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Concrete Designs to Thrive  >  5 Designs on Prescription

Walk by Design - 5 Designs on Prescription

HEAL - Part 5 of CONCRETE Designs to Thrive 2021


A Walk and Talk with Ruthanne Baxter, Museums Services Manager University of Edinburgh and lead of their Prescribe Culture project.

Places and spaces for Health and Well-Being

12 June 2021 
from the Scottish Poetry Library to Dunbar's Close 

Ruthanne Baxter, University of Edinburgh


Starting alongside the Scottish Poetry Library, Ruthanne describes this social prescribing initiative, a heritage-based non-clinical support service, offering visits to culture hubs throughout Edinburgh.


Walking across a busy High Street at the Canongate, the pair discuss research into student welfare, concluding their discussion outside one of Patrick Geddes’ conserved garden spaces, the hidden gem called Dunbar’s Close.


This encounter introduces Concrete Designs to Thrive, a programme from Journeys in Design exploring the contemporary design of places and spaces for living well. The design legacy of Sir Patrick Geddes runs throughout this programme. The encounter also introduces the theme of HEAL with its exploration of Health and Well-Being Centres.

Here you can watch the full video, and you can read the full text adapted from the transcript of the conversation below.

Introduction: Welcome to Concrete Walks by Design 5 - "Heal"

John Ennis: Welcome to the fifth of our seven encounters in our Concrete Walks By Design in central Edinburgh. My name is John Ennis, curator producer at Journeys in Design.

This is in fact the eighth of our Walks By Design series, which you can check out on our website. We've walked a variety of 90-minute loops in Scotland's urban environments. 

Journeys in Design has had sustainability and well-being at its core since its inception at our at Gayfield Creative Spaces off Leith Walk in central Edinburgh. We are now unhooking from place and traveling around the country and beyond.

You join us here tonight outside the Scottish Poetry Library. It's rather fine building and an important one for us tonight. On our walks we've tried to co-design them with local walking enthusiasts and we've been joined with some wonderful experts. Tonight it gives me great pleasure to be talking to Ruthanne Baxter of the University of Edinburgh museums.

The Scottish Poetry Library is the best resource in the world for Scottish poetry, and it is close to both our hearts. The building was designed and built in 1999 by Malcolm Fraser Architects. It then went through something of a controversial revision in 2014 and sadly we lost a pavement sculpture, 'By Leaves We Live'. Now anyone who's been tuning into the series will know that that's resonant of Patrick Geddes - it's  one of his quotes. So it's rather lovely that the Scottish Poetry Library have kept that as their twitter handle.

We've been celebrating a variety of things about Patrick Geddes and we got a lovely chance to speak to Fran Baseby, a colleague of yours, at the University library designed by Basil Spence, that holds the archive of Patrick Geddes. Would you like to tell us a little bit about your role with the universities of Edinburgh? Particularly that wonderful HQ that you get to call your work home, St Cecilia's Hall.

Ruthanne Baxter: I'm the museum services manager at the University of Edinburgh and within that I have the absolute privilege and joy of looking after three different cultural venues. One of which just up the road from here St Cecilia's Hall, Scotland's oldest concert hall. And in there we also now have a fraction of the university's musical instrument collection.

John: It's a beautiful visit! I've been looking to get in there and you have some lovely events which celebrate that fantastic musical history. The oldest concert hall! I mean it's wonderful to have that as part of the heritage offering here.

Ruthanne: Yeah. It's Georgian building so it was opened in 1763. As well as St Cecilia's Hall we have the library which you visited earlier in the series, we have an exhibition gallery and then we also have the anatomical museum over behind McEwan Hall.


Prescribe Culture, social prescribing and mental health


John: Fantastic. So we're here tonight with a theme, 'heal'. I've chosen this wonderful venue known to us both because it's part of an initiative that I know that you've worked hard to develop for the student body at the University of Edinburgh. All about well-being through engagement with culture.

It's called Prescribe Culture. As you know I used to be a GP so I know first hand what it's like to offer what's commonly termed social prescribing. I was often referring patients to the wonderful Art Link in Edinburgh. For folk who would find it difficult to engage with museums and galleries solo, Art Link offer a befriending service to take people for that bit of cultural engagement. It was very striking how real the benefits of that experience were for people.

So it's been a joy to to be part of the initial bit of steering and for this for this Prescribe Culture event. Would you like to give us a little bit more detail about that?

Ruthanne: Prescribe Culture is a heritage-based non-clinical support which was originally started for students at the University of Edinburgh. Social prescribing as you know is about helping people find something that matters to them in life. So it's very useful for people who are maybe having some issues with anxiety or depression or any sort of impact from a sense of loneliness.

I think people find it very odd that university students can be lonely but they really can

I think people find it very odd that university students can be lonely but they really can. So we just sort of brought social prescribing to the university population through our heritage collections. And we really just use them as a foundation to bring like-minded people together and they then just make their own connections to the world around them.

