On Manhattan’s Lower West Side in New York, a raised railtrack lay unused and was falling into disrepair. Scheduled for demolition in the late 1990s, the line was saved and was instead turned into the High Line, a new public city park.
Though it cost $150m of public money, it helped to bring in $2bn of investment, including real-estate developments, and also saw a drop in the crime rate nearby. Now the project has been celebrated around the world.
It is this sort of ambition that Keith Geddes believes is needed as he heads up a 40-year project to change the way people see Scotland’s Central Belt.
The Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN), which was set up in 2009, is dedicated to seeing ideas come to fruition that will improve the quality of the physical environment.
Covering 10,000 sq km, 19 councils and 3.2 million people, it aims to use the environment to attract visitors, help local economies and make people feel better about the communities in which they live.
Lisa Switkin, the landscape architect for the High Line spoke at the network’s annual forum in Glasgow. For Geddes, it is projects like the High Line that show how environmental projects can help revitalise urban areas – and similarly, he has high hopes for what CSGN can achieve over the next four decades.
He said: “We’ve got a very strong partnership board. Now that we’re established we need to increase our ambition.
“Not only has the High Line provided a fantastic recreational resource in a very crowded community, it’s created a vibrant community.
It’s also made the area safer as well, there’s a whole series of benefi ts that has sprung off from that.
“The closest example I can think of historically in Scotland is the Millennium Canal, which cost £32m to develop, but that public sector investment has led to signifi cant private investment in Speirs Wharf in Glasgow, Fountainbridge in Edinburgh and of course, the Helix Project and the Falkirk Wheel itself, This is the type of project that is transformational so we need to try to upscale our ambitions.”
CSGN is a strategic organisation that includes Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Forestry Commission, Scottish Enterprise, council representatives and others.
It has a development fund which over the last three years has disbursed £4.4m to more than 200 projects across the Central Belt. Th is has included funding the Scottish Allotments and Garden Society to support it in producing a comprehensive guide on how to plan and physically construct new allotments and give advice on legal issues, such as leases.
The largest project on the books at the moment is the creation of a major new long-distance walking route which Geddes says will help to form a ‘spine’ across the region, in tribute to John Muir, the Scottish-born American naturalist who was instrumental in the creation of the US National Park system.
Muir is, arguably, better known in his adopted country than he is in his birthplace, Dunbar, and across Scotland. He died in December 1914 and to mark the centenary of his death, there are plans under way to create a John Muir Trail from Dunbar into the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.
It is hoped the trail, which will also connect up with the West Highland Way, will attract tourists, particularly from America, long-distance walkers and give people in local communities a taste for walking or just a place for a Sunday stroll.
But the route will also, Geddes says, help to connect Scots to the importance of the natural environment.
“Government and scientists tell us that we’ve got to set targets in terms of climate change, but we also need to find a way of inspiring people to take climate change seriously.
“I think by trying to connect people with Muir, they will maybe find inspiration to start changing their relationship with nature, whether it comes down to recycling, leaving the car at home more often, using public transport, campaigning for quality public space or growing more of their own food.
“It’s one way of getting more people involved in what’s the pressing issue of our times.”
The project follows on from work carried out by East Lothian Council, the John Muir Trust and the John Muir Birthplace Trust to raise the naturalist’s profile. The project will cost £600k; SNH has already provided about £440,000 and the route is likely to open in April 2014.
A steering group, involving these organisations, Creative Scotland, Event Scotland, Visit Scotland and others, is also looking at a series of events in 2014, including a John Muir Day on his birthday – April 21 – which is already marked in California.
Geddes adds: “There’s already a John Muir Way that exists from Dunbar through to Fisherrow [Musselburgh] – that’s going to be expanded. What exists already in terms of the new John Muir Trail is superior to the condition of the West Highland Way when it opened in 1980. It has now been included in the National Geographic’s list of top hiking routes and I would hope that in the years to come the new trail could gain the same sort of accolade.”
The importance of the CSGN has been recognised at the most senior level in Scotland and it is included in the second National Planning Framework. The organisation works very closely with the 19 councils in its area and is drawing up concordats with some of them to commit them to certain targets.
Geddes, as a former councillor and president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, has a great deal of experience of close working between councils and other authorities – he also hopes that future single outcome agreements drawn up between the Scottish Government and councils will see a stronger reflection of some of the network’s aims.
Although dedicated to improving the environment, he says it cuts across all the different strands of government policy.
“I think we’ve shown there’s a huge role for environmental projects at a whole series of different levels.
“The health aspect is absolutely crucial, given the growing elderly population and the obesity epidemic among sections of our younger population; we’re actually going to have to get serious about preventative health.” There are two principal aims that CSGN abides by: economic development and improving people’s quality of life.
“People define their quality of life as much by what they see when they open their curtains in the morning as they do any other factor,” he says.
“Historically, not enough thought has been given to creating sustainable communities. Clearly there was an urgency back in the 1960s to replace slum housing and everyone knows that what slum housing was replaced by didn’t succeed.
“Too much of what has been built in the last 10 to 15 years, largely due to the high price of land, has been pretty poor quality private estates, houses crammed together, with insufficient communal facilities, lack of play facilities for kids in particular, lack of tree planting – just a lack of green space in principle.”
He says, in some ways, things have gone backwards since the Victorian era with the creation of spaces like The Glen in Dunfermline, where Geddes lives, which was bought for the community by Andrew Carnegie, but says some councils such as Fife and Edinburgh are realising the significance of more attractive communal spaces.
“Communal space is important, the more attractive it is, the safer it is; the safer it is, the more people use it, for jogging, sport and community activities.”
He has high hopes for the project and what it can achieve over the next 40 years, but realises there is still some way to go.
“This is a 40-year project; it is going to require a significant level of resource to replicate projects like the Millennium Canal or the John Muir Trail that have such an impact that they change the perception of the Central Belt as a whole.
“There’s a lot of good things happening already, it’s just a question of trying to develop these projects to slowly but surely change people’s perceptions of some parts of the Central Belt.”