Author: Roger Bardsley, AICP
It is possible that some of you have been to Edinburgh, Scotland. It is a beautiful city with loads of wonderful architecture, museums and history. Edinburgh Castle sits on top of the ridge that runs through the center of town while Arthur’s Seat looks down from the other end. The Firth of Forth is visible from the top, and the Royal Yacht Britannia is moored at the docks. Yes, you should go.
This blog, however, is not about the sights the tourists see. It is about things that planners might notice. I like to write about these sorts of things because you are all planners, and we know we don’t see the world the ways others do.
Edinburgh has an impressive bus system that serves much of the metro area with frequent, on-time service. They have both double-decker and single-deck buses with plenty of capacity. Unlike in cities in North Carolina, there is no class stigma attached to riding the bus. A couple of years ago Edinburgh completed a tram from downtown to the airport. I rode it in from the airport last week and enjoyed the experience. The alignment, unfortunately, contained tight turns so the tram was not able to maximize its speed capabilities. The tram was very controversial, over budget and behind schedule. Sounds like every public project in the U.S. In spite of the critique, however, I wish the major cities in NC had systems as capable as the one in Edinburgh. Note: Most of the buses in Edinburgh are operated by Lothian, a private company in operation since 1919. It is not a municipal system.
In the early 19th century a canal was built to connect Edinburgh to Glasgow, 70 miles away. The canal is still in use today, enjoyed by houseboat owners, rowers and people on the towpath. Most people in NC are familiar with the C&O canal that runs from West Virginia to Washington, DC along the Potomac River. The construction of the C&O was completely different as it followed the general course and fall of the river. The Union Canal was built like a railroad, with cut and fill to create a “roadbed” for the canal, and numerous viaducts over roads and streams along the way. A bike ride along the tow path is a glimpse into the past, and an opportunity to see old villages, inns and pubs along the way.
In some areas, Edinburgh is a trashy city, which is sad considering the beauty of the place and the vast number of tourists who visit every year. OK, I am not a litter expert. Those who are experts do litter surveys that identify a “census” of the types of litter that appear and where that litter is concentrated. My census consisted of walking and biking past various concentrations of litter, not the random scattering of trash on the street.
Conclusions: There were gross concentrations of litter on any road bank that was overgrown and not “owned” by anyone. Along the canal there were a few concentrations next to council housing developments. Council housing was clearly associated with littering for whatever reason.
As planners we need to own litter and recycling as community-based issues. Think back and you will see that modern packaging has caused a large part of our litter problems, and that the industries involved have never accepted either the problem or the solution.
One-Way Beverage Containers: We all know that glass, plastic and aluminum beverage containers are a huge problem that the beverage industry has dumped on us. The solution is obvious, but hard to achieve. If there is a deposit on the containers they will be returned for the deposit. I saw it in Portland, OR where the homeless collected anything that was not returned by the original consumer and took the containers to collection points, often in grocery stores. In Norway, the containers can be returned to most stores and inserted into a machine that spits out the deposit, no human interaction required. Duh, no beverage containers anywhere to be seen.
Instead of monetizing the activity, most communities simply “encourage” people to recycle. We have tried that experiment for many years and it produces, at best, a 75% return rate.
As a side note, I walked along the shoreline of the Firth of Forth for about a mile. The discarded aluminum cans I saw had been almost completely dissolved by the sea water, a benefit not shared with the plastic bottles.
Plastic Bags: Stores in Edinburgh sell sturdy shopping bags that appeared to be fairly popular. I have a Sainsbury bag that I use here in Greensboro. It is more strongly constructed than the bags sold in Harris Teeter or Lowes. As a result, my litter “census” did not reveal the numerous flying plastic bags that are often seen here.
Miscellaneous Trash: In areas where litter was concentrated there was a surprising diversity of other trash. Common items included paper coffee cups, plastic drink cups with straws and snack food packaging. Since the Scots do not generally buy fast food in take-away bags there were not as many wrappers and bags as you see in NC. But, it was not uncommon to see large pieces of trash such as baby strollers, hub caps and umbrellas in certain areas.
In spite of my comments above, I do love Edinburgh and recommend that you go there if you have the opportunity. My thoughts on litter, I hope, will encourage you, as planners, to think about the causes and solutions to the problem and help your communities to be cleaner places in which to live.