The grandaddy of car-free developments?


From the blog

The grandaddy of car-free developments?

Posted 11 November 2009 10:35 by martin

Let me take you on a little journey.

Maybe not the most prepossessing piece of urban architecture you'll have ever seen…


but as you pass through the first entrance…


you come out into a courtyard…


pass through another passage…


into a further courtyard…


through a further passage…


into the final courtyard…


before you finally leave the development…


and pop out the other side (looking back)


So far, so what?

Architecturally speaking, nothing that special.

But there's something missing isn't there?  A residential development without a car in sight! And one built to deliberately exclude them from the main public areas.  It's pretty extraordinary.

And what makes this even more remarkable is this:


Look at the date – 1982.

At the height of the 'great car economy', when climate change was on no-one's radar, and when talk of 'car-free developments' was probably limited to cursory (and probably condescending) discussion of 'funny practices on the continent', here was a Scottish Housing Association quietly building a development which turned convention completely on its head.

What's perplexing is that a quick Google of “Jamaica Mews” turns up almost nothing.  There seems to be no discussion, even just in passing, of this development by academics, architects or advocacy groups.  The modern car-free movement cites communities such as Freiburg's Vauban (5,000 people) and  Slateford Green (also, as it happens, in Edinburgh), but Jamaica Mews doesn't seem to get a look-in.

I have no idea what those living in Jamaica Mews think of their development – maybe there are problems a non-resident wouldn't know about.  Certainly the pedestrian entrances to the development are pretty mean and uninviting, and given that it's situated in the heart of Edinburgh's New Town (a World Heritage Site), the architecture's hardly prize-winning stuff.

But nearly thirty years later it seems remarkable that so few developments in UK cities, where access to public transport and 'walkability' can be so good, have adopted this model – particularly when you remember that 25% of GB households (43% in London and 31% in other built-up metropolitan areas) have no access to a car anyway.

You don't have to be anti-car to lament the fact that so many of our planners, architects, developers and politicians have failed to provide us with high-quality urban housing focused around people space, rather than car space.  Developments where you don't have (or aspire to have) a car, because you don't need or want one.

It looks like Jamaica Mews, in its own quiet (maybe too quiet) way has been showing the art of the possible in car-free developments since 1982.


Here's a route that takes you through Jamaica Mews.

And my Googling has unearthed a self-catering apartment in the Mews, the City Bothy – 'a relaxing bolthole at the centre of Scotland's capital'.

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  1. Sheena McCullagh says:

    November 26th, 2009 at 4:24 pm (#)

    I can guess why it doesn't get a mention and the date it was built doesn't surprise me at all, in fact the two are inter-connected. It certainly had to have been built pre 1995 because today it wouldn't get planning permission.

    Why not???

    No wheelchair access.

    No ramps for anyone with reduced mobility.

    Which of course also means no easy way to get pushchairs/prams in or out either.

    And being completely topical, while it has grates, there is no natural exit for water to flow out (to get out you have to go UP steps at either end).

    So let's hope the people who live there never become mobility disabled, nor have children themselves; do not have relatives and friends who want to visit them who are mobility disabled/have young children; and lets hope and pray they are not subjected to torrential ran as has been experienced in Cumbria recently and other parts of the country over the last few years.

    In your write-up you say 'maybe there are problems a non-resident wouldn’t know about.' I hope the above gives you some ideas of the potential problems and also explains why it's not well known about.

  2. Tom Kerswill says:

    November 26th, 2009 at 4:27 pm (#)

    That's a great story. I bet the houses towards the middle of the development are lovely and quiet.

    Edinburgh's got good public transport too. Plus the Edinburgh CityCar scheme is pretty good – where you pay for a car by the hour, only when you need it. There seem to be a lot of cars located near the city centre — avoiding all those horrible problems of parking etc. and making it a bit more realistic to avoid car ownership.

  3. Gerard says:

    November 26th, 2009 at 4:27 pm (#)

    And when you pop out of the last passage don't just look back, look forward ten yards to Kay's Bar also worth a car free look.

  4. Paul Tetlaw says:

    November 26th, 2009 at 9:01 pm (#)

    I know it well – it's one of my walking routes through the New Town.
    And yes Kay's Bar is well worth a visit.

  5. Simon says:

    November 27th, 2009 at 7:47 am (#)

    Interesting indeed , but do you have any evidence that car free was the intention , or was it the most economical use of the plot available?
    Edinburgh is a bit of an emigma to me , one of the best bus based public transport systems I have ever seen , cheap,reliable,very frequent,24/7. Yet the worst city traffic I have ever experienced ,and a population that doesn't seem to want to embrace trams or abandone cars either. So since 1982 Edinburgh doesn't seem to have come very far in the car free way of planning, almost the opposite.

  6. Peter says:

    November 30th, 2009 at 9:05 am (#)

    Why criticise the Edinburgh population for not embracing trams? As you say Simon we have an excellent bus based public transport system, which seems to be well used. I just think the locals don't see the need to spend grossly disproportionate sums to replace part of that good system with an inflexible track based system just so the City Fathers can claim that we have a tram system (one route!) like other European cities. Less poluting? Do the calcs on the extra emissions of the construction itself and of the traffic chaos caused by same and the scales tip a bit the other way.

    The best comment on the farce that I have yet seen used humour to highlight the nonsense – look for Silence of the Trams on Youtube.

  7. Peter Garland says:

    January 3rd, 2010 at 6:30 am (#)

    I think its great to put the underclass in amongst the Porsche/landrover owning wealthy snobs.Kays bar is great if you like rugger, posh speaking advocates and of-duty cops. If you want a nice working class bar in the New town, then probably best to get the train to Glasgow.

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