Photograph by Arch White, Alamy Stock Photo
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In Edinburgh’s Old Town, Cockburn Street has been closed to cars since July to give residents, visitors, and restaurants more space to socially distance during the coronavirus pandemic. There are plans to keep it and other streets pedestrian-only in the future.

Photograph by Arch White, Alamy Stock Photo

The pandemic pushed cars out of this historic Scottish city

The prettiest streets in Edinburgh are closed to motorized traffic. Is a pedestrian future afoot here and in other UNESCO sites?

There’s something missing from the usual scene at the 17th-century 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) prioritizing “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 centers. 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.

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Victoria Street in Edinburgh’s Old Town is now closed to car traffic, an experiment in pedestrian-only zones spurred by the pandemic. Its span of colorful 18th-century buildings is thought to have inspired Diagon Alley in local author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

Recognized, then overrun

Established by the United Nation’s cultural division in 1978, UNESCO World Heritage designations highlight and help protect historic neighborhoods, 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.

Such influxes of people—and the vehicles to transport them—mean the oldest parts of Edinburgh risk becoming polluted, over-trafficked tourist traps. It’s all reminiscent of similarly visitor-snarled UNESCO sites including Venice, Italy, and Istanbul’s Sultanahmet neighborhood—places where local culture is sometimes hard to see. “Old Town is a tricky place to live,” says Edinburgh tour guide Robert Howie. “It’s much easier to buy a kilt there than a pint of milk.”

Preserving local character is one of the goals behind pedestrian-only zones. “The sheer volume of traffic passing through Old Town brings problems like unwanted pollution and blocked views,” says Nicholas Hotham, a spokesperson for Edinburgh World Heritage (EWH), which oversees the area. Take motorized vehicles out of the mix, and, he says “you both improve the streets and boost understanding of the site.”

Businesses on Edinburgh’s newly exhaust-free blocks have been getting a preview of what a less car-centric city might look like. Matthew Shahfar owns Mariachi Mexican restaurant on curving, colorful Victoria Street, a scenic stretch thought to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in local author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. “It’s a pretty street, but with cars constantly running through, people didn’t really enjoy walking here,” says Shahfar. “With pedestrianization, people have been walking through, taking pictures, and spending time. It’s good for business.”

But other retailers aren’t as bullish on shutting out cars or parking spots. Howie, who has shifted his Historic Edinburgh walking tours from small groups to private family “pods” due to the pandemic, thinks pedestrianizing streets benefits visitors, not residents. “Closing the streets was good for the city, but it only really helps at times when things are busy anyway”—in midsummer or during Fringe, he says.

“Pedestrianization has reduced the number of visitors, since people want to use their own cars rather than public transport during this pandemic,” says Jason Redman, owner of the Red Door Art Gallery on Victoria Street.

No cars, but crowded still

Banning motorized traffic isn’t a miracle cure for overcrowding at UNESCO sites. Venice, only accessible by boat or foot, was luring at least 23 million visitors a year pre-pandemic. Walled old cities including Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Fez, Morocco, have stone streets too narrow and old for cars, but that doesn’t keep cruise ship passengers from jam-packing the former or motorbikes and donkeys from zipping dangerously close to hordes of pedestrians on the latter.

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One of the world’s largest walled cities and a UNESCO World Heritage site in Croatia, Dubrovnik’s Old Town draws more than a million visitors a year in normal times. In 2018, the city capped the number of cruise-ship passengers who could visit at 5,000 people per day in an attempt to quash overtourism.

The issue is often that fewer people walked these cobblestones or canals centuries ago, and that these zones simply weren’t designed for millions of extra feet or lots of wheels. In medieval Edinburgh, “the first use of a carriage was when James VI married Anne of Denmark and brought her to Holyrood Abbey in 1590,” says Aaron Allen, a historian and faculty member at the University of Edinburgh. “The streets were steep and precarious. Until then, people used sedan chairs carried by porters, or they mostly walked.”

Other historic areas that have shut out cars have experienced positive changes. After downtown Oslo, Norway, removed 700 parking spaces and banned cars completely on many streets in 2019, foot traffic increased by 10 percent. Madrid passed legislation in 2018 barring non-resident vehicles from the city center, which resulted in less pollution and more shoppers on the streets. “Many cities have found [pedestrianization] to be beneficial to conservation and managing visitors,” says Jyoti Hosagrahar, a spokesperson for UNESCO.

New ways to see cities

“Pedestrianization is not automatically good or bad,” says Brent Toderian, an urbanism consultant and former chief planner for Vancouver, Canada. “How it’s implemented needs to be specific to a city or site.” Taking away the cars isn’t about closing anything, he says. “It’s about opening a street to more room to make it vibrant, liveable, comfortable, and equitable.”

Most solutions don’t ban cars outright; they use hybrid methods to slash traffic: “bus gates” in Edinburgh that employ cameras and signage to designate public-transit only lanes; “quiet streets” in Bath, England, that only residents can drive on.

The pandemic’s challenges have often spurred cities and residents to get out and explore their UNESCO sites in fresh, innovative ways, no Uber or wheels required. In Florence, Italy, new self-guided walking tours of the Oltrarno neighborhood link a greenway of gardens and historic sites. After spring lockdowns eased, residents of Lebanon’s coastal Byblos were allowed to do yoga and hike among the Phoenician ruins.

Could the fresher air, roomier roads, and increased focus on outdoor activity sparked by the pandemic improve all UNESCO cities in the future? “Cars, with their air pollution, noise, danger and space hogging detract from a great historic site’s quality,” says Toderian. “Cars are an invasive species in a fragile ecosystem—they weaken everything else.”

Bhakti Mathew is an Edinburgh-based writer.