A new face for Auld Reekie

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Edinburgh is soon to have its very own branch of that ultimate sym

When Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders dreamed up their rollicking fable of ditzy media folk, Absolutely Fabulous, they made a modern icon of that old-established (1831) business Harvey Nichols & Co Ltd. Thanks to Patsy and Edina, "Harvey Nicks" became every woman's symbol of free-spending, metropolitan sophistication. The Knightsbridge emporium became the essence of retail therapy, a mecca for those ladies who lunch and shop. More than one retail analyst has speculated that the free publicity Harvey Nicks received week in, week out from AbFab not only boosted its fortunes, but did its Knightsbridge rival Harrods some real damage.

Well, maybe. But it is certainly true that Harvey Nicks has become one of the glittering jewels in Britain's retailing crown. It is the kind of business that every city wants on its high street. If you have a Harvey Nicks, the thinking runs, you are a serious player. Which is why Edinburgh pulled out all the stops when Harvey Nichols announced that it was thinking of setting out its stall on St Andrew Square, next door to William Chambers's 1771 neoclassical masterpiece that is now Royal Bank of Scotland's headquarters.

In fact, so keen were Edinburgh's city fathers to coax the retail superstars into St Andrew Square that they pitched an extra £1m into the three-sided deal between the city, the developers Coal Pension Properties and Harvey Nichols. If everything goes according to glitzy plan, by the autumn of 2002, the ladies of Edinburgh will have their own Harvey Nicks (96,000 square feet of it, 40 per cent bigger than the one in Leeds). The hope is that this new fashion-opolis will halt and perhaps reverse the flow of well-heeled folk who have been doing their shopping at the other end of the M8. Work begins next month.

This proves how hard it is currently to write about Edinburgh without sounding like some kind of estate agent. But the Harvey Nichols project is part of the way that Edinburgh seems to be reinventing itself. From being the staid old lady of the north, Edinburgh is in the process of turning itself into something brasher, shinier and a lot more outgoing. This is by no means to everyone's taste. Edinburgh's powerful conservation lobby lives in dread that the current boom will undermine the city's architectural heritage.

"There are a few decent individual buildings," says Martin Hulse of the Cockburn Association, the Edinburgh Civic Trust. "But the problem is that they don't really take account of one another. They don't relate to one another. There seems to be no real planning. There are no good pedestrian routes through them. One way or another, it's all a bit of a mess." In Hulse's view, the mess will continue until Edinburgh gets to grips with the private car. He points out that the public transport links to some of the city's biggest and most successful developments are virtually non-existent.

Two things have generated Edinburgh's boom time. One is the enormous growth of the financial services industry - insurance companies, banks, investment trusts and so on - with which Edinburgh is stuffed. The other is the advent of the Scottish Parliament, which has not only bumped up the city's complement of politicians and Civil Service suits, but is also bringing in the foreign diplomats, lobbyists, ad agencies, broadcasters and so on. Plus, of course, all the hotels, restaurants and pubs required to keep them housed, fed and watered. The Edinbourgeoisie who have watched their property prices soar owe much of that added value to the Blair/Brown devolution project.

Not that Edinburgh has ever been pickled in aspic (or trapped in amber). Its conservation lobby is powerful, but not all-powerful. The city has been in a state of change for the past 200 years or so. In the 18th century, it exploded out of the mile of tenements that run from the castle down to the palace of Holyrood House, jumped across the Nor' Loch and built the neoclassical New Town (the best of it to designs by Robert Adam). It was a building programme that lasted into the 1860s. The English philosopher-aesthete John Ruskin was one of the many who hated it. It is now revered as part of the Edinburgh World Heritage Site.

Meanwhile, many of the creaky old tenements in the Old Town were hauled down and replaced, so that much of the Old Town became more new than the New Town. By the end of the 19th century - and to the despair of romantics such as Robert Louis Stevenson - suburban villas were sprouting all round the city, and cliffs of sandstone tenements were springing up at Marchmont, Bruntsfield, Morningside and Comely Bank. And, from the 1930s on, Edinburgh erected some of the most dismal peripheral housing estates in Britain, let alone Scotland.

