Garden city blues

This post comes to you from Ireland, but over the past 24 hours I have been rather focusing on the news from Aberdeen, where I now live and work. For those not familiar with current issues in the Granite City, a major controversy has been raging there over the future of the city centre’s Union Terrace Gardens. This is actually a small sunken park, just off the main thoroughfare, Union Street. For the past while proposals have been debated for a major regeneration plan for the park and its surrounding area, known as the City Garden Project. The intention has been to create a new urban park with leisure and performing arts elements. Major local businessman Sir Ian Wood pledged a substantial sum of money that would cover a significant proportion of the costs. A public process selected a particular design, and this was then put to the citizens of Aberdeen in a referendum earlier this year; the proposal was adopted.

However, all of this was also the subject of major battles between various interest groups: between the Scottish National Party (and Conservatives and some Liberal Democrats) on the one hand, who supported the proposal; and Labour (and independents and other Lib Dems), who opposed it. Amongst the wider population there were groups campaigning for the regeneration project, and others strongly opposing it and calling for the present park to be maintained. There were businesspeople supporting the plans, and some community groups opposing it. There were media campaigns, public meetings, arguments, insults. In fact, I have never seen a local initiative that has caused so much (to my mind) needless and silly hostility and aggression.

So, cards on the table. I was and am a strong supporter of the redevelopment plans. They make sense to me, they enjoy funding support, they meet the urgent need for an iconic project that will stop the decay of Aberdeen’s city centre, and they were supported by the people in a referendum. But then, I meet some people who believe this plan will rip out the traditional heart of the city, and create a major financial problem for future generations. And I know that, whatever was to be decided, we would all need to live and work together for the future of Aberdeen.

Well, it has now been decided, in the sense that Aberdeen City Council – having previously adopted the proposals under an SNP-led administration before the local elections – has now under a Labour-led administration abandoned the plan by a vote of councillors taken yesterday. So, it seems the project is now dead. I genuinely regret that, but more importantly I fear the decision will be interpreted outside Aberdeen as indicating a lack of local ambition and drive. I accept that we must all now work together to make the best of this situation, and I would hope that the more aggressive or hostile statements (on whatever side) will stop. And I strongly hope that the Council, having taken its decision, will quickly present an ambitious and realistic alternative plan for the large-scale regeneration of Aberdeen city centre. I shall certainly seek to ensure that my university plays an active role in this.

Indeed, RGU will shortly present its own outlook on the future of the city centre. Watch this space.

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8 Comments on “Garden city blues”

  1. Vince Says:

    Sorry fella, but this thing is ill conceived. Landscape design has one goal more than any other and that’s to give real feeling of safety to people. This is achieved with openness and space primarily. So you flatten angles and round off corners. You do not create nooks for any reason. And you certainly don’t build gantries so things can be lobbed onto people.
    You need to think how people do things in public. They want space between each other.
    Why is the 17 century garden design still so successful. Well it’s really quite simple. The house and it’s landscape were built for defense. Places like Carton or Chatsworth were army installations. They were designed with funneling in mind. So when you’ve a lovely visa. Basically what you’ve got is a clear field of fire from the house. Nowadays, there are trees up near the buildings. But all are Victorian.
    Anyhoos, If the city wants a whatever is was, and are using the Louvre as the template. It might be as well to remember that the surface part of the extension into that garden is in glass, and narrowing to an apex as is the way of pyramids, so reducing it’s visual impact.
    A far better idea would have been to build a dome at one end, then cover it in soil leaving an glassed opening into a hill. This thing, lovely as it in plan will be little more than a haunt for crime.

  2. Rodney Says:

    I was always surprised that a sizeable and wealthy city like Aberdeen seems to have no modern landmark buildings to represent it. Not that it has to look like Dallas or Doha, but where has the oil money gone? There’s really nothing to suggest that this is a modern, confident, prosperous place. Perhaps it’s a product of Aberdonian thrift, or (less charitably) a timorous provincialism – it still has the look of an overgrown fishing town, which is a pity.

    Having said that, the UTG project didn’t impress me. The alternative plans which were not put before the voters seemed better to me. The one which has just been rejected looked as if it would feature a lot of gray concrete, and since Aberdeen seems to have gone direct from gray granite to gray concrete with no intervening period of brick, to say nothing of glass or steel, even more gray would hardly make the place look better, especially after a few years of rain and civic neglect. The oppressive grayness really does take from the city. (I’ve been on the RGU campus at Garthdee and it’s much more pleasant on the eyes).

    I quite like the current Gardens – an odd little space, but pleasant enough in the summer. Aberdeen deserves better, and better than what was on offer.

