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, Aberdeen, July 2011

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.

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12 Comments on “Killing the city centre”

  1. Vincent Says:

    When I lived in the UK I followed consensus that the big stores were the problem that caused the destruction of the high street. But that quite simply is not so. It is the high rental costs per square foot of retail space. This requires the large out of town store for increasing the sq footage is the only tool in the box for the local authority when faced by landlords exercising the economic law of supply.
    That landlords have a death wish is amply displayed over this past ten years on both islands. But none more so than in Dublin where rents on Grafton St were seen as the mark all other rents were measured. Such that buildings that were rundown when Victoria was still having toothaches but within a linear mile from Grafton St had expectations to better Harrods. Even the county towns with a hell of a lot less that the 400K population of the CoA catchment of the Highlands&Islands had Oxford St rental demands.

  2. Fred Says:

    Now I see a swift in the artistic nature of your previous photos.
    I am afraid that the secondary roads around the union street are neglected too. This has to do with the condition of roads, the sidewalks and a lot of the buildings. Union square may used to upgrade one side of a very neglected area of the city center but the drawback that it took the retail center out of unios. As you said revitalizing the city center is necessary for this otherwise beautiful and relatively wealthy but remote city…

    • Maurice Mitchell Says:

      Aberdeen Remote?
      This is often used as an excuse for e-order firms to up their profits by adding a premium for delivery to a “remote” city.
      I have lived in Aberdeen all my life, and I don’t look at it as remote.
      As for Union Street, I agree that something must be done. As an Aberdonian, I feel ashamed at the sate of our main street.

      • Fred Says:

        “Remote” for a tourist or similar that may do or do not take the 3h train from Edinburgh (as an example)…at least I have hear many times this “excuse”.

  3. upmg Says:

    You have made some very perceptive observations Ferdinand, with the benefit of fresh eyes. The decline of Union street seems to be progressive with each new shopping centre that opens. It began when the Bon Accord Centre opened and a number of high profile shops moved from the high street to it; and has continued with Union Square having as bad an impact. I have spoken to shop keepers on Union street and been told that the ‘rates’ are very high – ‘oil boom town prices’ and not realistic or affordable in the current economic climate. You only have to raise your eyes above street level to see how many properties are ‘To Let’ or for ‘For Sale’; it is definitely as you say a high profile problem that needs to be addressed.

  4. antoin Says:

    Who owns the property?

  5. Chris Yuill Says:

    Aberdeen is perpetually the city that is never quite what it should be! All the elements are there to make it at least the Brighton of the North, a city that is cool, edgy. creative and comfortable with its identity.

    High streets need to recapture a sense of the ancient Greek ‘agora’, a place to assemble and to create civic life. Anyway, here’s a link to a small article I did on the high street published in Sociological Research Online (Aberdeen gets a visual mention!):

    It outlines some points that I pick up in an interview for the ITV Tonight show to be broadcast sometime soon in 2011.


  6. Coming to this conversation late, I’m interested in the ‘expert group.’ RGU has a number of schools and faculties as well as institutes which could speak to this issue including architecture and planning, the business school as well as Gray’s School of Art with both design and fine art. Who’s on this panel? How do they interface with other stakeholders? It’s important that this is self-initiated, an act of leadership, but what can be done? Perhaps the University could demonstrate its experimental and practical approach to research through taking the city centre as a lab for any discipline to offer up insights – whether sociology or fine art, architecture or business?

  7. Chris Yuill Says:

    Splendid idea there Chris. In Applied Social Sciences we regulalry have students researching Aberdeen city centere for their fourth-year dissertations. They mainly focus on Belmont Street and the cultural dimensions of urban space. One interesting theme taht emerges from their research is the lack of a distinctive and unique urban culture in Aberdeen. Where are the independent shops? The vibrant local scene from which bands then launch onto the national stage? And so on… But yes Chris an expert panel to bring togther RGU’s unique talents would be a an interesting development.

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