Killing the city centre
What you see below is a photograph of the street that is the heart of Aberdeen’s City Centre: Union Street. For Irish readers, it is an interesting curiosity that the street was named to mark the Act of Union of 1800 that integrated Ireland into the United Kingdom; and not, as is sometimes assumed locally, the Act of Union 1707 that created the union between Scotland and England. Anyway, back to the photo.
Union Street is a fairly wide street with elegant granite buildings on either side. But it looks and feels neglected; indeed, it is neglected. In the recent past the city gave planning permission for a major shopping mall, which is about three minutes’ walk from where this photo was taken. This mall, located by the railway station, contains a number of upmarket shops and a variety of food outlets and restaurants. It has sucked the retail life out of Union Street, where a significant number of buildings now stand empty, or contain downmarket food outlets, or mobile phone shops (of which there appear to be dozens).
In addition, Union Street is (as the photo shows) a main traffic thoroughfare, and at all times of the day it is extremely busy, again affecting the pedestrian experience. At night it is used mainly by young people, often inebriated and excessively noisy, and a major nocturnal feature is the sight of men urinating against shop doorways.
Overall, Aberdeen is an elegant city, which has been spared the worst ravages of the recession. But what should be its heart – Union Street – is a disgrace. It should be pedestrianised, its buildings should be cleaned up, there should be trees and other aesthetic elements. In short, it should acquire some of the features that are now recognised worldwide as being necessary for a healthy city centre.
None of what I am saying here is new or original. It is a matter of consensus in Aberdeen that something must be done. Only, nothing is being done. It is time to act, and in recognition of this I have established an expert group in my university to work on some proposals that we will then put to the city and its stakeholders. Revitalising Aberdeen’s city centre is now urgent.