Questioning Edinburgh’s ‘festivization’ doesn’t make you a grumpy anti-cultural snob – Cliff Hague

Free Fringe shows have been hosted at The Mound by performers for decades, but festival organizers have faced a backlash after it emerged that a Johnnie Walker pop-up bar will be set up in as part of a temporary outdoor location in space. PIC: Ian Rutherford.

To suggest that the Cockburn is “against the Fringe and the city’s other major cultural events” misses the point. The Cockburn is for festivals. It is against the festivization of Edinburgh.

Festivization means that festivals and the event industry are invading the city. They spread throughout the year, they requisition public spaces, they increase the use of these spaces, they displace local residents, arise as competitors to local businesses, undermine the planning system and subordinate people and environment to their own requirements.

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Above all, festivization forces festivals to grow, year after year, forever and ever, to stay one step ahead of the competition. Success only means increasing the number of shows, tickets sold and tourists.

This growth model was forged a decade ago and then delivered. In 2010, the chairman of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group enthusiastically stated that “Edinburgh festivals play a key role in the growth of tourism”, while the Edinburgh festivals director returned the compliment, writing “the support tourism businesses in Edinburgh is crucial to the continued development and growth of the major festivals that take place throughout the year ”. Bigger festivals equal more tourists equal bigger festivals, endlessly. With that in mind, the Tattoo has increased its capacity by 35%.

Edinburgh’s event strategy states that “Edinburgh will continue to develop as one of the most beautiful event cities in the world”. It aims to provide a balanced portfolio of events over the next ten years to include established successful events, newly created or commissioned events, and national or international events won for the city through competitive bidding processes.

Therefore, fostering growth has been an important part of the Fringe Society’s work and accomplishments. In 2010, there were 40,254 performances at 259 venues and 1.8 million tickets were sold. In 2019, there were 59,600 performances in 323 venues and one million additional tickets sold. Covid stepped in, but roughly projecting that growth rate from now on would equate to over 80,000 performances and around 4 million tickets by 2030, the year Edinburgh plans to be carbon-zero.

While the Cockburn Association was the first to call for an overhaul, others followed. Being concerned about the impact of this growth rate and its consequences doesn’t make you an anti-culture and cranky snob. Shona McCarthy, Executive Director of the Fringe Society, said in mid-July: “We need a more sophisticated conversation about tourism management because it will always be a city with tourists and people will want to come here, who ‘there is a festival or not.’

Edinburgh International Book Festival director Nick Barley recently said it was time for the city’s entire festival industry to reinvent itself, having gotten “out of hand in the 2010s”.

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Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan said the city’s events sector had “created real problems” which “did not create a sense of a shared cultural or financial dividend” among the promoters of events and local citizens.

The August and winter festivals concentrate activity in the city center, but in 2016 the tourism industry itself recognized that ‘the popularity of the heart of Edinburgh’s old and new towns is creating increasing challenges as the number of visitors increases ”, threatening“ the quality of the visitor experience ”while creating“ friction between locals and the tourism sector ”.

In 2018, the city’s economic strategy expressed similar concerns, observing “negative impacts”, with “uncontrolled growth perceived as a risk both for the quality of life of residents and for the city’s natural environment. “.

It is indisputable that there are problems; a head in the sand will not solve them. Of course, the Covid has had a massive deleterious effect, but sweeping aside the problems caused by the festivization in favor of the economic recovery risks entrenching and aggravating them.

We have seen the planning system, possibly the main lever in maintaining Edinburgh’s World Heritage status, sidelined to allow Fringe constructions to ignore it. The conversion of public spaces into commercial assets is another price to be paid by citizens: it is a defining characteristic of festivization on an international scale. The spaces are allocated to the highest bidder and commerce ends up winning over culture. Moving street performers from the Mound neighborhood to a pop-up Johnny Walker bar is a sign showing where this leads. The Old Town, so fundamental to the essence of Edinburgh thanks to its unique cultural combination of buildings, uses and people, is redeemed by Airbnb investors, its streets claimed by tourist buses, its once local shops crushed by tartanrie and cashmere. Every citizen has the right to the city: access to our streets, squares and parks must not be blocked by entrance fees or security companies.

The Cockburn wants festivals to improve, not diminish, the city. Since the issue of festivization became pressing, the Cockburn has led the way by making constructive suggestions: disperse events, avoid grass, spread the load throughout the year, support local talent, assess the area capacity, consider environmental sustainability and carbon reduction, do not block views with fences or lock people out of their parks, do not risk public health during a pandemic, support local businesses, not bars and food stalls, control noise and respect residents’ rights and the planning system.

Reinvention is not a decline or cancellation, it is creativity, and creative thinking is now needed to readjust festivals to the city.

– Cliff Hague is President of the Cockburn Association, which aims to protect, preserve and promote Edinburgh’s built heritage, natural environment and civic amenities.

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