Saving the city

Some readers will know that I am now a resident of Aberdeen in Scotland. I work in Robert Gordon University, and my office is right in the middle of the city, a few yards from the main thoroughfare, Union Street. Aberdeen, known as the ‘Granite City’, has many elegant buildings and some very old alleyways with cobblestones, churches and historical features. It has a long and popular city beach, within walking distance of the centre. To the west are hugely attractive residential areas with impressive houses and well kept parks. Go to the south of the city, and you can travel along the River Dee, past the second (and growing) campus of my university towards some very pretty suburbs and nearby towns, towards the old market town of Banchory. And yet…

As I write this, it is well after midnight, and shortly I shall walk back to my city centre apartment. As I do so I shall pass some deserted buildings that once housed shops that have moved to modern and very impressive shopping centres. On Union Street I shall see groups of worse-for-wear young people, some of whom will be urinating against shop fronts, while others may be busily overturning litter bins and emptying the contents on the pavement. There will be much noise, and a fairly wild atmosphere. The shops I’ll pass that are still in business are predominantly mobile phone shops and ‘pound shops’, on a street that was designed for elegance rather than economy. It now looks run down.

None of this is peculiar to Aberdeen; it is the story of our cities today. As people’s shopping habits have changed, city authorities have been at a loss as to what to do with the old city centres. Because it is visibly clear that the authorities have no special vision for these areas, the citizens haven’t seen the need to show any respect for them either.

But this isn’t good enough any more. It is not just that we should want to maintain cities that are aesthetically pleasing, we should be aware that running them down has wider effects. A neglected city centre discourages local investment, not least because it raises questions about quality of life. Social problems become more widespread, and we gnaw away at the determination to improve conditions.

Don’t get me wrong about Aberdeen. I have only been here a month, but I already feel a strong affection for it and affinity with it. There is nothing here that cannot be fixed. Indeed, the Chancellor of my university, Sir Ian Wood, has promised a substantial sum of money to renew an area of city gardens in order to regenerate the centre. It has become really important that some steps are taken, and with a degree of urgency. All over the developed world we have known for decades now that shops will tend to move to shopping centres and malls. We must not just let the areas they leave behind become dilapidated and unloved. We must restore our cities. And it can be done.

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18 Comments on “Saving the city”

  1. Vincent Says:

    If the landlords of these shops along with the rate levying body got realistic and reduced those cost for artisan shops then you could have bakers, grocers &co. How can a small local jeweler compete with a chainstore that’s leveraged up to the Wazzou. But I’ll bet you that a girl would prefer that her rock came from Charlie who set it for her talon than some company on the Dow ticker.
    Oh Gawd, I’ve been infected by wedding thoughts. Must-head-for-mountains.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    The history of cities has been the history of universities, their relationship such a close one for centuries that it is not at all implausible to argue that what happens to one is the mirror image of what happens to the other… the sense of public-ness, of loving and caring for what belongs to the collectivity and has some kind of spiritual value (besides the economic one)has been in decline for decades, the derelict state of some of our urban gardens and streets reflects the crisis, often debated in this forum, of the same idea of the university, of its true core (public) mission. Most universities have developed a global mission, which is all very well given that crossing national barriers is in academia’s DNA, still when it comes to engaging with the local urban environment universities’ contribution tends to be only through business spinouts. In Dec. 2008 The Work Foundation’s Ideopolis and Knowledge Economy
    programmes, produced a report on the changing relationship between cities and universities (
    The report’s emphasis is mostly on the economics, however the very last point refers to some cultural barriers, it reads:
    *Sixth, city and university leaders need to demonstrate the importance of overcoming
    cultural barriers that prevent joint working. One of the biggest barriers … is that different funding streams, missions of the institution and even the different language used means that, in practice, many of the individuals on whom successful relationships rely find it difficult to form sustainable relationships. Leaders need to encourage their staff to move beyond language barriers and
    scepticism about why they should work in partnership to explore where there are mutual
    benefits from working together. The more projects that demonstrate success, the more likely
    it is that cultural barriers will be challenged, that both universities and cities will benefit and
    that, ultimately, there will be economic and social benefits for the people living and working in
    the cities and regions involved.*

    Ultimately, saving the city means saving the university as well.

    • I’m not absolutely sure about your final sentence, Anna. I tend to think rather that the university needs to be active in saving the city (but you possibly meant that). I agree with you that universities needs to be connected with their local communities and to feel a sense of responsibility.

