Requalifying and disqualifying: contested place identity within the Edinburgh World Heritage Site

Harry Smith, Emilio Jose Luque Azcona

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


    In an increasingly globalised world, requalifying historic quarters frequently causes the homogenisation of these spaces through the introduction of ‘global’ architecture and the promotion of similar functions orientated generally to the attraction of investors and visitors (Kearns and Philo, 1993). Similarly, the ‘idealised’ restoration of urban and architectural landscapes and the expulsion of lower-income residents also cause a forced alteration in the identity that characterises such places. These processes frequently generate conflicts of interests and different visions in the understanding of the role of historic quarters within their cities. The conciliation of these different positions is generally complicated and it is often that of powerful political and economic groups which underpins the transformation of historic quarters in practice, with the views of local residents frequently being sidelined.

    The plans for the Caltongate redevelopment scheme, within the Old Town of Edinburgh – which together with the New Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – constitutes a highly illustrative example of the difficulties found in trying to reconcile these interests. Proposed by a private developer and supported initially by the City of Edinburgh Council, this initiative includes the development of commercial, residential, cultural and tourist functions in an area located north of the Royal Mile, which is the main thoroughfare of the Old Town, on the north facing side of the Waverley Valley opposite Calton Hill. Some of its proposals have met with strong opposition among local associations and national organisations related to historic preservation and its residents, considering that they are harmful to the identity of the area and possibly even to the city’s World Heritage status. Indeed, these proposals and other developments within Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site prompted an inspection visit from UNESCO in 2008 in order to review such status, which raised concern over the possibility of Edinburgh being ‘disqualified’. The analysis of this experience is especially relevant because the proposals for the development of Caltongate have contributed to the reinforcement of the identity of its residents, who actively organised and achieved acceptance of some of their demands.

    This paper therefore aims to explore how conflicts over place identity in the requalification of historic quarters are being addressed within the current national context of urban renaissance in the UK and the international context of city competitiveness, through an in-depth case study of the development of current proposals for the ‘Caltongate’ redevelopment in Edinburgh Old Town. The paper briefly reviews the key arguments linking the impact of globalisation on the built environment mediated by national and local contexts
    (AlSayyad, 2001; Garcia-Ferrari, 2006; González-Varas, 2005; Lefaivre & Tzonis, 2003), in particular through approaches to place-marketing, place identity and participation – the latter with particular reference to awareness of conservation issues – and locates these in the context of a relational view of planning (Healey, 2007). This provides the basis for the methodology that has been used in this research, which has included analysis of planning documents and press coverage, and in-depth interviews with key stakeholders in the process.

    Following a brief account of the rise of the awareness of conservation within the context of the evolution of the built environment in Edinburgh Old Town and its links to civil society’s organised engagement with planning, the paper then describes and analyses the development of proposals for the area renamed ‘Caltongate’ by the developers. This provides the basis for an analysis of the roles and agendas of different actors involved in the process, focusing on their interpretation of the current and potential identity of the place. Conclusions are then drawn on the processes set in motion around the proposals by the different actors, and on the discourses through which conflicting perceptions of place identity are expressed.


    ConferenceInternational Association of People-Environment Studies, Culture & Space in the Built Environment Network & Housing Network International Symposium on Revitalising Built Environments: Requalifying Old Places for New Uses


    • globalisation
    • local identity
    • regeneration
    • historic quarters
    • public participation


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