Friday, 30 July 2010

Mounthooly Urban Country Park

"The largest urban roundabout in Europe!" Or so they used to say, puffed-up proud with no hint of irony. It's probably not true any more. It's probably the second-largest urban roundabout in Europe.

How road-users see Mounthooly

Now, just to clear this up and get it out of the way: "Mounthooly" is not a corruption of the words "Holy Mount" or anything like that. That's just a lazy assumption on the part of people who can't be bothered looking into the etymology of Scottish place-names. (qv Apardion).

From John Milne, M.A., LL.D.
Celtic Place-names in Aberdeenshire

Monthooly, Mounthooly, Monthillie. Both parts of these names mean hill.
Monadh, hill;
choille, coille asp., hill.
Several places in the county of Aberdeen have this name. In the city it is given to the part of the road to Old Aberdeen between Gallowgate and Canal Street

So, there you go; it's just a bit of tautology. Like the modern "daily journal", "new innovation" or "business entrepreneur" - "Mounthooly" says the same thing twice - "Hilly hill".

Right, having dealt with that, we can move onto the subtance...

Mounthooly was, within living memory, a road through a community of mixed use buildings. Shops and houses and factories and schools and churches and civic stuff and industry all bustled along together. We can probably correctly assume (as this is how human beings live when left to their own devices) that daily life proceeded against the background of this normal and usual built environment since the days of antiquity.

Bartholomew's 1912 Atlas

That arcadia is two generations gone now, swept away by post-war slum clearances and socialist optimism - all done before our time, so we cannot honestly lament it. In any case, why should we lament it? Surely that past belongs in the past, along with rickets and yellow fever, conscription and consumption, right-less unpaid housewife-mothers and strict class boundaries. A brutal past without opportunities and without freedom - we're glad we didn't live through it.

So, what have we got now at Mounthooly? Well, it's quite a large bit of greenery, right in the centre of our city. Indeed, and surely with a hint of irony, Aberdeen City Council have designated it as sacrosanct "Urban Green Space". There's not much of that in the city centre, Union Terrace Gardens is threatened with comprehensive redevelopment, and St Nicholas churchyard is subject to arbitrary access restrictions and is not public land. Mounthooly suffers no such strictures - it's ours, all ours to enjoy whenever we want to.

How ACC sees Mounthooly

But how is it possible to enjoy a roundabout? Firstly, we need to look at it through new eyes (or rather, retro-modern eyes). The idealistic planners' eyes of the post war comprehensive redevelopment frenzy. Those planners saw a rational (rather than what we would today call market-led) approach to planning and the built environment, and with the best of intentions set about creating the utopia which they thought was within their grasp.

Secondly, if we actually take the time to physically use the space which was created at Mounthooly (we don't mean by driving round it!), we can catch a glimpse of that modern vision out of the corners of our eyes.

How modernists see Mounthooly

Clean, salubrious apartments in the sky, surrounded by spacious parkland where we can enjoy our extensive leisure-time: "À nous la liberté". Motor-traffic is segregated away from people, who are free to enjoy the greenery and wildlife in peace. Sustrans National Cycle Network Route 1 transects the roundabout, providing traffic-free access for cyclists between the city centre and Old Aberdeen.

How cyclists see Mounthooly

Over the last couple of years, ACC have adopted an enlightened "rough cutting" policy for the grass on the roundabout, allowing native wild plants to flourish naturally and encouraging the development of a wildlife corridor with a selection of wild flowers, birds, insects and small mammals. 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. We like this kind of benign neglect.

How wildlife sees Mounthooly

The largest barrier to the uptake of Mounthooly as a place for leisure and recreation is the pedestrian and cycle access, which is only via that urban-horror, the underpass. No-one likes using underpasses. Crime may be falling quickly, but the fear of crime is not. We would greatly prefer to see overpass and Toucan-crossing level access to Mounthooly. This enhanced access would greatly improve the livability of the north end of the city centre by contributing to the permeability of the transport network for cyclists and pedestrians.

Oddly, the only people who we hear complaining about Mounthooly do so from the narrow viewpoint allowed from behind the wheel of their cars. Tied to a chair in a hot locked iron box, they see Mounthooly only as a barrier to their importantly swift trans-urban progress. We always suggest that they should slow down a bit, get out of their metal box and actually start taking part in the life of the city. Will they? Or will they continue to see the city only as its roads, its shopping destinations and their workplaces? At Other Aberdeen we know the city to be much, much more than that.


Michelle Wyllie said...

The only way I can see to access Mounthooly if you're a pedestrian is a dodgy subway off Gerrard Street although I've seen people risk their necks by crossing the road. How they do it, I don't know. Not sure how much peace and quiet there is in the middle of the road but then again I haven't been there.

Anonymous said...

The striking thing about the Mounthooly area is that it's permanently deserted, devoid of humanity, nobody going about day or night, even though lots of people must live thereabouts in the huge blocks of flats. The other odd thing is the complete absence of pubs, shops, takeaways & chippers the entire length of the Gallowgate, making this a seriously dark & depressing street to walk along at night. Photographs of Mounthooly and the Gallowgate from as recently as the 1960s depict lots of people going about, shoppies, business premises and, presumably, employment. All gorn now. Another triumph for the planners!

Other Aberdeen said...

Sadly, the same lack of local amenities is true of most neighbourhoods these days, not just those which have been subject to comprehensive redevelopment. We think that this effect is more due to the vagaries of the free market than planning blight. We'll be covering this in more detail soon.

Anonymous said...

it is a fascinating place, albiet a bit dodgy on the access side. My heart always beats a little faster when I'm plunging into the underpass, avoiding the giant puddles that collect at the deepest point. The number of rabbits there on the hill this spring was amazing. It should be possible to organise some sort of events there, maybe a street/park fair, some music, get people using the space again, or is that too middle class and optimistic?

Keith Minto said...

Came across this site doing ancestor research, seems they lived at Mounthooly around 1690,minus the pleasure of the roundabout,I guess. We have one in Canberra, City Hill,just as inaccessible(except for birds),_Canberra