Recording Edinburgh’s Changing Landscape

New Urban Detective and former astronomer Alex McLachlan has been recording the dramatic changes in Edinburgh’s urban horizons for over twenty years. Here Alex explains what interested him about these changes, and what patterns he’s noticed over the years.

Submitted by Nicky on 01-11-2016 12:10:33

The financial collapse of 2008 brought to a temporary stop a building programme in Edinburgh that was on a par with that of the 1880’s when districts such as Marchmont, Bruntsfield and others were created.
The big difference between then and now is that the Victorians were building on green-field sites. With these now in short supply the construction industry has been obliged to adopt a policy of demolish and replace; it was noticeable during the downturn in the economy that demolition contractors remained active thereby producing brown-field sites that had to remain undeveloped until the return of confidence to the industry.
That confidence, no doubt fired by the availability of low-interest loans, is now apparent: witness the major projects under way at Haymarket and New Street, and about to start at the St James Centre. Major projects are in the pipeline for the east and west sides of the city and any vacant land between the city and the City Bypass has no doubt already had its potential assessed.

In 1997 the demolition of Hunter’s Garage on Braid Road, close to where I live, made me aware of the many changes taking place in Edinburgh; the fact that the garage had been of sufficient historical interest to warrant a mention in one of local historian Charles Smith’s books encouraged me to think that its removal should be recorded. Its replacement by the apartment building Braid Manor also made me consider two aspects of our built environment: firstly, there is the frequent question that we all have at one time or another when seeing a new building or a vacant lot, ’what was there before?’ Just yesterday on Newbattle Terrace, a street I have walked along several times but not recently, I saw a cleared site and I could not remember what had been there; secondly, on TV programmes about building restoration, architects frequently make the point that ‘a built environment is a reflection of the society that created it.’ The full meaning of this statement only became clear to me when I set out to record the physical changes taking place.

For several years I have made use of the information available at www.edinburgh.gov.uk/planning and building portal to monitor the planning applications submitted for approval with the intention of identifying projects of interest. Experience has taught me that once approval has been given for the demolition of a building it can take place very quickly due to the efficiency of modern hydraulic machines. Photographs that I take, ideally before and after shots, are stored on computer according to postal district and street.

Over time I began to understand how our built environment does reflect our society, its needs and changing tastes. For example :

  1. the digital age has seen the disappearance of most of the traditional camera shops and closure of telephone exchanges
  2. in many districts high-rise flats have given way to low-rise dwellings
  3. low-value buildings on high-value land have been demolished and replaced by apartment buildings
  4. provision of accommodation for students and other development plans by the universities continue to change the appearance of some of our streets
  5. the lack of available building sites in the city has resulted in, to the layman’s eye, unlikely sites being used such as at the foot of Calton Hill

I have tried to record these changes over the years. After taking part in an SUP Urban Detectives training workshop, I am now aiming to add my photographs via MySUP for others to share in more widely.

Alex McLachlan
October 2016

Two pictures, one above the other. The upper image shows a series of single-storey industrial buildings; the lower image show a new six-torey apartment building on the same site.Transformation of the street corner on West Tollcross between 2005 (top) and 2007.

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