The lost vision for Edinburgh’s ‘new New Town’ where pedestrians walked above the cars

In the early 1960s, Edinburgh University came up with a bold new vision for its expansion with plans driven by the ‘optimism’ of planner Percy Johnson-Marshall and architect Robert Matthew, both who lectured at the institution and who believed in the power of their professions to make life a little better for all.

Under proposals, the area between George Square and Nicolson Street would be completely cleared, removing a large area of ​​19th-century tenement housing, with the area completely rebuilt. The separation of cars and pedestrians was at the core of the design.

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Pedestrians would circulate on elevated decks and walkways above roads and parking areas, making it possible to walk from George Square to Old College and beyond without “touching the ground”, according to research by Dr Alistair Fair, reader in architectural history at Edinburgh University.

Where pedestrians walked above the cars. A new pedestrian deck sits over Nicolson Street with a view opening up towards Old College. Illustration by Alexander Duncan Bell from the Collection of Clive Fenton, University of Edinburgh.

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The Scottish town that never was

Project leaders claimed the scale of the design evoked the 18th-century New Town with the redeveloped South Side to be “a new town of a new character”.

Dr Fair said: “At the time, the South Side was a thriving community. Lots of people there would have wanted to stay.

“But for Percy Johnson-Marshall and Robert Matthew, fundamentally their ambition was to rebuild it.

Illustration showing the proposed arrangement of the CDA, with the shops and housing built on the pedestrian deck and service areas and parking sitting below. Illustration by Alexander Duncan Bell from Collection of Clive Fenton, University of Edinburgh.

“They were looking at the conditions that people were living in and they believed that it was the best option.

“Edinburgh had a history of rebuilding and they felt they were just doing the next installation of that, in the modern way.

“Their ideas were about managing traffic, creating good pedestrian environments, good places to live and good shopping.

“The new area was to be very vibrant, a really lively place.”

South College Street was to be widened in order to improve views of Old College. Image: Illustration by Alexander Duncan Bell, Collection of Clive Fenton, University of Edinburgh.

The new look South Side was to sit within a community development area (CDA), which allowed local authorities to acquire property in a designated area, potentially at low prices.

Dr Fair said: “The university had ambition. It was getting more students and it required more accommodation. The university wanted to rebuild and it wanted to do that around George Square. The opportunity of this bigger scheme would connect George Square into the wider community.”

In the early 1960s, George Square was partly developed at the time the CDA plan started to emerge, with some of new buildings designed with pedestrian decks to fit in to the wider scheme. But they were never linked up.

Dr Fair added: “The university had funding and land to push on, but the wider scheme just gets abandoned.

“On one hand the city council is encouraged, but not enough where much happens. It is working on projects such as St James Square and every time the project comes to life, it gets pushed back again. By the 1970s, there is not the same momentum, but also the mood has changed.”

Dr Fair said the George Square redevelopment had caused “outcry” with the conservation lobby now galvanized.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson-Marshall moved away from his support for massive urban reconstruction to become an advocate for conservation and restoration.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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