Urban space and Edinburgh Fringe: all the world’s a stage
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is unrivalled, not just for performance content but also its manipulation of urban space.
As a town planner, I spend much of my professional time based in Manchester, but much of my free time is spent throughout the year working with a non-profit independent company, preparing to convert buildings in Edinburgh into theatre spaces for use during Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
This experience provides a fascinating insight into how the Festival Fringe transforms the entire city and how – with enough imagination and access to a semi-decent power supply – anything can become a theatre venue.
By way of scene-setting, the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe takes place every August. It is one of the three largest ticketed events globally; behind only the Summer Olympics and on a par with the FIFA World Cup.
Over 70 years ago, the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival was staged as a performance arts festival, designed as a post-war morale booster. The organisers turned down eight companies – who decided to turn up anyway, performing on the ‘fringe’ of the festival. The Festival Fringe has long since overtaken the International Festival in scale.
This combination of simultaneous festivals is arguably how the city sees such high levels of tourism, with Savills research highlighting that Edinburgh is the UK’s second city for international tourism, attracting £0.84bn annually.
The most captivating element of the Fringe for me as a town planner is how the city somehow hosts the vast number of audience, performers and venue staff not in purpose built stadia but in an eclectic range of event spaces and venues fitted into every nook and cranny of Edinburgh.
For a temporary period, unsympathetic conversions become the norm. This creates an inexplicable urban space, where people navigate from bars, to venues, to cafés and stages that don’t usually exist. Watching festival-goers try to navigate the city out of season, when every familiar waymark has been packed away into shipping containers on the outskirts of the city, is a great example of how unfixed urban legibility and navigation can be.
Churches and lecture theatres are high up the list of preferred buildings: they were built for performance and come with a stage, great acoustics and high ceilings. In contrast, other venues such as pubs, lifts, church vaults, tenement flats, schools, a purple cow, toilet blocks and underground tunnels, are equally utilised – fitted out with bright lights and dance floors.
The interiors of listed buildings are clad in plywood, painted and covered in posters. Circus tents appear in the main parks. The Royal Mile is pedestrianised with outdoor stages along its length. Even the otherwise incongruous anti-terror steel barriers and concrete blocks are painted garish colours and seamlessly fit into the cityscape of dark stone, cobbled streets, block colour banners and flyers on every surface.
This acceptance of the festival in this form arguably plays a major role in the increasingly international nature of the city. Ben Fox of the Savills Edinburgh office reports that in 2017 over 40% of those buying residential properties through Savills were from outside the city.
Ultimately, the Festival Fringe contributes hundreds of millions to the Scottish economy, and the city population doubles for the entirety of August. An annual autumn dip in residential transactions is also noticeable, such is the impact of the events.
And as the Festival draws to a close, the punters fade away; the articulated lorries ship tonnes of staging, lights and speaker stacks out of the city; banners come down and Edinburgh’s permanent residents breathe a sigh of relief.
After locking the doors and handing the buildings back to their owner, I look back with fascination each year at how the function and form of this beautiful city has been temporarily, but drastically, transformed.