      • anna notaro Says:

        I guess I’m simply stressing the reciprocal/mutual aspect of this long-standing relationship…the university and the city can save each other by, among other things, moving beyond the ‘language barriers’ the report mentioned and working collaboratively for the benefit (economic & spiritual)of the community…

  3. Fred Says:

    I am a bit confused about Aberdeen. As you said there is a project supported from Sir Wood but there is a quite extensive coverage in press saying that too many people are against this. I am not sure who is right. But what worries me in Aberdeen is that despite the fact it has many classic building the newer ones seem not to care about Aberdeen’s tradition. A good example is the Marishal College and the city council building opposite to it.

    • Fred, Sir Ian Wood’s project will almost certainly proceed, and I suspect will begin to gather more support as designs become clear. The main objective is to create a cit centre space off Union Street that attracts people and creates a sense of civic pride.

      I agree with you completely about many (most?) of the buildings built in Aberdeen in the period between 1950 and 1980, which are serious eyesores. Not sure about Marishal College. The recent cleaning/refurbishing work has made it look rather good, if a little over-the-top…

      • Fred Says:

        Yes the Marishal is great. I saw it after the refubrishment and it looks briliant particularly on a sunny day. This is one of the best buildings surely. But the opposite building (I think is the city council’s) in not briliant at any day!

      • Simon Says:

        I fail to see how replacing a rather beautiful Victorian park (which is slightly neglected by Aberdeen City Council but far from unloved by the people of Aberdeen) by another park/garden/ will engender a sense of civic pride in Aberdeen, address the run-down state of Union Street or indeed the socio-cultural issues noted above?

        There are more suitable places for such a scheme which have already been mooted, but don’t seem to meet with Sir Ian’s approval (notably the rather dilapidated council premises opposite Marischal Colllege).

        Let’s also bear in mind that Sir Ian will in effect be a minority contributor to the overall cost of the new scheme. Why does someone only contributing a fraction of the cost seem to be able dictate the overall scope and parameters of this project?

        As you rightly pointed out, it’s the areas surrounding these gardens which need attention – not the gardens themselves. In fact, Grampian Police statistics from 2010 showed the Union Terrace Gardens is one of the safest places to be in the centre of Aberdeen. This is no doubt due in no small part to the fact that the Gardens are closed at night, thus restricting access. What happens if you have a space larger than Red Square in Moscow open to the public in the centre of Aberdeen 24 hours a day, surrounded by pubs and clubs? Personally, I wouldn’t fancy walking though it late at night…

        As well as largely ignoring the views of the people of Aberdeen, destroying the plans of Peacock Visual Arts, how will this scheme (still with no secure funding strategy) regenerate the city centre of Aberdeen? It will create yet another space (remember Sir Ian’s stipulations regarding street-level access) where ‘worse-for-wear young people’ will indulge in the antisocial activities you note above. I’d be infinitely less inclined to visit Aberdeen city centre after this scheme is completed, let alone now. It’s not going to address the rather lawless and threatening atmosphere of Aberdeen after dark. If anything, it’ll contribute to it.

        Apologies for the lengthy post!

  4. Perry Share Says:

    It is not just a matter of people’s shopping choices, but also to do with the cave-in of planners to the vast power of the supermarkets. As long as the likes of Tesco and Asda are permitted to construct vast hypermarkets with ‘free’ parking on the edges of towns and cities, the centres will die. We will hear all about the ‘new jobs’ provided by such stores (eg as in Naas) but we will hear nothing about the hundreds of jobs and businesses destroyed in inner cities and towns as a consequence. To some extent countries such as France and even Ireland have managed to limit such development to some degree, but the UK and the USA have completely ceded power to the multiples, thereby accentuating the doughnut effect that you describe.

    As to what to do now that the destruction has been wrought – that is a major problem for city authorities and planners everywhere and one that hopefully the generation currently being educated in our colleges and universities will be able to address. A tax on the ‘free’ car parking spaces provided by such supermarkets and box stores might be a good place to start, as well as tolling of the motorways and dual carriageways that the taxpayer constructs for the benefit of these retailers.

