‘Grand’ failure offers green light for green space

REJOICE! CALTONGATE, Edinburgh’s grandiose £300 million development project, looks dead in the water because the company behind it, Mountgrange, has run out of dosh.
The company has clocked up a loss of £24m and is so indebted that there is “a material uncertainty that casts doubts over the company’s ability to continue as a going concern”. As someone who always thought the Caltongate project was a crock of ordure, I won’t shed a tear if Mountgrange goes down the pan, taking its ill-conceived plan with it.

The Caltongate scheme, in the now-ubiquitous phoney language employed by puffed-up councillors, posturing architects who fancy themselves as latter-day Le Corbusiers, and Flash Harry speculators, was to contain “an eclectic mix of offices, retail, residential, leisure and hotel facilities”. It was to add a “vibrant and attractive new business and cultural quarter” to the capital. What that meant, in practical terms, was historic buildings and people’s homes being demolished to make way for five-star hotels, a second conference centre, more yuppie flats, the inevitable supermarket, a “signature” office building (spare us the pretension) and yet another coven of Claire’s Accessories, Clinton Cards and Costas – as if we needed another dose of property developer’s quack miracle regenerating formula.

That Caltongate could hit the skids at the 11th hour should give us pause to think about the financial soundness of similarly ambitious development projects up and down the land. How many are based not on sound, realistic financial calculations but reckless house- of-card projections, built on the shakiest of foundations? Developers woo planners with assumptions of a healthy take-up of units, full occupation of flats and legions of tourists through the door. Then guess what? They don’t deliver. Worse, their would-be exclusivity makes them largely superfluous to the great bulk of society.
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The property developers’ malaise can’t all be blamed on the recession. Even before the credit crunch started to bite, like many of its ilk, Edinburgh’s richer-than-rich Leith development, the avariciously-named Platinum Point was looking like a colossal white, (sorry, platinum-coloured) elephant. Take a stroll there now and witness how rapidly it has deteriorated into a badly maintained, desolate, eerily quiet enclave of grey-black buildings unrelieved by any greenness, where bored girls sit in sales offices waiting for someone to show an interest in a three-quarters-of-a-million-pound penthouse.

So Caltongate RIP – we had a lucky escape. But what should we do with it now and, for that matter, all those brownfield sites like it around the country, apart from mothballing them on the off chance that property-developing men of straw manage to reinvent themselves as men of substance?

At Caltongate there is a brilliantly simple economic solution. Keep all the historic buildings and homes, and turn the rest of the site into a model community park. All it would take is some terracing and levelling, grass and trees. The landscaping work could be carried out under a forward-thinking council, or a government scheme using fit young men and women who are unemployed. They could then become the trainers and mentors for similar initiatives throughout Scotland. In no time at all we could sprout public amenities that improve lots of people’s lives in a multitude of small ways, whether by providing a restful, soul-calming view, a place where children can play or a local carbon sink to clean up the air we breathe.

The simple fact is that, as the recession takes a grip, we don’t need the high-impact “grands projets” like Caltongate, with all their last-century obsession with wealth and consumerism, but a new development paradigm that is grassroots up, not top-down, one which encourages a proliferation of modest, sustainable projects.

Prototypes are already shooting up. With cash from the National Lottery and the Scottish government, Edinburgh Community Backgreens Association (www.ecba.org.uk), for instance, is showing how run-down tenement back greens can be transformed into beautiful shared green spaces with fruit trees and vegetable gardens. Now that’s precisely the practical, grounded development that enhances ordinary people’s daily lives.

There’s more to such initiatives than prettying up a neighbourhood. I was fascinated by research, from Dr Richard Mitchell of Glasgow University and Dr Frank Popham of the University of St Andrews, which was published recently in medical journal The Lancet. They matched data on hundreds of thousands of deaths to green spaces and found that even tiny green spaces in the areas in which people lived made a big difference to their risk of fatal diseases. Those living surrounded by the most greenery had roughly half the ill-health of those with the fewest green spaces around them, regardless of social class.

These findings reinforce what ought to be a fairly uncontentious observation: that parks and gardens are a whole lot better for body and soul than the fake and fleeting “regeneration” of the shopping mall and prestige office block. As grand plans become mired in the mud of recession, it’s a perfect opportunity for planners and politicians to stop chasing the property speculators’ buck and start investing in green projects that will leave us fitter and saner to face the challenges of the 21st century.

Sunday Herald

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