Monday, 26 July 2010

Blight, Neglect (Benign or Otherwise), Decline

As we walk through our city, it becomes clear that we are living through a time of flux, of change. In the built environment this manifests itself as a dynamic tension between shiny new-build developments on the one hand and blighted, declining buildings and areas on the other.

It's clear to us that a lot of the decline we see around Aberdeen is part of the private-sector bust, not just council bankruptcy or intransigence. We're equivocal about what we feel about this...

Being aware that possibilities are generated on the edge of things, at the border between something and nothing, in the interface of new and old and in the no-man's land between the past and the future, we are thrilled by this dynamic tension and its potential. A creative current flows between these areas and in the metaphorical conversation between them; if only we can calibrate our eyes to see the current's arcing like lightning discharges - if only we can tune our ears to the murmuringly quiet whispers - then we can feel the city shifting beneath our feet as it finds its new 21st century identity. Opposing forces out of balance produce motion.

Union Plaza

A lot of the recent developments in Aberdeen seem over-confidently out of scale in the current business environment. Developments for which, of course, the funding was in place and business plans written before the onset of market crunch and public austerity.

Public austerity is something which we can expect to see more and more of in Aberdeen. Our council's funding difficulties are structural and a legacy of the imposition of unitary authorities by central government. We understand that Aberdeenshire Council's legacy from Grampian Regional Council was a funding surplus, whereas Aberdeen City Council's inheritance was a budget in permanent deficit - a deficit now compounded and exacerbated by the banking-sector provoked recession and public sector tightening which is its outcome.

Sometimes, like the city-wilderness verge in the photo below, this neglect can turn out to be benign and beneficial. The topsoil benefits from the absence of herbicides and increased biomass mulching, watercourses and drainage channels benefit from improved water retention in-situ and biodiversity obviously benefits. C'mon the bees! And it looks really good. Other folk see nothing but 'weeds' and are outraged.

The pink rosebay willow herb combines with the yellow ragwort to give a
very distinctive colour scheme in mid to late summer Aberdeen.
(With thanks to Mike Shepherd for photo and words)

Other examples of benign neglect can be found all over Aberdeen as domestic outbuildings are 'retired', no longer required for the storage of solid fuel, no longer needed to house boilers and sinks and mangles for the wash. We find that results of this benign neglect (if properly stewarded) can be beautifully picturesque.

Blight is something else again, and is seldom caused by direct neglect. Rather - blight is usually provoked by development elsewhere or nearby, for instance, the new office development on Justice Mill Lane runs the risk of blighting Bon Accord Crescent and Square.

Just as the recent Union Plaza development provoked vacancy on Union Street, we are concerned that vacancies will proliferate in the business district around Bon Accord Square as offices move into the 'IQ'. This shiny new-build is the largest office development built in Scotland since the RBS HQ outside Edinburgh and no doubt offers the best and most fit-for-purpose state-of-the-art office facilities. Though we've no idea what that actually means. Same applies at the 'City Wharf' development on Shiprow.

Union St, blighted between Union Row and Huntly St.

Vacancy is the greatest risk to the structural integrity of buildings, as no occupant is present to have an interest in keeping the building weatherproof. In time, and nature's changing course untrimmed, the fabric of the building is breached and the structure is compromised. Demolition and comprehensive redevelopment are the inevitable consequence.

We'd never ever ever suggest that property developers would ever find it in their interest to allow decline of a building to progress to such an extent that comprehensive redevelopment were necessary. That could never happen. Particularly not in a conservation area.

See comments section below for correction of our understanding on council funding.


Julie said...

'We'd never ever ever suggest that property developers would ever find it in their interest to allow decline of a building to progress to such an extent that comprehensive redevelopment were necessary. That could never happen. Particularly not in a conservation area.'

*guffaw of disbelief*

Debra Storr said...

Both Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire are funded about 12% less than the Scottish average per head of population.
But great articles!

Other Aberdeen said...

Thanks for that, Debra. We're always happy to be corrected on matters of fact. Thanks for the input, article now amended to include an erratum.
Other Aberdeen.

Richard said...

An excellent and thought-provoking entry (as usual).

It is ironic that the new Union Plaza building illustrated above is already showing signs of external neglect and decay - even before it is fully let.

The decline in the exterior condition of the upper floors of the buildings on Union Street is very worrying as it can only be a matter of time before some suffer more than cosmetic damage.

With the exodus of retail and office premises from Union Street, spurred on by speculative developments, is a return to residential use what we may see in the future? (assuming the buildings survive that long).

Anonymous said...

Quite interesting, so basically if the buildings on union st continue to be unoccupied they are going to be completely unusable and useless to future businesses?

Sorry something I've an interest in but have never really been able to find information on...


Other Aberdeen said...

LM - no need to apologise! Its a good question which illustrates an important point.

If a building is left empty (or occupied but neglected) for a long period, its fabric can indeed decay to the point at which it becomes useless or worse, dangerous. In order for it to function, comprehensive redevelopment can be the only option. Similarly, buildings which were once state of the art can fall out of spec and become unoccupiable in their current state.

For example Marischal College is to be occupied by the admin offices of Aberdeen City Council. But the fabric, services and spaces within the building were not up to the job, and so it has been demolished and comprehensively redeveloped, with only the reconditioned facades remaining to remind us of the 19th/20th century building (façadism). When the council occupy it, it will be a state of the art 21st century building on the inside.

So, yes it is indeed worth worrying about the state of some Union Street buildings. But don't worry too much, comprehensive redevelopment and facadism will be the route by which these buildings will find new uses when (if?) the next economic cycle booms and the necessary capital to achieve this redevelopment becomes available.