Artwash, Over-Tourism and Edinburgh

By Mike Small
The image of Edinburgh’s central park – Princes Street Gardens – blacked out and blocked off – has acted as a trigger for many people concerned with the phenomenon known globally as “over-tourism” – where a place becomes so saturated with visitors that it undermines the very nature of the place itself. Over-tourism alienates and excludes local people and changes the physical infrastructure of the city. This has been seen in Edinburgh for a long time but is now reaching a crescendo. A threshold has been reached which has been catapulted forward by a convergence of issues about gentrification, development, planning and a housing crisis all of which seem to ask the same question: who does the city belong to?

As Fountainbridge tweeted: “Welcome to #Edinburgh. Please enjoy these spectacular views of @edinburghcastle from behind these 10 foot high barriers. We’ve also closed off 1/3 of the busy pavement for your safety.”

The experience isn’t confined to the city centre, with bus stops being abandoned in Pilrig as the city of the car becomes unmanageable and over-run. The city is ridiculously over-crowded with the pedestrian experience being one of being shunted around a dangerously overcrowded urban landscape.

All of this happens within a context of Creative Scotland’s rolling omnishambles and the feeling that Scotland is – at best – strategically inept at supporting its own indigenous arts and cultural workers. It’s well-known within local promoters and venues that the festival actually undermines the year-round cultural scene with the thinking that ‘you can play till 3am in August but in September you need to quiet down’ being played out in planning and licence debates. The closure of dozens of small-scale venues has been documented by Bella before. But the dynamic between the festival and everyday Edinburgh – and wider Scottish culture is not a positive one.

The overwhelming impression is that the festival is located in but not ofEdinburgh.

The danger is that the Athens of the North becomes the Disneyland of the North.

Cultural Tourism

None of this is the Festival or the Fringe’s fault, they just lie at the epicentre of a phenomenon of cultural tourism that has seen Edinburgh absorbed and distorted by tourist visitors. The visitor experience has become diluted and poisoned by the commercial imperative so that they may come and visit the Scottish capital and learn nothing of its history, know nothing about the culture of the country they are in and meet no-one who is actually from the city.

Culture becomes hollowed-out commodified and meaningless. The saturation tourism effectively destroys the thing that has made it attractive in the first place. Try Skye.

The effect is heightened by the endless desire to promote the city all year-round. This results in what’s being called the Permanent Festival. The barriers are barely being dismantled in September before the next round of cultural events are being programmed and the breathless race to New Year / Winter Festival (or Hogmanay as the locals call it).

Old Town Communities

The worst affected communities in Edinburgh are those people living in the Old Town who suffer an endless parade of Stag and Hen Parties a stream of walking tours and pop-up events and a quality of life completely undermined with whole neighbourhoods distorted by a constant influx of people. Basic amenities become unusable or inaccessible. Noise pollution, streets closed and amenities re-channeled to cater entirely for mass tourism are just some of the issues that local community groups have complained about for years.

This is taking new forms.

In a display of unprecedented infantilism and complete disregard for the sanctity of a cemetery, tourists obsessed with JK Rowlings wizard stories are churning up a graveyard in search of Tom Riddles grave. As Vice reported in January (“Harry Potter Tourism Is Ruining Edinburgh”):

“A couple of years ago, there were warnings that the sheer number of tourists in Edinburgh, alongside the rapid rise of unregulated holiday lets and overdevelopment of new hotels, was making the city’s Old Town increasingly hostile for those who live there, and even threatening its heritage status. Just last month, another Edinburgh literary titan, Alexander McCall Smith, warned that the city was in danger of becoming “a vulgar wasteland of tourist tat shops, big hotels and nothing much else”, with families driven out. The sudden rise in Harry Potter tourism seems to cut to the heart of that, cheered by local tourism chiefs and some businesses, but bearing very little relation to the city of Edinburgh or its inhabitants, aside from the only one who matters: JK Rowling. In Northern Ireland, drastic road closure measures have already had to be brought into play after the country got more than it bargained for when hordes of Games of Thrones tourists started descending on sites that were unprepared for the onslaught.”

Pay and Conditions

Whilst huge play is made of the money the festivals generate for the city, closer examination suggests it’s quite a specific intake. As CommonSpace reported recently:

“Pressure has mounted on the companies behind the biggest venues of the Edinburgh Fringe to reform the “shameful” working conditions of their workers, following the release of a report by the trade union-backed Fair Fringe campaign.”

The report comes on the back of the recent Underbelly controversy, in which the entertainment company offered, in return for work at the annual street party event in Scotland’s capital, to reimburse volunteers with travel expenses and meals and, after they complete their shifts, a “thank you message” and a certificate.”

