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How walking has influenced Edinburgh's urban development ~ Public Parks

Part 2 of 3

· urban-parks,The-Meadows,Calton-Hill,urban-development,Edinburgh

With 2020 being the year of the lockdown I, like many others, have used walking to help pass the time and maintain my physical and mental wellbeing. Walks are a great time for observing and reflecting and I started thinking about how walking had shaped the city of Edinburgh. Only very recently, on the human timescale, has walking stopped being our primary mode of transport.

Walking is such an ordinary activity that it's easy to forget about but much of Edinburgh’s existing road network developed out of ancient walking routes. Later, as walking became a leisure activity in the 18th and 19th centuries, it transformed the city with one of its best loved features, its many urban parks. In the 20th century more modern forms of transport dictated Edinburgh's development but the influence of walking continues to play an important role in shaping the city into the 21st century.

In this three-part blog post we’ll be looking at some of the ways in which walking, both past and present, has influenced the urban development of Edinburgh.

  • Part 1 - old roads (before the 18th century)
  • Part 2 - public parks (18th and 19th centuries)
  • Part 3 - people vs cars (20th and 21st centuries)

Part 2 ~ Edinburgh's public parks

We saw in part 1 how the ancient overland walking routes, and the importance of walking in everyday life, shaped some of Edinburgh’s oldest roads. During the 18th and 19th centuries walking underwent a significant change; it began to be seen as a leisure activity in its own right rather than just a way to get from A to B. Society’s shifting attitudes and people’s changing relationship with walking saw the creation of some of Edinburgh’s best loved features; its many urban parks and public gardens.

Changing attitudes towards the natural world

The idea of walking as a beneficial leisure activity was brought about by changing attitudes towards the natural world in the later 17thth century society. Reasoned and ordered ‘Enlightenment’ thinking began to replace earlier ‘Medieval’ beliefs and superstitions. For example, storms stopped being a sign of God’s wrath or the work of witches and became rationally explained meteorological events.

In Medieval times uncultivated and natural landscapes, such as moors, ravines, forests and wetlands, were viewed as hostile and dangerous wildernesses which you avoided if possible. They were places you risked getting caught in bad weather or coming into contact with wild animals, brigands and mischievous spirits. By the age of Enlightenment, these places were instead viewed as potential resources to be measured, controlled and exploited by man. Advances over the 18th century in mapping, surveying, engineering and agriculture saw the appearance of canals, bridges, road networks and land enclosures across the British Isles.

This desire to dominate and 'improve' the natural landscape was soon challenged by the ideas of the Romantic movement. Romanticism emphasised emotion and imagination over reasoned and rational thought. Importantly Romanticism rejected order and regularity and revelled in wild landscapes, seeing them as places to inspire feelings of awe and wonderment at the raw power and sublime beauty of the natural world.

Changing attitudes to the natural world can be seen in art. The wilderness, in Medeival times a hostile and barren place, becomes a place to ease ones body and soul away from the busy urban cities.

The painting of 'St John the Baptist retiring to the Desert' from 1454 (left) shows the medieval psyche towards wild and natural landscapes. Here John leaves the safety of the buildings and the cultivated fields for the harsh and inhospitable desert or wilderness; here depicted as barren mountains and dark forests. Within 400 years the Romantic movement had changed our ideas of wild and natural landscapes into places of peaceful serenity where people could come for respite from the noisy and busy urban life of the city. The detail from 'View of the city of Edinburgh' (right), painted around 1822, depicts people relaxing in the rural landscape next to the Water of Leith with the city of Edinburgh just visible in the distance - a complete turn-around in attitude from the Medieval period.

As an important centre of culture and Enlightenment thinking, Edinburgh’s 18th century city fathers and important big-wigs were well-aware of these shifting attitudes. Their aspirations to present Edinburgh as a modern, fashionable and progressive city have left a lasting mark on its urban development. We can see the effect of the opposing ideals of the Enlightenment and Romanticism reflected in the creation of two of Edinburgh’s earliest and most iconic parks, the Meadows and Calton Hill.


The Meadows

The area now occupied by the Meadows was originally covered by the old Borough, or South, Loch which had all but disappeared by 1700 leaving a wet, boggy area. The Town Council leased the land to Thomas Hope of Rankeillor (an early and keen supporter of agricultural improvement) in 1722 on the understanding that it would be made into grassy meadows set with tree-lined walks.

The Edinburgh Meadows were a purposefully designed park which transformed a muddy bog into a grassy fields set with tree-lined walks.

Detail from an 18th century map of Edinburgh (left) showing the planned paths for the Meadows and its location between the built-up city and the, still largely uncultivated, Burgh Muir. The Meadows is still one of Edinburgh's largest and most popular parks today (right) and remains a defining space of the city's Southside.

New drainage techniques transformed the muddy bog into fields of green grass featuring a long, straight avenue, planted either side with a double row of regularly placed lime trees. Middle Meadow Walk, as the avenue was called, opened in 1743 and soon the park provided a shady and sheltered network of garden-walks. The Meadows (or Hope Park as it was originally known) was very much a designed landscape to showcase man’s increasing dominance over nature. By improving the natural landscape and controlling walkers’ routes the Meadows provided a regulated and tamed semi-rural space. This provided a physical, visual and psychological link between Edinburgh’s urbanised Old Town (to the north) and the 'wild' moorland of the Burgh Muir (to the south; now under the streets of Marchmont developed from the 1870s).

