It may be some time since the brass bands played "tiddley-om-pom-pom" beside Edinburgh's seaside, but there's one thing for sure, the residents of Portobello, and of the city generally, still like to "stroll along the prom, prom prom". The prom is a Porty institution.
A mile long, stretching from Joppa's distinctive pumping station in the east, to just past Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home in the west, the stretch of Tarmac with its eclectic assortment of cafes, amusement arcades and pubs is well used daily by walkers, runners, cyclists and families enjoying beach days at weekends and during school holidays. The prom users are a kind of family who know one another by sight and, when introduced at social events elsewhere in the city, say "we've seen one another somewhere before haven't we?", before concluding: "It must have been on the prom...".
There are prom shifts. The early shift belongs to dog walkers, runners and cyclists heading to work. The second shift is Tower Bank primary pupils, in their eye-catching red sweatshirts, with their parents and grandparents. Then the mums stop off at the Beach House café for a latte, and the seniors with time on their hands do the second dog-walk shift before finding a bench from which to watch the world go by. The lunch crew makes for The Espy, on Bath Street, or the Dalriada, off Bedford Terrace, or grab a bag of chips from the Porto Restaurant or the arcade. Then there are more dog-walkers, and schoolchildren returning, with pent-up energy to be burned in a quick run on the sand. Then the cyclists come back, the dog walkers are out yet again, the teens make the prom their own as dusk falls, and the pub crowd heads for the bars. And the last ones on the beach are probably the dog walkers ... again.
But how many Porty folk actually stop to think about what they're walking, running or cycling on? Or more to the point, how they'd like what they're walking on to look?
Public arts trust Big Things on the Beach (BTOTB), chaired by Damian Killeen, has been asking just that question. In an effort to engage with a city-wide plan based on design guru Sir Terry Farrell's vision of developing Edinburgh's 11km of coastline, the community project – set up in 2003, as Killeen says, to "enliven Portobello by inviting professional artists to create public works for public spaces in the area" – has asked more than 3,000 prom users to Imagine Porty Prom! In 2008 Farrell said: "The idea of a waterfront city has huge potential which must not be squandered. It could be developed along a continuous boardwalk, such as the Promenade de la Croisette in Cannes. This connects up places for the sheer pleasure of experiencing the city." So, can Porty be the new Cannes? OK, so it rains a bit more, but that doesn't mean it can't look, nice, does it? But what of those 3,000 locals and their imaginings? How did Killeen and his team go about the consultation process, the results of which have now been published as A Public Art Strategy for Portobello Promenade?
The focus is arts-driven regeneration, and BTOTB's engagement with the council's future plans was from the viewpoint of a community project that has delivered a programme of art to the prom, giving local people a say in what might happen. Over the likes of Miles Thurlow's Black Swan fruit machines and Michael Pinsky's Stroke – a sophisticated animation of synchronised swimmers projected onto the surface of the local pool – Porty people hummed, hawed, stroked their chins and went to Portobello Public Art House, at the prom end of Kings Road, to have their say.
"We had children drawing things they would like on the prom and people writing quite substantial ideas, and feeding back their thoughts," says Killeen. "We recorded over 3,000 people. We're not claiming a democracy, but one of the most important things to come out of it was the shared level of general disappointment at the lack of recognition of the waterfront as a major city asset."
Certainly the prom has seen better days. Its heyday was the late 19th century when holidaymakers arrived in droves at Portobello's railway station, particularly during Glasgow's trades fair in July. An outdoor lido pool – where Sir Sean Connery once worked as a lifeguard – was heated by steam from the now-demolished Portobello power station, children splashed in the paddling pool and in later years enjoyed the rides at the prom's funfair, now dismantled. Their parents relaxed in the Victorian Turkish baths, one of only three such baths still soothing stressed-out Scots today.
Now there is little to attract people to the prom, and an overall lack of "wholeness"; even from the main approach down Bath Street from the High Street, the first thing visitors see is a row of on-street litter bins and a concrete wall. Says Killeen: "The feedback was of a fundamental feeling of disappointment at the lack of social and leisure spaces, where folk could gather together, sit down to chat, protected from the elements."
Porty is a place of great diversity. People whose families have lived and worked here for generations, whose "Portobelly" is very different from that of the incomers, the arty "poorgeoisie" who couldn't stretch to a pad in one of Edinburgh's better addresses, and cling to the idea of "the village" being up-and-coming. Does everyone want their prom to be, as Killeen says, "an artwork in itself, but one within which people are encouraged to run, walk, play; do all the things people do day and night"?
"We had only one 'over my dead body'," says Killeen. "What we get from the older generation is that this is exciting. They welcome a regeneration, back to what the prom was like when they were younger. OK, so we have a long way to go before we can say this is what the community wants, but no-one is saying leave it alone."
And what of the reaction to the art installations in Portobello last year? The Black Swan fruit machines in particular provoked a response, with comments on The Scotsman website ranging from "it's really attractive because it's a bit like fairy lights" (from BTOTB participation worker Susan Grant) to "what an absolute load of rubbish" from a disgruntled local aka the Real Dracula.
"Yes, we had everything from 'get that off my beach', to 'fantastic', and 'it's beautiful', says Killeen. "But not everybody wants 'nice'. I've found my own ideas and conventions have changed during the commissioning process for BTOTB. In the past, if someone had talked about building pyramids on the beach I'd have stood back and said: 'what's that about?' and yet, here I am and that's something that happened. Contrary to what people think – that popular choices will inevitably be dull, conventional etc, in fact, people go for quite different things, given the opportunity."
Another website comment on Black Swan, from someone called Willowman, was that Portobello needed "investment in its infrastructure to attract holidaymakers, not arty farty gimmicks". John Kinsley, Edinburgh architect and BTOTB trustee, says: "The 'big idea' for the prom is to try to embrace community creativity in a particular kind of way, to say that Portobello is a place that welcomes the intervention of creative thinkers. As for the infrastructure, well, we have that already and with a low level of investment we could make Portobello an examplar project, whereas on other areas of Edinburgh's waterfront you'd need to be pouring massive volumes of concrete before you got anywhere..." But the bottom line, for most locals, is that the prom looks nice, art or no. Rosanne Erskine lives with her daughters in Straiton Place, Portobello, and owns Urban Igloo, a High Street shop. "One of the main attractions for me and my family is having the prom and shoreline literally on the doorstep to enjoy in all weathers," she says, "and to add to the enjoyment and interest, Big Things on the Beach have encouraged some interesting public art to pop up from time to time. Never a dull moment."
"It's all about making the absolute most of what we've got in Portobello," nods Killeen, and Kinsley agrees. "We have a real opportunity to improve things by keeping awareness of the project high. We have to keep it under the council's nose, build on it, keep working away, keep discussion going and people involved so when the economic situation changes, we're here and there is a degree of prioritisation saying 'let's do this'.
This article was originally published in the Scotsman Magazine - 8 May 2011. It is reproduced here thanks to the gracious permission of Janet Watson.