In many ways, Scotland’s capital city has become disconnected from the sea. Coastal defences, industrialisation and unimaginative planning have created a barrier, both physical and psychological, between residents and their coastline.

The relationship between Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth used to be very different and much closer. The seas were rich in fish and particularly in oysters, which provided a staple food for the city’s working classes.

Now a new project, Edinburgh Shoreline, is aiming to reconnect and celebrate the two, rediscovering the coast’s rich and fascinating history and at the same time helping in the ongoing battle against climate change.

HeraldScotland: The Edinburgh Shoreline project aims to protect present coastal defences as sea levels rise Photograph Rebecca YahrThe Edinburgh Shoreline project aims to protect present coastal defences as sea levels rise Photograph Rebecca Yahr

Chris Ellis co-ordinates Scottish research at the Royal Botanic Gardens in the city, which is a partner in this initiative along with other organisations including the council, the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow and Granton Hub.

He says that the original idea of the Edinburgh project was to create conversations around what the shoreline is like today. “We plan to reimagine its future based on a better understanding of the area’s past and to engage people with both the natural and the cultural history.”

In terms of climate change, much of the work has been around adaptation, he adds – in other words, recognising that this is happening and working out how to cope with that.

At present, 75% of the Edinburgh shoreline consists of hard, engineered coastal defences. “As the sea level rises, those defences could be threatened. One of the adaptation principles is to try and relax that hard zone a little bit and allow more space in the coastal zone to help us to adapt to climate change.”

There are a number of ways in which this more dynamic coastline can be created. “We’ve carried out a project with the University of Glasgow, creating small micro[1]habitats like artificial rock pools that can be bolted on to the engineered surfaces. These give nature a bit of a foothold and can have a physical effect by lessening the power of the waves. It also creates more enjoyable and liveable spaces for people. It’s fairly innovative work and we’re monitoring it at the moment to see how it goes.”

Another intervention has been to plant a series of coastal wildflower meadows along the shoreline. “It’s something that’s very beautiful and people have engaged very positively with that, and it’s good for pollinators too.

“There’s also an awful lot of abandoned or derelict land along the coastal strip. We’re looking at how we might be able to use that more innovatively in the future.”

Another climate change risk to Edinburgh and its shoreline comes from the fact that global sea levels will rise. That could lead to more flooding and further damage to the city’s sea defences. In turn, this will affect areas such as other infrastructure, communities, agriculture and the ability of people to live in certain places.

Nature, too, could be badly affected. Impacts of a higher sea level on coastal ecosystems may include habit contraction, loss of functionality and biodiversity and inland migration.

The effects will be worse where land has been reclaimed and where barriers prevent inland migration of marshes and limit the availability and relocation of sediment.

Along with other places, Edinburgh will also have to come to terms with the likelihood of more intense and frequent extreme sea level (ESL) events. Taken together with trends in coastal development, these are expected to increase two or threefold by the year 2100.

“We’ve had huge storms in the Forth and they destroyed some of the sea defences, with whole areas of the concrete structure washed away, so it could happen”, adds Chris Ellis.

So what can the Edinburgh Shoreline project contribute to net zero? “It can have a big effect in the future if we scale up some of the things we’ve started to work on. “Take the wildflower meadows project, for example. There is evidence that these naturalised systems can help store carbon in a way that some grassland, such as a football pitch, doesn’t.

“In terms of what we’re doing on the rocky shore, we’re looking at a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund to scale up the restoration of seagrass habitats into the Forth as well as possibly bringing back oysters – it’s been well demonstrated the reefs of these are important in seas defences because they break up the waves.”

“A lot of marine habitats also store carbon and large scale restoration can really help in this process.”

Initiatives such as the wildflower meadows will be monitored over the next few years. Chris Ellis describes them as pilot programmes but adds: “They are important as a proof of concept to convince funders that they can take the next step, meaning they can be scaled up to much bigger projects.”

By softening the shoreline, then, more space is made for nature, while at the same time creating stores for carbon and so helping the city adapt to the potential consequences of climate change. It really does seem as if everyone is a winner.

“If we can create more usable environments, where people can walk or cycle, they will rebuild cultural connections with the sea and become more attractive places to be. That’s very much part of what this is about.