    • Paul Martin Says:

      “landmark”(s) – the longest bus station in the world – aka Union Street; Marischal College (next to Starbucks east Aberdeen); Union Square shopping centre (Starbucks one end Costa the other); not to mention the beach, nearby countryside and UTG which is people-full (esp at coffee time) when the sun shines.

      Indeed this whole debate has been a commercial stunt by that other great Aberdonian institution – the Press & Journal

      • Rodney Says:

        I did say “modern landmarks” – Marischal College is extraordinary, but it’s not exactly modern (despite the recent cleanup). And it’s very very gray.

  3. Duncan Says:

    The root of the problem was that the existing Union Terrace Gardens just wasn’t bad enough to justify the risk. If the objective had been the wholesale civic-oriented redevelopment of the dreadful concrete jungle bounded by Marischal College and St Nichols Kirk, that might have approached consensus.

  4. Sue Says:

    Once again someone in favour of the city Garden project plays down the significant financial risk the project would have presented to the citizens of Aberdeen. 90 million pounds of borrowing is not something to be entered into lightly and the Council got independent economic advice that the financial benefits to the City were exaggerated and in no way justified the risk of borrowing such a large amount of money.
    It is also significant that other Business Leaders in Aberdeen only offered to put their hands in their pockets at the last minute when it looked like it wouldn’t go ahead.
    Once the dust has settled, lets see what plans the Council comes up with to regenerate the city centre, we may find that they are plans that we all can live with.

    With regard to the Oil money and what happened to it. Firstly, most of it disappeared into the coffers of Grampian Regional Council and was dissipated throughout the whole of the region. Then in 1995 when the new single tier authority came in the Tories made the rule that the Business rates would go into a single Scottish coffer and it is a proven fact that Aberdeen businesses put more into this coffer than Aberdeen gets back out again. The shortfall represents millions of pounds each year.


    • I suspect we all need to try to work together now for the future, but just for the record: it was hardly independent advice, since the person giving it was on record as opposing the scheme. Also, the only plan that will subject the citizens of Aberdeen to no financial risk is to do nothing. The Council is now committed, as a result of the vote, to a plan that is not costed and for which no funds have been identified; that seems to me to represent a much greater risk, or else the prospect of inaction.

      That said, I am interested in securing visible progress for Aberdeen, and I know that throwing insults at each other won’t achieve that. So RGU will be a very constructive participant in helping to find a way forward.

  5. Barry Says:

    Farcical narrow-minded and wrong…

    The business case for the £140m City Garden Project rejection at the full council meeting on Wednesday is nothing short of farcical, narrow-minded and wrong…

    Despite winning the majority of public support in a referendum, councillors voted 22-20 against the project.

    I have to ask “how can this happen”?

    Instead they support a proposal from the Independent Alliance Group, led by councillor Marie Boulton, to use the money to regenerate Union Street, the Arts Centre, the Music Hall, the Lemon Tree and the Mither Kirk.

    All good in principal but the council will now have to consult with Scottish Futures Trust on whether they will accept a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) bid based on not proceeding with the City Gardens Project.

    Businessman Sir Ian Wood had committed £50m towards the scheme to redevelop Union Terrace Gardens, while an anonymous £5m pledge had also been made and group of seven north-east businessman, including Stewart Milne and Aberdeen Asset Management chief executive Martin Gilbert, had vowed to raise another £15m towards the project.

    The remaining cost was to be covered by the £92m TIF loan. This would have not only will developed the city gardens but also have been used to fund the redevelopment of St Nicholas House, Aberdeen Art Gallery and the North Denburn Valley as well as creating the City Circle pedestrian route project.

    The business report said the TIF business case had the potential to unlock 6560 full-time jobs and an average of £115.1m per annum of economic growth over 25 years.

    More than 85,000 people voted in a public referendum on the contentious project in March with 52% voting in favor of the project.

    More reason for not understanding the outcome of the council meeting!!!!!

    “I think two aspects of this are deeply disappointing”.

    1)The referendum vote in Aberdeen in favour of this project.
    Once you put a matter out to the people you should accept the result and I really think councillors who voted against the popular will in the referendum really should hang their heads in shame actually for ignoring the popular will.

    2)The Principle.
    Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland as a community has been so successful because it has always grasped the future, it has seen the opportunity, and this was the most amazing opportunity for a revitalisation of Aberdeen city centre. It was a great development, it was going to attract massive support from benefactor Sir Ian Wood and keep business interests in the north-east of Scotland.

    “What an opportunity to miss”
    Communities around Scotland would be giving their eye teeth for such an opportunity and for the Labour party it seems pretty petty political purposes to turn against it. It seems a very bad decision looking at the long term interests of the people of Aberdeen and the people of Scotland.

    The city had a “great future” and who knows maybe some of these opportunities may come back in the future.


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