Posted tagged ‘Union Street’

Keeping the city alive

March 26, 2012

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.

Killing the city centre

August 3, 2011

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.