High Street Broughton

Cities are moulded by intricate networks of historic, social, economic and technological inter-relationships. Successful places are those which adapt positively and effectively to meet new challenges. So proposed interventions, however well intentioned, must fully examine, analyse, understand and build positively on this complexity, rather than being isolated responses to pressure from one particular interest group or issue. Edinburgh has a very distinctive character and it is rare that undigested schemes, uncritically imposed from elsewhere, can produce satisfactory results.

Broughton Street is a typical example of a historic highway. Originally the main street of Broughton village outside Edinburgh’s walls, from the 12th century it was also part of the ‘Wester Road’, until Leith Walk was built in 1650, through Bonnington to Leith.

As Edinburgh spread the street was absorbed into the expanding city, reinforcing its role as a community hub for the surrounding area with housing, retailing, pubs and cafés, and at one time also with sixteen religious institutions directly on the street or close by. Later public transport, first as trams and then buses, was routed through it. Many of the shops were of a quality which draw customers from beyond the immediate vicinity. As with most inner-city residential areas, it had experienced a period of decay but has now come back strongly.

Today, it plays multiple roles – as a highway, as a public transport corridor, as a pedestrian place for shopping and leisure, as a residential street, and above all as a high-quality community high street for local residents and those beyond, which contrasted with and complemented the chain stores and larger-scale retail offering of the adjacent city centre, in the same manner as Stockbridge or William Street catered for their localities.

Role of the NTBCC

The New Town and Broughton Community Council is a statutory body elected by local residents. Its key role is to bridge the gap between local authorities and communities, and to help make public bodies aware of the opinions and needs of the communities we represent.  We are not an anonymous self-appointed single-interest group promoting a specific narrow agenda; instead we recognise the importance of looking at the total picture in ‘placemaking’, to create a thriving, sustainable and high quality environment as a community hub for local residents and businesses. Any suggested improvement must be set in context of the street’s function as a whole, and minimise adverse impact on other functions.

We therefore identify and monitor major issues which at present detract from the amenity of Broughton Street and its role as the high street for the surrounding area. Like many historic highways, it predates the wide straight streets of the Georgian era, and that is reflected in its meandering course and narrow width. So there is not enough space to achieve all desired interventions, and it is necessary to prioritise those which give the greatest benefit to the largest numbers of users. In terms of sustainable travel, Edinburgh by Numbers shows that city-wide the normal highest use mode is bus (72%); on foot (53%); taxi (15%);  bicycle (9%) and tram (9%).

The Council’s Spaces for People initiative provided maps on which contributors were invited to place comments. We have analysed these responses and noted the main concerns highlighted. Twenty topics were raised; those which generated at least 10% of total comments received are:

  • Barriers: pavements too narrow; excessive speed of traffic; limited pavement space at shops and bus-stops; too much traffic.
  • Potential Measures: extend pavements; restrict vehicle parking; slow traffic down.

Broughton Street as a pedestrian street

A quarter of all responses focused on inadequate pedestrian space, not just for current social distancing requirements, but as a clear future priority to enhance pedestrian movement and to create recreational space for informal meetings, shopping, cafés, pavement displays, or just casual seating for people-watching. Currently, the diversion of traffic during tram works highlights the congestion, noise and pollution from traffic squeezed into too narrow a street space, and the consequent erosion of pavements in an attempt to accommodate it. The environment for both road users and pedestrians is unpleasant, overcrowded (and makes social distancing impossible), and dangerous.

Jan Gehl, who has worked extensively on pedestrian analyses in Copenhagen, carried out perceptive studies for Edinburgh which he updated in 2010. Gehl’s studies identified that there was not enough space for walking; footpaths were frequently interrupted; materials and design for details and furniture were poor; constant intrusion of noise and pollution from traffic; heavy overcrowding; few benches and pavement cafés; and a perception of the whole pedestrian environment as dangerous.

Although commissioned by CEC, these studies have been totally ignored since by the Council with its engineering/infrastructure rather than ‘people’ stance.

DoT’s Manual for Streets suggest that, for lightly used streets, the minimum width should be 2 metres of uncluttered footway, and that in areas of higher pedestrian flow such as this the quality of the walking experience deteriorates unless sufficient width is provided. Because engineers, on a traffic-first basis, have tried to squeeze four traffic lanes (normally 14·6m) and two footways (6m) which should total 20·6m into a space which is often down to 15m wide, pavements in Broughton Street narrow to pinch-points of 1·1m (including at a bus stop) in its northern part. Much of the pedestrian space is further compromised by obstructing obstacles such as A-boards, ‘temporary’ road construction signs and barriers, fixed signs and railings. Although it may be impractical to seek a Rose-Street style traffic-free precinct given the need to still accommodate essential transport, nonetheless at least one carriageway must be sacrificed to achieve acceptable pavement widths.

Broughton Street as residential

Edinburgh’s high concentration of city centre dwellers, almost unique in Britain, is recognised as essential in keeping cities alive and prosperous and also, by the informal policing it provides, making Edinburgh one of safest cities to live in – but residents are still being threatened by careless and ill-thought decision-making on matters from transport to licensing and inept development planning, underlined by a lack of effective enforcement. The trend towards working from home increases the importance of a high quality civilised residential environment.

