Early photos of Wester Hailes are dominated by the high rise blocks separated by wide seas of concrete and tarmac. The green spaces that were included were certainly spacious but were not usable public space and sometimes seemed barren and arbitrary in design. Efforts to keep pedestrians away from traffic without consulting on where residents actually needed pedestrian routes simply resulted in people using the grass verges or crossing the roads at sometimes dangerous points rather than following official paths.
Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the work and legacy of the Wester Hailes Partnership Group which oversaw an ambitious programme of development for the area. Part of its strategy included improving local green spaces and addressing a number of environmental issues affecting the area including pedestrian routes, roadside footpaths and increasing the number of trees and plants in the area.
In 1990 the Sentinel devoted a double page spread to the Greenway Improvement Scheme. Forming the pedestrian “backbone” of Wester Hailes, it was supposed to be a 20th century Royal Mile for the area, linking housing with local facilities and services. But lack of investment and minimal maintenance had led to the route being underused due to concerns about safety. Public consultation had shown that the top priorities for improvement were lighting, repaving and new planting. Plans for upgrading the route included new junctions and focal points as well as redesigning the paths.
This scheme was one of a number of environmental projects that were aimed at improving the area in particular through creating more distinctive accessible green spaces that linked neighbourhoods rather than separated them. The Wester Hailes Land Use Unit reported on progress in the 1992 Representative Council Annual Report. Environmental improvements included roadside and boundary planting aimed at “greening” Wester Hailes and developing a plan for roadside footpaths. Over the next couple of years an extensive planting programme was put into action resulting in thousands of additional plants and trees for the area.
The Land Use Unit also developed a proposal to employ an Urban Environmental Ranger. This proposal was submitted to the Urban Aid panel with the application being successful. This project was the first of its kind with the Ranger engaged in a variety of projects with local children and young people. The Ranger worked with schools and neighbourhood councils encouraging local residents to become involved in litter picking, planting and other environmentally focused projects. A Wildlife Club for children was also established for children to learn more about the environment through games and activities. A regular column Environmental Outlook written by the Ranger featured in the Sentinel for several years during the 1990s.
Is Wester Hailes now greener than it was? With Spring finally arriving, now would be a good time for residents to judge for themselves. Last year the increased use of tarmac in the area was raised at a Wester Hailes Community Council meeting with concern being expressed that trees and shrubs are being cut back or removed and replaced by areas of tarmac as have some areas of grassland. The issue is not clear cut however, with some residents indicating that they preferred this to overgrown shrubs and the associated issues such as rubbish and blocked paths. Yet with so much work and investment over the years being put into developing Wester Hailes’ green space it seems a shame that this might now be in danger of being reduced. Last year the City of Edinburgh Council published a report, the first of its kind in Scotland that estimated the value of Edinburgh’s trees in absorbing carbon dioxide, thus reducing pollution. The 600,000 trees across the city are estimated to have an economic value in removing airborne pollution of around £2.3 million. Announcing the report, Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish Government’s Environment & Climate Change Minister commented
“Urban trees, together with community woods, parks and green spaces are the lungs of our Capital.”
The trees planted back in the early 1990s in Wester Hailes are playing their part in reducing pollution. Hopefully, they will be able to carry on this role for a long time yet as well as bringing a wealth of other environmental benefits to the community. In 1993 the Environment Outlook column explained that many of the newly planted trees were native Scottish species, trees that would have been growing in the area if the land had not been cleared. As shown below, the column gave information about the trees and some of the folklore associated with them.