  5. Al Says:

    Berlin is a city that has got it right.
    The multiples still make money, but not at a cost of degeneration.
    It is a failure of Govt that doesnt forsee and plan for it, witness it as it happens, or steps back from the policies after the fact…

  6. anna notaro Says:

    In a previous (academic) life I had the chance to work on two research projects both dealing with histories and representations of European & American cities, there is one particular book I came across, written exactly 50 years ago, which is still relevant today to ‘save’ our cities, *The Death and Life of Great American Cities* by Jane Jacobs. Jacobs argued that urban diversity and vitality were being destroyed by powerful architects and city planners, the aim instead was for a truly ‘humanistic management’ of cities. I liked in particular what she had to say about pavements (yes, the same pavements where people now overturn litter bins and empty the contents on) and the social role of shops and shopkeepers. The Wikipedia entry sums up this point accurately:

    *As the main contact venue, pavements contribute to building trust among neighbors over time. Moreover, self-appointed public characters such as storekeepers enhance the social structure of sidewalk life by learning the news at retail and spreading it. Jacobs argues that such trust cannot be built in artificial public places… Sidewalk contact and safety, together, thwart segregation and racial discrimination.*
    Jacob’s work is still an excellent reminder that cities only survive as such if they achieve a delicate balance between their vocation as places where the economy can thrive, but also where socialization and culture flourish, the three ‘souls’ of the city, the economic, the social and the cultural *must* coexist and nourish each other, surely universities have a role to play in the process!

  7. Dan Says:

    Some years ago, I was giving some lectures in a university in the USA. One Saturday, I told my friends that I was going for a stroll “into town”, which was only 5-10 minutes walk from the campus. Despite their warnings, I wandered off and into dead, empty streets; closed or unattractive shops, litter blowing across roads with few cars – all in the town centre. It was a very strange experience, as if I had walked through a disaster movie film set. I returned home puzzled. We’ll show you, said my friends, and drove me out of town to a superb Barnes and Noble bookshop – and many others – surrounded by acres of car parks. I’ve never forgotten it. A lively university campus, in a dead town.

    • anna notaro Says:

      clearly Dan they had not read Jacobs in that lively university…

      • Dan Says:

        Indeed, maybe the city planners said, “don’t we have the university on the hill there? So that covers the social and culture; so we don’t need anymore downtown…And let’s have a massive mall outside, that can be the economic bit…!”

        • Dan Says:

          Anna, having read your Jacobs wikipedia entry above, almost certainly that’s what they did in this North Carolina college town, using the principle of “separation of uses” (residential/commercial, etc)…

  8. James Says:

    “I have only been here a month” .. But already Sir Ian has attached strings to your limbs and owns your mind. Congratulations. Another breathtakingly hopeless addition to a city hell-bent on failing its citizens.

  9. Lizzy Says:

    Dear Ferdinand, I was a member of staff last year at RGU when the CSP was first proposed. Sir Ian came to the university to promote his project and was met with huge amounts of criticism from academics from all over the university. I was unfortunately unable to attend this meeting but heard that experienced social researchers informed him that the consultation was deeply flawed and biased and representatives from the Scott Sutherland School and Gray’s expressed concern about the design proposal and the shocking treatment of the Peacock Visual Arts project which was supported by many in the city. I know of others who tried to engage with ACSEF to suggest alternative proposals and express concerns. Needless to say these criticisms and concerns from RGU academics were not taken on board and neither were the views of the majority of the public respondents who indicated that they did not want the CSP.

    It is difficult enough for a development project to have the kind of transformative impact that is being claimed by CSP proponents but if they had undertaken a genuinely participative process that involved the local population and key stakeholders from agenda setting right through to selection of the final design it would have been more likely to result in a development proposal that really meets the needs and desires of people. The proponents of the CSP are so desperate to ‘get people on board’ that they are making astonishing claims about economic, social and cultural regeneration etc and seem more keen on manufacturing consent than engaging people in the process in a meaningful way.

    Those who oppose the CSP are well aware of the problems of the city centre and do not claim that Union Terrace Gardens are perfect. However, Sir Ian Wood’s proposal does not allow for alternatives to wholescale destruction of the gardens to be considered. Democratic participation is not about convincing people to do what rich businessmen want and I hope that Aberdeen City Council stop to reconsider this plan before it is too late. While Ian Wood’s offer of money is generous, £50m could be better spent on smaller scale improvements to the city centre or on helping the vulnerable members of our society who are suffering from the cuts to local services.

    Thank you and apologies for the long post.

  10. Jonny Says:

    I beg to differ about your opinion that Sir Ian’s project certainly going ahead. The project is mired with problems as Simon has helpfully pointed out. The vast cost of the project will not help any other areas of the city centre.

    But in respect to your main point I wonder if you have seen this:

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