John: It's an absolutely wonderful initiative and I know directly that a lot of students have found it incredibly helpful. Now we're in front of the Scottish Poetry Library. Do you want to say a little bit about how the wonderful people here have engaged with Prescribe Culture?

Ruthanne: One of the programs that's available is program six. It is essentially 90 minutes, for six weeks in a row.The Scottish Poetry Library were very kindly one of the cultural partners in the city.

John: So cultural partners. You've been linking in with different heritage and culture hubs throughout the city and offering students an opportunity to visit with a program.

Ruthanne: Yes. So the students will spend a little bit of time looking at some of the collection. In this case beautiful Scottish poetry collections. Then they have that very important 10-15 minutes of social tea and coffee. Then they will do a hands-on activity afterwards but it is inspired by what they have seen in the collection or the site.

Other partners include the Botanic Gardens, St Giles Cathedral, the National Library, the National Galleries, and the National Museums are all in there. And obviously the university's own museums and galleries as well.

John: We've got a particularly rich offering in this city. As we take Concrete Designs To Thrive to the seven cities across Scotland we'll be looking for those opportunities as well.

One of the wonderful things about being here is that this way we have Salisbury Crags (which we spotted from St John Street when we were outside Charteris land looking at art in the urban landscape). And we are approaching a wonderful garden. I think that tells something of the well-being that's associated with just looking and engaging with our natural landscape in any city. And also the built environment and that's very key to what Concrete Designs To Thrive (Places And Spaces For Living Well) will be about.

Now, not to reduce it to biography, but I did encounter depression for the first time in my life when I was a student. It's not an uncommon problem for all the reasons one might think. I remember the head of the sports department in what was then called Fresher's Week standing up and saying, 'you developed the habits of your life in those first few years at university'. I held on to that but I was rubbish at sports. However, I wasn't disengaged with heritage and culture. in fact one of the reasons I came to Edinburgh was the rich culture that was here.

We've come up from the Crichton's Close where the the Scottish Poetry Library is, and we now cross the Canongate. That gives me an opportunity to talk about the naming of this incredible stretch of Edinburgh called the Royal Mile.

There is Castlehill at the top, where we saw the Outlook Tower. The Lawnmarket, the old market bits near the castle. The High Street with the cathedral. This bit, the Canongate. And right down to Holyrood.

How did Lockdown affect University Students?

John: You've done some very interesting research about the effects of lockdown on the well-being of students. Should we talk a little about that?

Ruthanne: Yes, there was a big piece of research done over the past year looking at how the physical closure of university campuses impacted on the students well-being. Many students, even senior students, went back home. So they may have had lots of other duties such as caring for siblings, because parents are working from home and there were siblings to be looked after. Many of the young students were sent out to do shopping for neighbours etc. So there were a lot of extra asks on them in addition to their studying. And the whole fear of Covid, and the disruption. So there were a lot of additional worries in their minds. Conversely, a small percentage of students thrived so, you know, different things for different people.

John: I think that's really interesting that we all develop different coping mechanisms as we encounter different things in life. Sometimes it's useful to not jump in too quickly, and let communities and individuals develop their coping mechanisms too.


We've got a new batch of students arriving soon. What's in store for those who have found it more tough, in terms of Prescribe Culture?

Ruthanne: Well first off, during Welcome Week we are welcome week (which is now a welcome month actually) we have a social prescribing fair, which hopefully you will be a part of. We will get them out walking and introduce them to the various cultural outlets that are in the city. The various book clubs, the theatres and places where they can engage in their leisure time. And also things like Park Run. We'll be making them aware where these are because those are free and they also have a social aspect to them as well as the physical well-being.

We're also hoping to get some of our online events that have been happening back into the real world, with people in person on site.

John: Fantastic. These are available for anyone to tune into on the University of Edinburgh site under Prescribe Culture, and I recommend folk do that. I'm excited about helping out when it comes to this.

That head of sports who stood up and spoke to me and left me thinking, okay what habits am I going to develop? We've got a head of culture in your good self who's helping to offer an alternative and it's very welcome.

Speaking of lockdown we're actually locked out! We've come across the Canongate to Dunbar's Close Garden. One of the special legacies of Patrick Geddes was his conservative surgery of the slum which was the Old Town in late 19th century Edinburgh. This is one of the areas that was cleared to create a small garden and it's a very beautiful little oasis. Remodelled in 1979 in the manner of a 17th century garden as it would have been. We can't get in this evening, but ahead of tomorrow evening we'll offer you some glimpses of Dunbar's Close through stills and and movie footage.


Thanks for joining us this evening Ruthanne. Thanks so much for spending time talking to us. It's wonderful to hear more about your work.

Please join us tomorrow evening when we'll be looking at the notion of Play in the urban landscape.

Next Video: PLAY, an exploration of Pavilions and Parklands >

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