Etonians Ed Bartlam & Charlie Wood are the directors of Underbelly which boasts on its own website that it:

“also produces Edinburgh’s Christmas, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, Christmas in Leicester Square, Udderbelly Festival in Hong Kong, West End Live in Trafalgar Square and Pride in London for Westminster City Council”.

At the time Bryan Simpson from Better Than Zero and the Unite trade union told Bella Caledonia:

“To ask 120 well-trained staff to work 12 hours in the freezing cold for free is morally unacceptable and possibly illegal given the profit made by the event. As one of the main sponsors of the event we will be asking questions of Edinburgh City Council, particularly given their unanimous support of our Fair Hospitality Charter which commits the council to the pay the living wage at its venues.”

If the Fair Fringe reports is accurate, little has changed, and the festival remains a focus for vast profits and mass exploitation.

Infrastructure Change

One of the central concerns against over-tourism” is the knock-on effect on the physical infrastructure of the city – from the planning obsession with high-end hotels – to the infestation of Airbnb that means that people who already own a house by a second or third flat purely to rent it out. Whole stairways that used to support mixed communities now have Airbnb – a permanent turnover of party tourists with no commitment to, or interest in those around them. It’s not their fault but the unregulated short-termism of this phenomenon blights and changes whole neighbourhoods. It’s telling that in the data visualisation of Airbnb below (click to enlarge) the only blank areas you can make out – are the remaining public spaces – the Meadows, the aforementioned Princes Street Gardens and the Castle.

The attack on the physical infrastructure of the city is to just about the festival and the over-tourism phenomenon as we have seen by the obsession with hotels which destroy the nature of the city and key amenities (like Central Library).

Thomas Hamilton’s Royal High School, built between 1825-9, is one of the most important Greek Revival buildings in Europe, yet it is still under threat from a predatory bid to turn it into a “Six star Art hotel”.

The proposals are being opposed a Coalition of Edinburgh-based organisations are opposing the hotel plan and are committed to fighting this scheme at the upcoming appeal. As the Cockburn Association has pointed out:

“The plans for a new hotel on the site have been widely opposed in the city and by national institutions including Historic Environment Scotland.  The proposals have been refused planning and listed building consent twice.  However, the Developers behind the scheme have appealed against the decision of City of Edinburgh Council to reject the hotel plan, and the case will now be heard by Scottish government-appointed reporters later this year.” More here.

The pattern can be seen cross the city.

Proposals to build a massive Virgin Hotel, rising to 11 storeys, behind Central Library which will block out light and undermine the entire user experience have faced strong opposition but have been met so far by at best incompetence and at worst collusion. There continues to be a complete failure of political leadership about one of the country’s finest assets, a key public building and resource being undermined for the good of the super-rich. An independent Daylight Assessment on the impact of the ‘development’ on the Central Library has recently been published, revealing that if the Virgin Hotel is built the natural daylighting conditions will decrease by as much as a staggering 82%.

Edinburgh prides itself – and sells itself – as a ‘cultural capital’ and a City of Literature, but as other cities like Birmingham open the biggest library in Europe, the political leaders in Scotland’s capital sell out its soul.

While Central Library is just one of dozens of sites under threat across Scotland (see Bishopbriggs, South Lanarkshire, Sutherland, Culloden), it is a key battleground in trying to turnaround the onslaught of development.

You can’t simultaneously claim unique status while selling key cultural spaces. We should be following the lead of other cities and developing not destroying our public assets: opening them up, not shutting them down.

As the writer AL Kennedy has put it:

“Despite digital reading possibilities, the role of libraries hasn’t changed. They’re a social space, a community information space, a breath of fresh air for young mums and pensioners, an access to peace and mental restoration for those in crisis. If you can’t afford books, digital or otherwise, if your school is failing or education never quite made it a library is a door to everywhere. Library closures hurt our most vulnerable the most. Close libraries and you spike social mobility and tear up hopes for generations to come. It’s inexcusable, short-sighted and frankly the cheaper option if you’re fond of book burnings.”

Pseudo Public Space

The Princes Street Gardens fiasco is just the last of a long line of erosion of common land and public space.

The creation of a City for Tourists by definition means the loss of public space. Some of this is more subtle than the blocked out views of the castle and the takeover of Princes Street Gardens. A few years ago the Book Festival, to a great fanfare, “opened its doors” as a sign of some great democratic gesture. What nobody asked at the time was exactly how they’d got away with charging people to effectively walk around a book tent they’d pitched in Charlotte Square in the first place.

The same is true at the other end of George Street. St Andrew Square is a conveyor-belt of events month on month.

As the physical landscape changes so does the language.