But having escaped the worst ravages of the 1960s and 1970s (narrowly, it should be said), the fabric of the city is now changing fast. Today, Edinburgh has half a dozen major development points, plus a host of smaller ones. Elegant but rather dreary avenues such as George Street have been attracting upmarket shops and the kind of watering holes that were once confined to places like Canary Wharf. Almost as many glossy pubs and cafes have sprung up around Edinburgh's university students, many of whom hail from the more prosperous parts of southern England. The political focus is, of course, at the bottom of Canongate beside Holyrood House. This is where Enrico Miralles is building his spectacular for the Scottish Parliament. It is a project regularly dogged by a pack of outraged MSPs. The building is now expected to come in two years late, at a cost of around £200m. It will also create traffic problems that no one has yet solved. Meanwhile, conservationists are working themselves into a lather over the fate of an undistinguished 17th-century pile known as Queensberry House. The Holyrood parliament is having a bumpy ride.

But the area around it is jumping. On the other side of the road from the parliament site is the white, tent-like structure of the Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh's own version of the Millennium Dome. Unlike its Greenwich counterpart, it has a point (Scotland's geology and palaeontology) and is highly successful. Nearby, the enigmatic Barclay twins have sunk millions into new offices for their stable of Edinburgh newspapers, a local hotel company has erected a glossy new hotel and the BBC is developing new studios and offices to service (or be serviced by) the parliament. There is so much fake sandstone in the area that Martin Hulse describes Holyrood as a "reconstituted sandstorm". Politics and media may dominate the east end of the city centre, but the west end is run by big finance. City planners set aside an area west of Lothian Road, dubbed it "The Exchange", put in place the squat cylinder of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) and watched the big boys troop in. Most of the area is now taken up by offices for Standard Life (Europe's biggest mutual) and Scottish Widows (now no longer a mutual).

In the past few years, Edinburgh has become Britain's top conference venue. The city's old port of Leith has had a genuine, if unplanned, renaissance. The harbour and docks are still busy enough with ships, but most of the old whisky "bonds" are now expensive flats. Inside the dock gates, the Forth Port Authority has transformed itself into one of Britain's canniest property developers. The Scottish Executive has its main offices on the quayside, and builders are currently at work on the 900,000sqft Conran-designed "Ocean Terminal", which is being built to handle the 40 or so cruise liners that now sail into Edinburgh every year. When the terminal is finished, the ex-royal yacht Britannia will be moored permanently alongside the visiting cruise ships.

To some extent, Edinburgh is rediscovering its maritime persona. On the drawing board, there is a huge £500m plan to develop Edinburgh's seafront to the west of Leith Docks. It is a project that will take around 20 years to complete. A fortune will have to be spent on decontaminating the string of "brownfield" sites, but it will help divert activity away from Edinburgh's green belt. Already, the kenspeckle art-world entrepreneur Richard Demarco is suggesting that the big gas containers near Granton Harbour should be transformed into an Edinburgh version of the Tate Modern.

But if Edinburgh has an equivalent of London's Docklands, it is not down on the Firth of Forth. It is out at the western edge of the city near the airport, where a huge, American-designed and expensively landscaped site known as Edinburgh Park has been filling up with the glitzy offices of various high-tech companies of the financial services, call-centre and cable TV variety. At the moment, more than 6,000 people work on the site, and there are plans to extend it and jack up the densities to cope with another 12,000. The project was financed (or at least kick-started) with the £100m or so that the council got when it sold the nearby Gyle shopping centre to Marks & Spencer.

Edinburgh Park may well be the most significant of the city's new boom-time developments. This sprawling, white-on-white, silver-on-grey development infested with private cars, almost bereft of public transport and surrounded by dual carriageways and "executive" housing is probably the future face of Edinburgh. This is a prospect that appals many lovers of Edinburgh, but it seems inevitable if the city continues to creep across its own green belt to devour more and more of the Lothian farmlands.

But that is what Edinburgh has been doing ever since the 1750s, when George Drummond, four times Lord Provost, looked out of his window in the Old Town and told a young guest that the day was coming when he would see "all these fields covered with houses, forming a splendid and magnificent city".