Thursday, 4 November 2010

An Apple of Gold in a Basket of Silver

Recently, there's been a lot of controversy about the proposed redevelopment of Union Terrace Gardens in the centre of Aberdeen.

As far as we can see, the 'City Square Project' is (was?) a speculative real-estate development proposal which would transform the garden in the city centre into an underground car-park and label its roof a 'civic square'. This reminded us of Aberdeen's Golden Square. Which now has it's own website. Yay!
(Maybe they'll get some content sorted out before the registration lapses next year.)

Golden Square in the 1867 Ordnance Survey 
Golden Square today
Yes (in common with what is proposed for Union Terrace by the boosters of the City Square Project) Golden Square was once characterised by a central garden area which is now given over exclusively to motor cars. And it's called a square.

We had a great laugh when we read a risible article on this pro-motorcar lobbying blog (beware popups, ugh!) which suggested that a Trevipark robot-controlled automatic underground parking system had been proposed for Golden Square. I couldn't help but remember a Thunderbirds episode from my childhood when a system like that was used by the characters - with disastrous consequences! Call International Rescue!



Aberdeen author John Aberdein touched on the cognitive dissonance provoked by the present configuration of Golden Square in his splendid satire on civic Aberdeen - Strip the Willow... Two characters are discussing the fact that Aberdeen fails when compared to its continental competitors for lack of a civic square. They then, of course immediately realise their mistake, and identify Golden Square as just such a continental-style human-scale civic square. They then bemoan the fact that it's given over to car-parking. They decide that the urban environment would be greatly improved by the installation of seats in the square - and then they point out that there are, indeed, usually dozens of seats in Golden Square - it's just that they're always exclusively locked away in metal boxes.

Plenty comfy seats. But locked in private metal boxes.
There was a moment, just a moment, when it seemed that Aberdeen City Council might return the centre of the square to human-scale (rather than motorcar-scale) use, but, unfortunately, it seems that financial mismanagement and the resultant ensuing austerity has lead to a kind of money-grabbing pragmatism. You can read more detail about it on rxpell's Moved To Comment blog. Thanks also to rxpell for this photo:

The statue of the Duke of Gordon (who he?) was placed in Golden Square in the 1950's. The statue is notable not for the person it depicts but for the fact that it was sculpted by a Thomas Campbell in 1841-2 of Dancing Cairns granite and so was one of the first statues to be cut in granite since the Ptolomies of ancient Egypt.

With a continentally-renowned concert hall, cafe-bars, restaurants, offices, cathederal, theatre, flats, and townhouses surrounding - in our opinion motor cars should of course be discouraged from entering Golden Square and North and South Silver Street. Golden Square could then be something really special; with Silver Street on either side, Golden Square could once again be described as the proverbial "apple of Gold in a Basket of Silver". The same goes for Bon Accord Square to the south of Union Street. Both those areas would then (if this vision were realised) make fine, human-scale, slightly bohemian (definitely Grecian) mixed-use urban-village type-things.

Isn't that what we all want?


John Aberdein said...

It's what we all want, I daresay, except a powerful minority.
So if representative democracy is just not working for city planning, we need to use the monitory democracy that you are so vividly practising here to spur us on to recreate an Athenian direct democracy. Tens of thousands would online register their votes on each major civic planning issue, after passing some reasonable test of having considered the matter... So people who used the analogy of Melbourne's 7.9 acre Federation Square as a reason to build a 5.5 City Square over UTG would fail the elementary statistics test. In quick round figures from Wiki, Aberdeen's population is 5.2% of Melbourne's, but our proposed square is 69% their size. Thus – on population to square ratio – it seems to be THIRTEEN TIMES TOO BIG!

Mick Miller said...

Once again Other Aberdeen is a breath of fresh air! Golden Square is a beautiful space that, were it in any other city, would be the centre of 'cafe society' (or the Aberdeen equivalent). Indeed many have tried to make it such and several establishments have come and gone. What a shame. Of course when you have a set of Councillors who have the vision of a myopic mole then a car park is the best you can expect. Unless of course the money men get their hands on it then it could become......a multi-storey car park. Great joy!

Anonymous said...

The centre of Bon Accord Square is a garden, but I see no hint of it becoming a “fine, human-scale, slightly bohemian (definitely Grecian) mixed-use urban-village type-thing”, whatever that is. In fact I’ve never seen anyone in it.

Other Aberdeen said...

@Anonymous. You're right of course, and raise a good point which helps us to illustrate the wider picture. So thanks very much for that.

There is, indeed, a garden at the centre of Bon Accord Square, its area is about 0.65 ha. The total area of the square is approx 3.3 ha. The area of pavement is about 0.35 ha.

So... of the 3.3 ha of the square, 2.3 ha is given over to motorcars (active carriageway and parking) That's 70%.
Of the 3.3 ha of the square, 0.35 ha is allowed for pavement. That's 11%
The remaining 0.65 ha is garden - lawn and shrubs and the Ertchie 'Pech' Simpson memorial. 19% of the total area.

To reach the garden, a pedestrian must leave the pavement, walk between parked cars, negotiate an active carriageway, then thread himself between yet more parked cars. All before attempting to find the steps up to the garden - which are usually inaccessible because of a parked car. So, it's quite easy to see why the square has not developed along the lines which we would wish. Configured as it is now, Bon Accord Square is just a landscaped roundabout like any other. But with extra parking allowed.

We will see human-scale activities develop on Bon Accord Square when the area available for those activities is greater than the area made exclusively available for motorcars.

Does all that help you?


BTW a great example of a "fine, human-scale, slightly bohemian (definitely Grecian) mixed-use urban-village type-thing" can be viewed at Belmont Street, where motorcars have been discouraged (but not banned) and the pedestrian has re-claimed the space formerly occupied by parked cars. (It's not particularly Grecian, tho!).