Many of these places aren’t public spaces at all. They are what’s called ‘privately owned public spaces’ or “Pops”.

Theses are spaces that “that appear to be public but are actually owned and controlled by developers and their private backers – are on the rise in London and many other British cities, as local authorities argue they cannot afford to create or maintain such spaces themselves.

Although they are seemingly accessible to members of the public and have the look and feel of public land, these sites – also known as privately owned public spaces or “Pops” – are not subject to ordinary local authority bylaws but rather governed by restrictions drawn up the landowner and usually enforced by private security companies.”(Guardian)

According to one urban space researcher: “In one report 12 other cities, including Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow, refused to reveal information about the pseudo-public spaces located in these cities. This poses a question of the level of expansion of these spaces. It also poses another, and even more critical question regarding the production and perception of public space: Is pseudo-public space becoming a mainstream way of public space provision in the UK?”

The emphasis is on consumption whether that’s of “culture’ or ‘commodities’.

As Jack Shenker has written:

“Public space campaigners point out that Pops appear unrestricted to the average person as long as they are behaving in ways that corporate landowners approve of, such as passing through on the way to work or using the area for spending and consumption. It is only by exhibiting unsanctioned behaviour – holding a political demonstration, for example, or attempting to sleep rough in the area – that citizens are able to discover the limitations on these seemingly public sites.”

The consequences to this are a subtle attack on democracy, a clear exploitation racket of events companies with the connivance of ‘arts journalists’ with as much critical edge as a bauble, and the draining of any meaning of the event itself. The Festival will end up like Hogmanay as a celebration with few people from Edinburgh at it.

Customs die, profits soar.

Metrics of Success

One of the problems with the festival is that it’s just a juggernaut. Year on year the reports come back and the only metric in town is growth, endless growth. Every year the same report come out: “more visitors than ever” and “more tickets sold than ever” is the only way the organisers reflect and ensure success as if there is no end to this upwards cycle. This paradox might sound familiar to you.

Edinburgh is the growth-virus piggybacked on a cultural event.It is completely out of control.

And that’s part of the mythology of the Fringe – “anyone can just pitch up and put a show on.”

It started as a post-war cultural celebration based around high-art and controlled by a British elite, it morphed briefly into a more experimental cultural festival then it drowned in its own commercialism. It is an anarcho-capitalist spectacle masquerading as art and it’s destroying the city it inhabits.

It’s likely to get worse if nothing is done.

As the Scotsman reports: “Up to 200 events will be staged in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens each year under plans to hand over the running of the park to an arm’s-length operator, city council officials have admitted. The £25 million arena would host nearly seven times as many events as it does at present under a new “income generation” plan for the park”.

In what’s couched as an act of personal kindness they report: “Apex Hotels founder Norman Springford has offered to help bankroll the replacement for the Ross Bandstand and the creation of a new cafe-bar, corporate hospitality facilities and events space which will have direct access to the gardens from Princes Street.”

The consultation for this development closes on 14 September.

What is to be Done?

Unless there is widespread and urgent opposition the trajectory of the city is clear, a city designed for and shaped around the rich and designed to exclude and exploit residents. The people who profit from the city are a tight network and the lack of transparency about ownership and decision-making is a well practised art form. Is there anything we can do?

We could shut down the festival altogether and just do something else. Alternatively, here’s a ten point plan to save the festival from itself:

  1. Make it alternate years or take a year off to draw up a new agreement between city residents and the festival.
  2. Use a different metric for measuring success, facilitating better quality events and a better quality experience.
  3. Reinstate some local institutions and involvement, however symbolic these may be, such as the opening parade, the child-designed Fringe brochure cover.
  4. Reflect on why the Festival is not scheduled around the Scottish school holidays.
  5. Look at who’s making all the money and demand transparency and diversity and draw the Edinburgh festival into a local economy.
  6. Defend public spaces and demand the right for the city to have parks to breath and for people to ‘be’ without commercial intrusion. As the Green MSP Andy Wightman has pointed out: “Princes Street Gardens are common land – part of the Common Good Fund. Time to change the law & given citizens greater democratic control”.
  7. Defend the right to be able to walk about the streets without being charged and to look across the city without obstacle.
  8. Challenge the leadership and ownership of key cultural venues and organisations and place control in the hands of local artists and companies.
  9. Initiate a tourist tax. As City Lab reports: “An estimated 22 countries have imposed some form of tourism tax. Historic Alexandria, Virginia, has raised local taxes on restaurant meals by 1 percent and is using the additional revenue for affordable housing.”
  10. Insist that all companies and venues sign-up to the Fair Fringe Charter.

Alternatively we could resign ourselves to art wash, gentrification and being part players in our city.



Image credit: Norrie Harman
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