Over the last couple of years, Prospect has spent a considerable amount of time and money working up proposals to redevelop the major part of what is known locally as “the ten acre site” at Harvesters Way which has lain vacant and derelict for over fifteen years following the demolition of the Wester Hailes Drive multi-storey blocks. However we have now, very reluctantly, had to abandon these plans because of the huge cuts made by the Scottish Government to the funding given to housing associations for house building.
The rest of the site is currently under construction to provide the new Healthy Living Centre and during the process of its design there was a lot of work done by Prospect in conjunction with the City of Edinburgh Council and Lothian Health Board to produce an overall masterplan and a properly integrated site layout. In particular, we felt it was vitally important to create a safe, attractive public space (we called it the public realm) at the crucial intersection of the Healthy Living Centre, the new housing, the rail station and shopping centre.
In order to develop these ideas further, we commissioned Gehl Architects, a world renowned town planning consultancy to work with us. Founded by Jan Gehl, a Professor of Urban Design in Copenhagen, they have a radical approach to design that might be regarded by more than a few architects as “upside down” in the sense that it puts people first: before any building design is done they concentrate on how the spaces between buildings should be laid out to maximise the benefits for residents and the environment. In other words, what they are about is making places rather than simply drawing up plans for buildings.
Working on these principles Gehl undertook a comprehensive placemaking exercise for Harvesters Way and produced a draft report outlining the sort of public realm which could be created to spread benefit throughout the community as a whole. Their two big ideas were a) that the housing adjoining the public realm should have “active edges” with shops and community facilities on the ground floor for local people to make use of and b) the creation of a transport and people hub involving various forms of public transport – buses, taxis and trains – together with strong pedestrian linkages to and from all parts of the surrounding areas.
Their placemaking work also involved examining whole of the central area of the estate and the view they came to was that Wester Hailes is full of potential (remember the old Partnership slogan?). The railway line is not a barrier but a link that provides a very good transport link into the centre of the city; the canal is a facilty with huge amenity value; and the Greenway, currently uninviting and underused, could be made into a recreation destination for the entire community. By making more of this potential and with sufficient investment, their expert opinion was that the face of Wester Hailes could be totally transformed.
Wester Hailes has had more than enough unattractive, under-utilised, unpopular areas inflicted on it during its history. It is to be hoped that at least some of the elements of the ambitious, but eminently practical vision set out by Gehl are retained by whoever comes in to complete the redevelopment of this most important site. Please let’s not see another major opportunity for real improvement in Wester Hailes go a-begging.