Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Driech Mizzle Cacophony


<<<< A volcanic eruption halts ALL air traffic into and out of the UK, for the first time ever. Eerie silence at the top of the hill, where only last week I was buzzed by a helecopter-full of roughnecks. The airport roar of jet engines silenced by Icelandic ash, the only thing I can hear today at the prominence summit is the gentle wind, whispering serene abstractions in my ears. >>>>


I was taken aback to find from an entry made in an old notebook just over eighteen months ago that a silence, eerie or serene or of whatever character, could be found anywhere in this town, at any time. The note was made at the top of Brimmond Hill in April 2010. I was taken aback to read it because these days, just a short six seasons later, there's no silence to be found here - not anywhere round here at all. How quickly we forget; how easily plasticised our human existence. The condition of constant outdoor noise is so readily regarded as normal to our situation.

So I crave the peace and space that we all used to enjoy. Actually, no - we didn't enjoy it, we took it for granted. Like on a Sunday, for example. I remember long, aimless teenage Sunday afternoon walks - with friends or in solitary thoughtfulness - through our town's plentiful beech- and birch-lined boulevards and avenues. The peace affording me the mental space, the unity of direct passive experience, to appreciate the granite and slate symmetries, framed by hedge and tree, lawn and border. Bay and turret, gable and pitch. Suffusing my human spirit with unique ambience of place and time. But today, to walk those same boulevards and avenues - fewer, ever fewer their lawns and hedges and trees - is to find that unity of experience disrupted by the continual noise of motor traffic. The relaxed nature of walking for transportation or even for its own sake has been critically disrupted as, over recent years, even our streets have become roads.

To recapture that serenity - that unity - we set out with hope, with intention of passivity, on Sunday morning to walk the Sustrans footpath on the Old Deeside Way; Abergeldie to the Den of Cults, then down to the Shakkin' Briggie at the old waterworks. We hope, o we so hope for quiet. Surely, walking that route, away from roads and the streets that have become roads, we'll find what we want, and find our minds there too on that driech morning.

The morning immediately mizzles near-dimensionless nanosphere-points of water onto everything we're wearing - like dew on a spiderweb. But shortly we're properly soused as, surface tension breached, those points gather more and more water. Discharging water vapour from the smirr-saturated but mild and windless air they expand, ballooning, and burst into just wetness. But we're dressed and shod for these normal autumn conditions. Weather doesn't frighten us.

There is beauty in the soft-edges of this fall weather - the dun damp of autumn, the fungal must of the deliquescing leaf-litter by the sides of the footpath, next year's top layer of topsoil. By the side of the footpath an apple tree gnarls back at the glowering sky. Its underbrush is the focus for a squabble of birdlife. We see that somehow little beaks have split the windfall apples. The discarded semi-skins which the birds do not prefer lie around discarded, voided like pastry cases after a children's party. As we approach a double-dozen blackbirds and robins and starlings kerfuffle and flap and vector off a safe distance, to return to the tree and its underbrush once we're past. Their little songs, their tweeting entreaties, beeping out first the warning then whistling the all-clear to their feathered cadres, and cheering our souls as we set out on our morning route.

We walk along through Airyhall and Garthdee. There are few other people about. And none of those are just walking. There are a handful of joggers. Insulated, every one of them, from our world by ear-connected bicep-strapped iPod. The trademark white earbuds and wires along with the velcro armstrap appurtenance somewhat reminiscent of medical paraphrenalia - a stethoscope and blood-pressure cuff hybrid. Brows knitted and gurning, these loping obsessives: we nod hello to them as they pass. They do not see us, they focus to the horizon of the middle-distance.

And here is a dog-walker. Indignant, clearly: seems the obligation to provide his pet with exercise and relief is not what he'd prefer to be doing this Sunday morning. His face angled sternly down he mutters desultory into the phone in his right-hand fist, the remote electronically mediated interlocutor elsewhere taking precedence over the flesh and bone and fur animal present. A little knotted translucent polybag of still dog-arse warm dogshit dangles obscenely from the man's left-hand fingers on knotted loop. He twirls it absentmindedly like a dandy might a cane. We smile our community to him as we pass. He does not meet our eyes, actually turning his head away. But the dog - she is a collie - trots across and makes eye-contact with us, one after the other, politely. She gently snuffles briefly our outstretched hands and looks farewell to us over her shoulder as we walk on. She will know us now and forever.

