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.