” says Frank. “They are a starting point for the vision, a parameter that enables people to start visualising what they want their city to be by 2050. Crucially, though, they won’t be set in stone. We’re not going to restrict people with this vision. If people come back with different views as the years go on, we’re absolutely going to accommodate them.”
Relative poverty is the area in which Frank hopes the most difference will be made over the coming years, for despite the city’s prosperity, there remains a significant gap between rich and poor in Edinburgh. “That is our single biggest challenge, and it’s compounded by a lack of affordable housing, homelessness and – although our figures are way below both Scottish and UK averages – unemployment. A meaningful city vision needs to consider such challenges, because it’s an opportunity not just to make better the already good but to drive real change where it’s needed the most.”
Almost two years on, the vision for Edinburgh is emerging. Throughout 2018 the steering group behind the vision is going to be focusing on ways to reach every citizen of Edinburgh and factor their views into the vision. Activity will be carried out on social media, in schools, at work, through direct discussion – every possible way to engage the population with a view to fully launching the vision proper this summer.
“A key element of this whole initiative is the fact that people my age and older will be quite elderly by 2050,” says Frank. “While we’re going to give room for everybody’s opinion, we’re giving extra weighting to the views of young people about what they want their city to be. This is a young person’s thing at heart, and as custodians of the city we’ve got some fairly significant decisions to make in order to shape the city for how the current young generations want to see it in 2050.”
Defining the future
In addition to the action areas identified at this stage of the vision, four key themes have also emerged: an inspired city, a thriving city, a connected city and a fair city. Together these articulate the values and purpose of the vision as a whole.
“The impact that we’ve had with the city vision so far has been fantastic,” says Frank. “This isn’t a short-term plan or a strategy; it’s a vision that Edinburgh’s organisations, businesses and citizens are buying into. If we set it up correctly it’ll become a way in which the city can define its own future in advance – and that’s something that could realistically continue for time immemorial.”
“As custodians of the city we’ve got some fairly significant decisions to make in order to shape the city for how the current young generations want to see it in 2050”
Six ways Edinburgh is already shaping the future
Edinburgh is leading the way in the fight against homelessness. Founded in Edinburgh in 2014, social enterprise Social Bite aims to completely eradicate homelessness in Scotland by 2020. The enterprise runs a chain of sandwich and coffee shops across Scotland’s three major cities (Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen), employing people from homeless backgrounds, distributing meals amongst the homeless community and using profits to support charities working to eradicate homelessness across the country. The enterprise is about to open a purpose-built village in Edinburgh offering cost-effective, community-centric shelter as an alternative to traditional temporary accommodation.
As the city with the greatest amount of green space in any UK city, and one of the UK’s top three eco-friendly cities as a whole, Edinburgh is bearing the torch for environmental issues. As part of this, the University of Edinburgh has recently divested from fossil fuels, a move that has made it the largest university fund in the UK to ditch all coal, oil and gas holdings. Having now chosen to invest in low-carbon technologies and climate research, the university plans to become completely carbon neutral by 2040.
Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of Edinburgh’s Festivals, the world-famous celebrations which, collectively, have secured Edinburgh’s place as the world’s leading festival city. People come from all over the world to celebrate everything from literature and film to science and music, contributing some £200 million annually for the city. Other cities around the world are already emulating Edinburgh by organising their own ‘Fringes’ and other annual festivals – including Brighton in England, Adelaide in South Africa, Tampa in the USA and Wellington in New Zealand.
Quality of life
Ranked second in the world for quality of life by a report by Deutsche Bank last year, Edinburgh continues to be one of the most sought-after places to live and work in the world. Along with the second best healthcare score, the third best pollution score and the best traffic commute times, Edinburgh tops much-loved cities like Denmark and Melbourne in terms of liveability. All of these factors have resulted in a creative, productive and influential population calling Edinburgh home.
Named the ‘best city to launch a start-up in the UK’, Edinburgh is a well-established hub of innovation, ranking ahead of London, Bristol and Glasgow. The survey, conducted by Expert Market, highlighted that Edinburgh offers the best opportunities for young businesses looking for an affordable base outside of London. Skyscanner and FanDuel, two of Edinburgh’s biggest start-ups have both achieved ‘unicorn status’, meaning they are worth more than £1 billion. Many more start-ups have are on the road to success in the city, including pureLiFi, TVSquared, Mallzee and Appointedd (read our interview with CEO, Leah Hutcheon, here).
Edinburgh has a hugely well-educated population and a thriving student scene, contributing to Scotland’s ranking as one of the most educated countries in Europe. With four universities and six further and higher education colleges, the city is continually producing a highly academic and qualified workforce. What’s more, compared to the rest of the UK Edinburgh has attracted the highest proportion of non-UK and EU students. This has created a lively and diverse student body that continues to contribute to the socioeconomic and cultural wealth of the city and Scotland more.