At Pitfodels, and it's mid-morning. The mist-damp air is an efficient transmitter of sound waves, so - although we can't see it - we can hear the motor traffic on the North Deeside Road, 100 metres to the right, parallel to our walking route. What are they doing - so many of them, driving about the place, on a Sunday morning? And then we're past the old train station at The Den of Cults. An odd name, and tautological; "Cults" being a diminutive derived from the Gaelic "cuil" for "nook". So "Cults" is a little secluded place. The "den", which is the steep gorge of a stream, making it doubly-so. Despite its name, so intriguing to modern ears, no sinister sects are hiding in this steep V-shaped valley, just an everso-nice Victorian municipal suburb built for the waterworks where the Cults burn confluxes with the River Dee. That suburb now, of course, metastasised by the late 20th century's large-plan bungalows and cul-de-sacs all the way up the south-facing hill to the watershed.

Down in the den, the rushing burn streaming and bubbling over rocks and little bouldery waterfalls by our side, we feel perhaps the first inkling of the cheerful feelings - the unity of sensation - which we'd sought when we set out. We can pick out the obsolete waterworks infrastructure: An engine house now a des-res; valves, spigots and the like as garden ornaments; enigmatic equipment artefacts embedded in walls and footways. Oh, and the big newish kidney-shaped reservoir on the flood-plain, like a man-made oxbow lake on the broad flat inch (a flat sandy bank or river island). Out in the centre of the flat, still water the handrails of a just-submerged catwalk structure are parallel platforms where a gauntlet of waterbirds - mostly ducks, some gulls, a handful of swans and one single cormorant with its wings spread wide - stand guard. 

Across the river, yan to the yin on the same flood-plain inch squats the "Aspire Golf Centre". Surely one of the most up-to-date and exciting golfing opportunities available to the hard-pressed golfers of the north-east of Scotland, for acknowledging the busyness of the busy folk of business in Aberdeen "City and Shire" the Aspire Golf Centre offers a short-form of golf. Only nine holes, and every one a par 3. Flood-lit, for high-speed late-night golfing, after those long hours a-wrangling at the spreadsheets in your cubicle. And a target range; very popular, because it has what are called "Powertees", an "automated teeing solution", which means that aspiring golfers don't ever have to bend over. Less hassle, see?

And passing the golf centre, the South Deeside Road, a secondary road, a narrow winding B-road which follows the contours of the steep gradient southern wall of the glacial valley. Again and again, the crest and roar of gearbox and turbo reverberate booming off that valley wall. Reflected over the river to us on our muddy path to Inchgarth: the cacophony of the motor-men taking their high-speed gear-change engine-breaking thrills on the leaf-fall slick adverse cambers. Heel-and-toe fast and furious they fly, and we see their Subarus and Golfs or whatever flicker through the trees across the water. Not 100 metres away, their choice of Sunday-morning leisure destroys ours; we cannot even sustain a conversation between us. A flight of swans angles quite low overhead, but today we are denied the privilege of hearing their in-flight murmuring intrigues. We might as well have tried to find peace at an airport, or a Grand Prix circuit.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

March Stones 58 to 60 ABD - Froghall.


Celtic Place-Names in Aberdeenshire
John Milne, 1912
FROGHALL: Cheerful place. Frogail, merry, cheerful.

The branch line from Kittybrewster to our harbour’s massive rail terminal, one of many “Waterloos”, lies in near-desuetude, the almost-gleam of the rails betraying the only occasional robust creeping of freight wagons slipping in the dark of the clanking night towards the Berryden loop and access to main-line rail and away. Cargos to or from who-knows-where, who knows for what? Rare, seldom seen. Hardly considered.

Negotiate the dust and roar and hurry of the motor traffic at the Powis Terrace/Bedford Road junction and traverse either of two pedestrian footbridges over the railway cutting and onto Elmbank Terrace, there to get away into another world. Always and everywhere, it seems, to be on the wrong side of the rails is a condemnation. But here, walking with care to find the town’s ancient boundary stones - the “March Stones” (see note below) - to be on the wrong side of these tracks offers a kind of relief. The area, called Sunnyside to the north, Froghall to the south seems becalmed in a doldrum which is somehow away from the rest of Aberdeen; separate - a forgotten triangle of neglect. Benign neglect. This town is busy, too busy - so to walk down a quiet residential but non-suburban street, which has become like a woonerf-by-accident is a rare pleasure here. So easy to forget that walking and talking with your pedestrian companions is one of life’s simple riches, free wealth - for over the last small handful of years, since the oil-price first surpassed one hundred U.S. Dollars per barrel, this town-that-likes-to-think-it’s-a-city has gone into resource-extractive overdrive. Drill baby drill. This involves lots of people driving around the place as fast as they possibly can.
The boastful and offensive Aberdonian saw: “Recession? What recession?” - which revels in the high oil prices which cause such misery elsewhere - is played out on the less and less stately avenues and boulevards of our town as the cherished-plated out-of-scale machine-people machine the streets into crumbling gravel, milled to dust and reaming the pot-holes of their muck. So finding any pleasant outdoor spot in Aberdeen which is not intrusively besmirched by the constant traffic swish and foom has become a practical impossibility. It is always with us. As the autumn progresses and the trees now have shuddered away near the last of their leaves, not even our town’s parks offer a refuge from the continual susurration-roar of the busy people busying about being busy in the service of business.

