Edinburgh Study Tour – Part I: Complexity and Contrasts in Managing Old and New Towns’ World Heritage Site

Written by Angela Morris


Old Town of Edinburgh. Photo by author.
New Town of Edinburgh. Photo by author.

At the beginning of April, the YCAA study tour took place in the lovely old city of Edinburgh. The theme of the study tour was ‘Edinburgh, a city of contrasts: an exploration of the conservation and management issues of its two World Heritage Sites.’ As part of this tour, we were witness to Edinburgh’s two World Heritage Site (‘WHS’) – consisting of Old and New Towns and the recently-inscribed Forth Bridge – as well as local conservation projects within its city limits. Certainly, Edinburgh offers a layered appreciation of the diverse issues associated with not just a WHS but also how those concerns intersect with local and national interests and planning policy. As a student, it was truly a pleasure to see these complicated topics played out first-hand in a practical and reified way in such a prime setting.

EWH sign
Edinburgh World Heritage charity. Source: Tracy Wilcockson.

Our first day of the study tour began with a talk by Adam Wilkinson, Director of Edinburgh World Heritage (‘EWH’), the charity that conserves and promotes the city’s World Heritage status. His talk was engaging and brought to the fore the complex macro- and micro- management issues with which EWH must contend. Wilkinson touched on Outstanding Universal Value (‘OUV’) and skylines (which form part of Edinburgh’s OUV), but the bulk of his talk was centred on how Edinburgh is not a museum object but a living, breathing city constantly challenged by contemporary needs and a massive influx of visitors each year (3.6 million!). Unfortunately, most if not all of the visitor revenue goes to Westminster! Even if it goes to Holyrood, it is usually allocated outside of Edinburgh. Clearly, there is an imbalance with the reinvestment of funds into Edinburgh to allow the WHS/city to thrive.

Preserving authenticity allows the WHS to flourish. By engaging with business owners, shopkeepers, and residents to choose a more historically-sympathetic repair or shop signage, EWH subtly teaches the public about OUV and authenticity whilst ensuring its retention. These small changes can have a positive effect on Edinburgh’s authenticity versus insensitive repairs (and buildings plans). Part of EWH’s job is to work with the public on conservation matters in a non-threatening but helpful way. To me, it was a lesson in good practice for working with the public and involving them with conservation solutions.

Edinburgh World Heritage is keen to have the community aware of and invested in the care of its own space, a philosophy reminiscent of 19th century town planner Sir Patrick Geddes (apropos, as we were in the town in which Geddes had such an impact). One of the ways EWH is doing this is to build a relationship between residents and visitors through coherent activities such as fun family days held at major city sites. In this sense, the two vibrant communities will come together in a non-competing way within the WHS whilst utilising local venues; it is all about enhancing the city’s appeal and thus enhancing its significance.

Adam Wilkinson (red jacket) discussing the historicity of Calton Hill and visitor impact. Source: Tracy Wilcockson. 
Calton Hill sign
Visitor information panel at Calton Hill. Signs like this are highly problematic to promote Edinburgh as a well-kept World Heritage Site and inviting tourist city. Source: Tracy Wilcockson.

After his talk, Wilkinson took us on a city tour to see conservation issues first-hand, which really brought home the issues about which he talked. Travelling up to Calton Hill gave us a better view of the relationship between Old and New Towns and how new developments impact the historic environment. We discussed some unfavourable new developments taking place and the delicate handling EWH must undertake when dealing with developers, policymakers, and politicians. It is not an easy task and a balance must be struck between conservation of the historic environment and progress. Wilkinson emphasised that if unsympathetic builds continue for the sake of progress, it could negatively impact Edinburgh’s OUV and World Heritage status. The impact of new builds in historic cities is not new, yet these concerns are compounded by Edinburgh’s World Heritage status; trying to reconcile these conflicting views is a political and economic Gordian knot.

Expert opinions collide: James Simpson (left) expounding his views on managing Edinburgh; Adam Wilkinson (right) does not look convinced. Source: Tracy Wilcockson.

Whilst on our city tour, James Simpson of the well-respected firm Simpson & Brown, joined us and he and Wilkinson had definite and disparate ideas of how to manage Edinburgh. It was interesting to hear the two ‘discuss’ idealist versus pragmatist attitudes to managing and planning Edinburgh. It certainly endorsed the notion that everyone approaches conservation differently and it is a balancing act. (More on Simpson and his guiding tour in heritage projects will be discussed in Duncan Marks’s forthcoming article.)

In the course of the morning, Wilkinson showed us how complex it is to manage a WHS in a living, breathing city. He emphasised that investing in the city by small or large means can enhance rather than diminish Edinburgh’s authenticity and value. Seeing it first-hand with active practitioners in a marvellously historic city expanded my view of what encompasses ‘conservation,’ stimulated new questions about conservation approaches, and made me think more critically about how to implement it into practice that will undoubtedly help me in my future work.


Note: The author would like to thank the York Conservation Alumni Association for organising the study tour trip and the student bursary that helped fund her tour.


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