Life in the Slow Lane
National Geographic Traveller India|November 2020
THE PRETTIEST STREETS IN EDINBURGH ARE CLOSED TO MOTORISED TRAFFIC. IS A PEDESTRIAN FUTURE AFOOT HERE AND IN OTHER UNESCO SITES?
BHAKTI MATHEW

There’s something missing from the usual scene at the 17thcentury Holyrood Palace, once home to the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots: a snaking line of taxis and tourist buses parked out front.

Edinburgh’s city council recently voted to make Victoria and Cockburn streets—two of Old Town’s busiest, most picturesque byways—pedestrian-only zones. The move, aimed at promoting social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic and giving restaurants more space for outdoor dining, is emblematic of Edinburgh’s ambitious new “City Centre Transformation” plan, which hopes to bring miles of new tramlines, protected bike lanes, and walking routes by 2022.

During the pandemic, multiple urban areas have repurposed roadways for pedestrians, from the “streeteries” that bring restaurant seating on to New York City boulevards to the pop-up bike lanes temporarily added to Paris’s already robust network of protected pistes cyclables.

For cities holding UNESCO World Heritage Sites (like Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town and 18th-century New Town) prioritising “slow traffic” is an attempt to mitigate the damage of overtourism and sustain the historic character that attracts visitors in the first place.

But will this experiment produce lasting effects that benefit locals and visitors while preserving heritage structures? What’s happening now in Edinburgh offers a test case for what works, what doesn’t, and what the future could look like in historic urban centres. It’s a timely matter: After a spike COVID-19 cases, Edinburgh announced it was closing all bars and restaurants for 16 days, beginning October 9.

RECOGNISED, THEN OVERRUN

Established by the United Nation’s cultural division in 1978, UNESCO World Heritage designations highlight and help protect historic neighbourhoods, archaeological sites, and structures of “outstanding universal value” around the globe.

Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, added to the list in 1995, help the city attract around five million visitors annually. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe alone typically brings in two million people (it was held online in 2020). Such popularity brings an injection of energy and economic benefit. But with a resident population of just 26,000 people, staggering numbers of visitors make the city’s inner core one of worst hotspots for overtourism globally.

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