The Civic Use of Heritage Assets

01 Dec 2015

Emeritus Professor Cliff Hague reflects on the civic use of heritage assets and the challenges facing Scotland’s historic built environment.

The sorry saga of the hotel proposals for the Royal High School illustrates the wider problems that Scotland’s historic built environment faces. While insensitivity from local councils in the face of commercial pressure is by no means new, the hollowing out of local government that began in the 1980s is so profound that the very notion of “civic” has reached a vanishing point. We are left with organisations whose existence is reduced to least cost “service delivery” to customers and clients. The idea that a place belongs to its citizens is imperilled.

Viewed through this prism, the historic environment is stripped of all meaning and memories. It becomes only an item on a balance sheet, where it shows up as negative rather than as an asset, unless it can be monetarised in some way. Faced with the presumption that all investment is good investment, but investment to draw and cater to the whims of a global elite is best of all, it becomes very difficult to conduct a truly rational debate about how historic places should be planned and managed. Decisions are framed in a space where on the one side there is practical economic realism promising “jobs”, and on the other a “heritage lobby”, self-interested, marginal and unaccountable.

Similar unequal contests are taking place globally, not least in the developing world where the institutions defending places are less resourced and established, the growth rates higher, and transparency in governments less than here in Scotland.

While, ultimately, each site is unique and a case needs to be made on specific grounds, some general framework for addressing  the challenges can be advanced.  A starting point needs to be a reinfusion of the civic ideal. Villages, towns and cities intrinsically have a civic dimension; they are shared spaces, common experiences, a legacy passed on through time, embodying values and relationships in their built and natural environment. Just by being there each of us shares and has a legitimate stake in the place. The idea that citizens are no more than “third parties”, necessarily subservient to owners and even anonymous investors from far away, has become a means of degrading these connections.  It complements the surge of corporate investment into urban property that Saskia Sassen has recently pointed to as altering “the historic meaning of the city”.

Civic responsibility is not a new idea: what is new is the extent to which it has been squeezed as governments, international (e.g. EU), national and local, have become aligned with footloose finance, which in turn scours the globe for opportunities to achieve higher returns. Concomitant with this process has been the leeching of public service, draining away proactive civic leadership, and leaving only the application of routine procedures as its dilute lifeblood.

The last generation has seen a proliferation of exclusive spaces in urban areas. The obvious ones are gated communities, private streets and security-guarded shopping malls, but increasingly the impoverishment of the civic ideal points to the erection of paywalls to access public buildings and spaces. Within increasingly unequal societies exclusive spaces have become a prerequisite for the privileged, complementing their avoidance of transfer payments to the less well off.      

A new civic ideal both requires and can drive enlightenment. We need new eyes to see possibilities beyond the idea that secure and high returns on property investment constitute the unchallengeable logic to drive urban development. Enlightenment also means mobilising civic society to lead and share new thinking, to rise above the apathy of powerlessness and create an active citizenship.

The situation at the Royal High School site embodies all the failings, but also all the possibilities sketched above. An iconic building on an outstanding site has been underused for years, with a void of civic vision for its use. Then comes the whiff of multi-million pound investment and the promise of an additional facility for the exclusive use of the very rich. The heritage lobby is left to react, wringing its hands at the pre-requisites for a commercially (confidential) viable design.

But what if? What if this jewel in Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site could be combined with the Collective’s City Observatory Redevelopment Project for Calton Hill, to become the catalyst for doing things differently, a hub for civic enlightenment symbolically looking over the civil servants in St Andrews House and the politicians in Holyrood?

Just what might a hub for civic enlightenment be? An ideas and design competition to find out would be a good start, telling the people of the city, its children, professionals and civic groups that they can have a leading voice. It could be a place where regular, high profile “Edinburgh Debates” are staged on topical issues, and live streamed as part of the branding of the city as a global node of ideas and openness. It could be a venue in the Book Festival and the Science Festival, and of course the Edinburgh Lectures. It could incorporate aspects of the School of Music counter-proposal for the Royal High School building.

There could be spaces for multi-disciplinary and international innovation teams, young graduates selected on merit and given space and a time-limited brief to come up with new ideas – social as well as technological innovations to address a practical brief such as the delivery of affordable, carbon-neutral  housing, or narrowing the gaps in educational attainment. There could be some serviced apartments to accommodate visiting “enlighteners in residence”, as well as some commercial lets, and, of course, an interpretation facility explaining civic enlightenment, and pointing to how every individual and community has a part to play.

The whole would be a swirl of ideas and creativity, a place open to all, locally rooted but globally renowned. In other words, we would use the meaning of the building to explain and inspire Edinburgh’s greatest asset – the dynamic fusion of learning, thinking and environment as a catalyst for a high quality civic life. Or we could always have a luxury hotel, with as much new development crammed on to the idle ground as is required to ensure satisfactory returns to investors.   

Emeritus Professor Cliff Hague is the former Chair of BEFS.