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.