Middle Meadow Walk is the parks main avenue, originally planted either side with a double row of lime trees.

Middle Meadow Walk looking south (left) – for a short time there was a small structure, enchantingly known as the ‘bird-cage’, selling refreshments at the end of the avenue. Middle Meadow Walk looking north (right) – the avenue was designed to align with the distinctive crown spire of St Giles Cathedral enhancing the visual connection between the new park and Edinburgh’s Old Town.

In 1827 the Meadows was officially designated as a public park and legislation was passed to prevent the park from ever being built upon. This act has allowed one of Edinburgh’s best loved greenspaces to survive almost unchanged into the 21st century.



Calton Hill

While the Meadows were being leased to Thomas Hope, Edinburgh Town Council were also purchasing the western end of Calton Hill, a craggy outcrop on Edinburgh’s periphery. At the time there were no buildings on top of Calton Hill, only the Old Calton Burial Ground, but in 1776, just a decade after the building of the New Town began, Calton Hill got Hume Walk – one of the country’s earliest publicly-funded, public footpaths.

Opening in 1776 Hume Walk, on Edinburgh's Calton Hill, was one of the first publically funded, public footpaths in the country.

The circular walk can be seen on this map detail from 1784 (left) with the later addition of Edinburgh's first Observatory. Named Hume Walk after the city's great Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (one of the petitions key signatories who died the year it was completed) the remains of the original path still provide popular viewpoints over the city today (right).

The circular walk, built by the Town Council after they were petitioned by residents, provided a path that "afforded visitors the best views of the city" and "benefitted the health and well-being of its residents". These reasons emphasise the changed attitudes towards both landscapes and walking. It became desirable to visit 'wild' spaces such as Calton Hill simply to enjoy its natural setting and its views of the developing city and its majestic landscape. Walking in green open spaces and fresh air was seen as both physically and psychologically good for you and Calton Hill became a place where people could get away from the streets and smoke of the city to ease their bodies and sooth their minds.

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By the end of the 18th century Calton Hill had become a desirable place to visit. This detail from Robert Barker's 1790 'Panorama of Edinburgh from Calton Hill' (said to have been inspired by the circular nature of Hume Walk) shows people enjoying the views of the Old Town and it's dramatic backdrop of Arthur's Seat.

Due to later developments on Calton Hill only part of the original Hume Walk still exists today but, unlike the rational, purposefully and formally designed Meadows, Calton Hill was in essence a natural and informal Romantic landscape.



Walking as a leisure activity

These shifting attitudes towards the natural world changed people’s relationship with walking. Rural landscapes, formal and informal, became desirable places to both look at and visit for pleasure – a complete change from the notions of hostile wildernesses – and walking started to become a leisure activity in its own right, rather than simply a way of getting from A to B. At least this was true for the wealthier, middling classes. During the 18th century Edinburgh saw the creation of the Georgian New Town, the growth of the professional classes (lawyers, doctors, architects, etc) and the rise of ‘polite society’ which put great importance on the new fashion of genteel, mixed-sex public socialising. This led to the creation of new spaces such as assembly rooms, concert halls and urban parks.


Parks themselves were not a new concept, the Nobility and the elite had enjoyed secluded gardens and private country estate parks for generations, but importantly these new urban parks would be open for all people to enjoy. Not all of these new parks were truly public in the way we think of them today however. Back then ‘public’ meant that these attractions were open to anyone who could afford to pay the subscription fee. Although this made them accessible to a lot more people than before, it still meant that certain greenspaces were essentially restricted to the professional classes and above. For example, West Princes Street Gardens, first opened by the council in 1821, was a public garden by subscription only (its members being mostly New Town residents) until 1876 when it became fully public.

View of Edinburgh from the Scott Monument looking west.

Located between the Old Town and the New Town Princes Street Gardens are a key feature of central Edinburgh. The West Gardens are partnered by the East Gardens. These started life as an open public space after the land was acquired by the Council in 1771 but it was not laid out and planted as gardens until 1830.

The desire of New Town residents for urban parks to take fashionable walks in combined with their desire for unrestricted views across to the Old Town and its 'Romantic' backdrop of Arthur’s Seat, played a vital part in the creation of Princes Street Gardens, one of central Edinburgh’s most defining features.

Early parks weren’t only used by fashionable society though; they were also used by Edinburgh’s labouring classes but more commonly for work, not leisure. Calton Hill was a completely public park from its beginning (making it one of the earliest in the country) and its unrestricted access made it popular with the city’s many washer-women who dried their linens on its slopes throughout the 19th century.