Broughton Street as a retail hub

The rapid increase in on-line shopping, accelerated by the present epidemic, has hastened the already changing retail structure of the city with the collapse of many once-invincible major operators. This has had an effect on smaller businesses also – a parliamentary working group concluded that ‘the demise of the small shop would mean that people will not just be disadvantaged in their role as consumers but also as members of communities – the erosion of small shops is viewed as the erosion of the “social glue” that binds communities together, entrenching social exclusion in the UK.’

Broughton Street’s strength is in its smaller businesses, with great diversity of offering and often of a high quality which draws custom from outside the immediate vicinity. There is a need to safeguard these at a time when the epidemic is putting many operators in jeopardy. There are essential issues of ensuring provision for deliveries and servicing, pick-up and drop-off, and maintaining adequate access by intending shoppers and browsers while not obstructing other footway users.

Broughton Street as a leisure hub

There is growing demand in all northern European cities for greater pavement space to accommodate the flourishing ‘cappuccino culture’ of outdoor cafés. Studies suggest that on streets with high pedestrian usage such as this, there must remain at least 2.75 metres (9 feet) of unobstructed pavement to allow pedestrians to pass by safely – Edinburgh Council licensing has suggested 3 metres. This is not achievable without pavement widening.

Broughton Street as general traffic artery

Traffic has been identified as one of the key issues in the street. Because the poorly-designed Picardy Place gyratory is incapable of handling the traffic levels it was intended for, much of the Broughton Street traffic backs up to Bellevue, sitting for long periods producing fumes which undermine air quality targets ­– Edinburgh already has the second-highest city-centre pollution rate (after Leeds) of CO2, of which 31% is caused by road transport. Current CEC policies advocate a switch from petrol and diesel vehicles to non-polluting power sources to improve air quality, but that will not in itself do anything for congestion, to reduce accidents, to ease parking problems, to make roads safer for pedestrians or cyclists, to speed up public transport and encourage motorists to switch, and to free up additional pavement space to enhance the pedestrian environment. We feel strongly that the main focus must be on discouraging unnecessary traffic from entering the inner city in the first place, eg by revisiting a congestion-charging regime.

The speed of traffic, particularly downhill, is a concern; although there are two intermediate crossing islands, these are unsignalled and rely on the goodwill of drivers. A single lane in each direction, with narrowings, chicanes, single-track sections, obstructions such as bus stops and loading areas, and additional pedestrian-controlled signalled crossings can slow traffic to the point that unnecessary traffic is discouraged.

Broughton Street as public transport route

Edinburgh has a high-quality bus and tram system used by a wider sector of the community than most networks elsewhere. Ease of bus movement is therefore essential, with adequate stop provision to allow shelter without obstructing pavements. There must be adequate provision for disabled users and general mobility access and drop off.

Broughton Street as a cycling route

Although cycling levels in Edinburgh are low, there has been an increase during the epidemic, which is encouraging. However, Picardy Place into which Broughton Street disgorges is a challenge even for experienced cyclists, with stubs of lanes starting and stopping at random and no safe continuity throughout. Cyclists often resort to illegal pavement cycling which endangers pedestrians, particularly the elderly and mobility impaired. Even if there were space for a cycle way in Broughton Street (which there is not in the top section after other needs are met) it would be irresponsible to encourage cycling which discharges into a dangerous gyratory traffic system.

Many of the ‘new’ cyclists are inexperienced, and their needs in particular could be better and more safely met by setting out an alternative route, enhancing Dublin Street as the main north-south link which connects the ‘Transformation’ proposals at George Street and St Andrew Square via the ramp into Dublin Street and down to the North Edinburgh railway path network through George V Park.

Confirming and enhancing Broughton Street role as a community high street: desired outcomes

Current research suggests that for a high street to thrive and meet competition from out of town businesses, then

  • its atmosphere has to be pleasing
  • it must provide a focal point for businesses and shopping
  • the key is specialist small shops to balance chain stores, which have reduced so many former high streets to indistinguishable clones
  • it must maintain the feeling of still belonging to its locality.

Ben Perkins, head of consumer business research at Deloitte, states that studies ‘demonstrate the continued variety of roles fulfilled by the high street, but also how its use is gradually evolving. Traditionally, it has been defined as a retail centre that serves the shopping needs of the local community. However, in a changing retail landscape, it must change and offer a broader range of experiences and services in order to become the nerve centre of a town or city; a place where people can get together.’

By Design: Urban Design in the Planning System: Towards Better Practice summarises the key objectives of urban design in creating attractive and sustainable places:

  • character – a place with its own identity.
  • continuity and enclosure – a place where public and private spaces are clearly distinguished.
  • quality of the public realm – a place with attractive and successful outdoor areas.
  • ease of movement – a place that is easy to get to and move through.
  • legibility – a place that has a clear image and is easy to understand.
  • adaptability – a place that can change easily.
  • diversity – a place with variety and choice.

Stephen Hajducki, November 2020