Keeping the city alive

As most readers of this blog know, I am now a resident of Aberdeen in Scotland. I have been here now for just over a year, and have grown to like the city and the region a lot. Aberdeen is the oil capital of Europe; the oil and gas industry have protected it from the recession, and it is prosperous and thriving. It is also an interesting place, with almost all buildings made of granite, which creates an unusual effect.

At the heart of the city, as I have mentioned previously, is Union Street. This is, as the name suggests, a street, but it is much more than that. First, it is very long, approximately one mile. Secondly, it is really a viaduct, because it runs across hills and is built on granite supports over the valleys – though this is not visible to the casual driver or pedestrian. It was completed early in the 19th century, and named in honour of the Act of Union with Ireland. It became the main shopping thoroughfare, with elegant shops and department stores.

From the later 20th century, however, Union Street was gradually destroyed. The construction of a number of major shopping centres sucked commercial enterprises out of the street, and the buildings they left empty either remained so, or were filled with discount shops or a narrow range of retail outlets, typically mobile phone shops. Here is a view not untypical of the street.

An equally typical view is as below, with closed buildings that look neglected.

If you look closely at the pavement in the photo above, you will also notice the remains of the chewing gum that people spit out – though in fairness, that’s a feature of most cities apart from Singapore.

Even those shops still in business seem to be infected by the general lack of respect for their environment, as seen below.

And even where some grand buildings survive and indeed thrive, as in the case of the Music Hall below, you may find that right next to them is some neglected building or a monstrosity that should never have been built.

So what’s to be done? Is Aberdeen’s Union Street doomed? One can only hope that it is not. It is the heart of the city, and right now it is a disgrace. But steps could be taken that will improve it and secure its future. It needs to be pedestrianised, or at any rate some of the traffic needs to be taken out; it needs plants and trees; it needs more attractive street lighting; and it needs active management of the properties and their use.

Over the next years Aberdeen’s city centre will be the subject of significant attention as the City Garden project gets under way (which, while controversial, was supported by a majority of the city’s residents in a recent referendum; but I won’t get into that here). I can only hope that this will also prompt the city to do something serious about Union Street. The time to do it is now.

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7 Comments on “Keeping the city alive”

  1. Vince Says:

    I’ve been worrying on that very subject albeit for the cities of Kilkenny, Waterford and the town of Clonmel. They look exactly the same as Union St.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that active planning is required, and has been required for the last sixty years. Since the war really.
    At the core of this issue are a few common things. Rents are set too high. Floor space is restricted and there is no requirement beyond the paying over of the Rate to the town.
    The solving of this would be quite simple, the town could demand that no building within the ratable area can be empty for longer than two months.
    The question is can this be done in Law for it would impinge drastically on property rights. I believe it can by using the Rate imaginatively and since it is long established the Rate can be levied the legal issue is re, Rights is non-existent.
    The Rate could be set such that an empty building would begin to cost and not as now be neutral and in some cases gain while being in that condition.


    • Vincent, you are certainly right about the role that owners/landlords of city centre properties play. It would be interesting to see if this could be handled in the way you suggest.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    In May last year, Mary Portas was challenged by the Prime Minister to undertake an independent review on the Future of the High Street, a summary of her recommendations are available here
    http://www.maryportas.com/news/2011/12/12/my-28-recommendations/
    Some make perfect sense, pity there is no mention of pedestrianization, something retailers everywhere are not too keen on, to put it mildly.
    It would be interesting to understand why some shops are doing better than others on current high streets, mobile phones ones, as you say, or Ann Summers (which features prominently in your pic) mobile communication and lingerie, there must be a link :-)

    • Don Says:

      No wonder high streets like Union St in Aberdeen is closing up shop when it allows men in blue tops, red shorts and runners to walk along it looking for an Ann Summers shop (he’s nearly there…)

  3. Paragraph Film Reviews Says:

    Good effort, most Aberdeonians don’t even know Union St is raised! The place has fairly gone downhill in the past few years, sign of the economy, and I guess the big shift from shopping on the street to shopping in the centres (Union Sq / Trinity / Bon Accord…)

    Like those centres, I think they’d do well to recuce the rent and get new – local – businesses in and filling up the spaces.

  4. Regina Says:

    I’m intrigued by the City Garden Project mentioned above and whether any urban planning blog readers have observations to make. The images are highly imaginative and seem to suggest an ideal multifunctional use of urban space. Would it really work though? I can’t help picturing it as a scutch grass mound, strewn with beer cans in a few years time, with an emporium of stalactite-like mold and graffiti flourishing underneath. Tell me I’m wrong…!


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