On a warm and sunny first Sunday in September I joined many other people visiting the ‘Colony of Artists’ at Abbeyhill. Many talented people threw open their doors to display their work.
I hope though that visitors also stopped to admire the architecture of the ‘colonies’ themselves. For many years I’ve been an advocate of this style of building and living. I’d also just finished reading Richard Rodger’s recent book on’ Edinburgh’s Colonies’. What came through strongly was just how deliberate this style of housing was:
a distinct and independent entrance; secondly a plot….for bleaching or for flowers; thirdly water closet; fourthly a scullery with washing tubs, bath & hot water.
The third and fourth have long since become standard but somewhere along the way we have often lost sight of the importance of having one’s ‘own door’ and bit of garden.
Another important strand was the encouragement of home ownership for ‘working men’ (admittedly this meant skilled tradesmen) which was radical for its time. Home ownership was seen as giving people a real stake in their home and area, and was accompanied by a drive to maximise the affordability of build cost and the availability of affordable lending arrangements. While in the end only 39% were owners and the rest tenants, this was still a remarkable development for the time.
One new thing I learned from the book was that the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company (which built most of the colonies) also dipped its toe into building tenement style (a block at Henderson Street is still standing) and found these both more expensive to build and much harder to sell. Some lesson there still for the 21st Century!
The most popular council houses have been those that followed some of the colony principles, the cottage style, the four-in-a –blocks where each tenant had his or her own door, and terraces. In the 1960s councils in the cities were seduced by the apparent efficiency of land use by building high rise flats, and this was encouraged by generous government grants for such buildings.
But Edinburgh’s colonies are flourishing and sought after 150 years, while many of the 1960s high rise blocks have been demolished.
More recently we’ve seen the rash of ‘standardised’ blocks of flats across the city, with very similar styles of buildings set amid groomed but sterile open space. The credit crunch and recession has halted this onward march. A silver lining from this market failure would be if developers and planners re-thought their approach.
Traditional colony living may not be for everyone, but it does help to deliver the high density demanded by land shortage and high land prices. High density is favoured by many city planners on the ground that it gives the ‘critical mass’ to provide good facilities and transport links. It has tended to be assumed that this can only be delivered through flatted developments but the colonies model provides a different route.
I was therefore particularly interested to see a proposed new development coming forward from Places for People for a site near Easter Road which was branding itself as ‘new colonies’, and I will be closely following the progress of this application.
The current Edinburgh Council administration made much in its election manifesto of wanting to be a ‘co-operative council’ and it is worth noting that the original colonies were built by a co-operative of building workers, formed during a period of recession when work was hard to find. Another aspect of the Colonies experience which could well be adopted today.
Edinburgh East is rich in colonies. As well as Abbeyhill there are those at Leith Links, at Lochend Road and the Ryehills and Cornhills (which adopted a slightly different approach of traditional street frontages and internal stairs). The City Council is currently consulting on a proposal to make some of these ‘conservation areas’. You can read more about this on the council website and there are going to be consultation events as follows:
McDonald Road Library
Exhibition from Wednesday 3 October to Tuesday 9 October.
Planning Staff will be in the Library on: Monday 8 October from 3pm-7.30pm
Exhibition from Thursday 11 October to Friday 19 October.
Planning Staff will be in the Library on: Wednesday 17 October from 3pm-8pm
The consultation closes on 24th October.
It is important to protect these areas, hopefully without making it to difficult for people to be able to improve them to modern standards.
I look forward not just to the ongoing success of Edinburgh’s Colonies but to their reinterpretation for the 21st Century.
This piece subsequently appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News on 1 October.