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.