Parks for all

It wasn’t until the later Victorian era (1837–1901) that the phenomenon of public urban parks really took off. This was driven by the huge rise in urbanisation, as the Industrial Revolution drew rural workers to towns to work in the growing numbers of factories, and new concerns about the living conditions of the labouring classes. The arrival of the railways to Edinburgh in the 1840s saw another period of expansion and by 1900 a ring of residential Victorian tenements (for both the working and lower-middling classes) had developed around the Old and New Towns. Tenements for workers were often right next door to breweries and factories so the air and streets were grimy and smelly. Additionally, life in the tenements was often cramped; many flats consisted of just two rooms and a family's only outside space was a shared ‘green’ out the back for drying washing.

Bartholomews map of Edinburgh from 1901 showing high density tenements around factories and breweries.

This 1901 map of Edinburgh's Dalry district shows tenement housing right next to the factories and breweries (shown by red dots) – note the difference between the high-density tenements and the villas of the wealthier middling-classes with their own spacious gardens in the area of nearby Merchiston (circled in green).

The Victorian era was one of a growing awareness of public health with influential social reformers, such as the pioneering Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890) and Edinburgh’s own Dr Henry Littlejohn (1826-1914), proving the link between poor living and working conditions with poor health. Social reforms saw a range of improvements including reduced working hours and the creation of more public parks where working families could enjoy their new leisure time and exercise or relax in pleasant green surroundings and fresh air.

This change in attitude can be seen in 1888 when the open space of Leith Links was officially designated as a public park as part of Leith’s Improvement Scheme. Between the 1880s and 1930s public parks sprang up all over Edinburgh with many formed out of the private lands of the ‘big houses’ that once surrounded the city such as Inverleith Park, Starbank Park, Roseburn Park, Saughton Park, Pilrig park and Lochend Park.

In this 1926 map of Edinburgh we can see that numerous parks have sprung up across the city.

By 1926, the date of this map, public parks, pleasure gardens and recreation grounds (circled in red) had sprung up across the city. The rest of the greenspaces are a mix of private gardens, sporting grounds, golf courses and cemetaries.

Walkings legacy

By the end of the 19th century the natural environment, once spurned as dangerous and undesirable, was seen as an essential balm to the urban lives of the masses. Walking, once seen as simply as a way to get from A to B, was transformed, first into a genteel leisure pastime for the wealthy, and later into a healthy activity for all. In turn this transformed the course of Edinburgh’s urban development. Urban parks and greenspaces were dotted across the city leaving Edinburgh with the enviable legacy of being one of the greenest cities in Europe.

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Edinburgh's parks are enjoyed by a wide range of people and provide vital outdoor spaces for individuals and communities throughout the year. Today Edinburgh has over 80 public parks showing just how important walking and access to urban greenspaces was, and continues to be, in shaping the modern city.

Our attitudes towards the natural world and rural landscapes are still heavily influenced by Romanticism. Just think how important we feel our urban greenspaces, local beauty-spots and national parks are to our sense of well-being in our busy, urbanised lives. In this current era of covid-lockdowns many of us have been more reliant on our local parks than ever before. Perhaps, next time you go for a stroll through your neighbourhood park, you will take a moment to give a nod to the Romantics (for falling in love with wild landscapes), Polite Society (for raising walking to a leisure activity) and the Reformers (for making parks available to everyone) who brought about the creation of Edinburgh's public parks. Perhaps, most importantly, we should thank the generations of ordinary Edinburgh residents who used these new urban spaces ensuring that they survived, allowing us to appreciate them today.


In the 20th century walking came under threat from the car but fought back to remain an important influence on the city of Edinburgh which is what we’ll be looking at in the third and final part of this blog.

Image Credits:

Detail from: Saint John the Baptist retiring to the Desert by Giovanni Di Paolo, 1454 - shared from Wikimedia Commons under licence CC-BY 3.0

Detail from: View of the city of Edinburgh by Alexander Nasmyth, c.1822 - public domain

Detail from: Panorama of edinburgh from the Calton Hill by Robert Barker, 1790 - shared from the National Library of Scotland under licence CC-BY 4.0

Panorama showing Princes Street from the Scott Monument by Oliver Bonjoch, 2010 - shared from Wikimedia Commons under licence CC-BY 3.0

All other images of the Meadows, Calton Hill and Edinburgh parks author's own.

Map Credits:

All maps reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland and used under licence CC-BY 4.0

Detail from: A Plan of the Environs of Edinburgh and Leith, 18th century

Detail from: Plan of the city and suburbs of Edinburgh from actual surveys by Alexander Kincaid,1784

Detail from: Bartholomew's Plan of Edinburgh and Leith with suburbs constructed from Ordnance and Actual surveys, 1901 - with additional graphics by author

Detail from: Bartholomew's Pocket Plan of Edinburgh, 1926 - with additional graphics by author

Key Sources:

The Place Names of Edinburgh by Stuart Harris (Steve Savage:1996)

...isms; understanding art by Stephen Little (Herbert Press: 2011)

The Making of Classical Edinburgh by A.J. Youngson (Edinburgh University Press: 2019)

The Transformation of Edinburgh; land, property and trust in the nineteenth century by Richard Rodger (Cambridge University Press:2004)

City of Edinburgh Council Parks and Greenspaces website

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In Edinburgh? I provide guided walking tours for anyone interested in Edinburgh's history; from first-time visitors to long-term residents - visit my website for more details.