58 ABD
Walking through becalmed Sunnyside/Froghall is relief. This unremembered triangle has, for whatever happy confluence of reasons, been rendered non-permeable to motor-traffic flows. Strolling calmly and slowly, each other’s words are listened to and considered in the unhurried luxury; the stroll of ideas as one step goes in front of another. In this way, and along these ways, progress is made as we make progress through the locality. The landscape of the built environment and its elements is assimilated in its relationship to us, in those elements’ relationships to each other. We insinuate ourselves and our thoughts into that landscape, we can be still in the resonances of the insights we gain, which in turn centre and still us farther yet. Still, centred, moving. An expansive unity of experience moving on and through the inner urban landscape.

59 ABD
The once-impressive villas, merchant-manors of nineteenth-century traders or capitalists, overlook the near-redundant branch line in the cutting below Elmbank Terrace - the street where boundary stones 58 ABD and 59 ABD are found. Were the original proprietors of these impressive properties overlooking an interest in the cargoes traversing or capital embodied in the short-lived Aberdeenshire canal which - almost immediately obsolescent upon its foundation - in turn established the foundation of the railway now occupying the cutting? Behind the villas, an industrial area fallen on hard times. Aberdeen’s still-born jute industry died with the canal, monumental masonry exhausted with the granite quarries. Traces of those industrial waves remain; in the street names - Canal Road and Jute Street (where we find boundary stone 60 ABD); and the industrial heritage evident in the built environment - the workers tenements clustering round the industrial area, the traces of rail sidings and platforms, the hand-cranes and unworked slabs in abandoned mason’s yards. And now, second (or third?) wave light industry, transient, almost gone too. Motor-trade, builders’ merchants, carpenters, telephone engineering depot, all in various stages of decrepitude. We smile to each other in the acknowledgment that there is beauty here. There is allure in the craquelure of peeling paint. There is dusty beauty in the modernism of a redundant telephone exchange used as a stationery store, forms no longer following function. There is delight to find a pedestrian permeability up a snicket behind bollards and there is a thrilling unity to the right-angled granite canyons that are the never-identical ramifications of the Aberdeen Victorian tenement template.

The edges form as industry constantly revolutionises itself and all that is solid melts into air. The edge is the difference between something and nothing. Residential development encroaches, people come and go, and come again. Will the Dutch disease event-horizon, the overriding exigency of oil-industry urgency suck all the capital of our town down-hole, to die dissipated and exhausted in (or exported from) a peripheral industrial estate? Or will something new, some novel enterprise yet to be conceived, re-occupy the dormant heart of Froghall - the "cheerful place"?

60 ABD

Development Opportunities 

Tenements - Old.

Flats - Newer

Apartments - Newest

Tagging not new - 'JJ 1879'

Test Department

wood berd
Goods    Pioneer
Every day is like Sunday.

Note: The “March Stones”

Confirmed in his Great Charter of 1319 (an ancient document which founded the real-estate and political power regime which prevails over the polity in Aberdeen to this day), in 1315 Robert the Bruce endowed the Burgesses of Aberdeen with a huge estate of land - known as “The Freedom Lands”. The medieval burgesses were a powerful group of men: police and army and lawmaking body and local authority all rolled into one, With a royal mandate behind them, their monopoly on force enabled them to enforce a monopoly on trade. They were the burgh. How our concept of freedom has changed.

The extent of this "gift" of land from Bruce (which required an annual rent to be paid to the crown - heh, some gift!) can be seen around Aberdeen today. Often mistaken for milestones, the engraved numbered stelae which lie hidden in plain view around Aberdeen mark the boundary between the gifted estate and the hinterland beyond - Kincardine to the south, Mar to the west and Buchan to the North. Bruce had occupied Aberdeen in 1307 and 1308 while he laid waste to a large part of that hinterland.

The Harrying of Buchan was a devastating event for this area, characterised by its (surprisingly modern) ruthlessly systematic nature. This was a policy, managed and executed with businesslike efficiency; entire towns like Ellon were completely eradicated, livestock and crops were burned in the fields, infrastructure was dismantled and dissipated. Some historians say that so complete was the destruction that the innate and potential wealth of Buchan was damaged for centuries after. A terrible and exceptional act of vengeful spite, unparalleled in these islands before or since.

Small wonder the Aberdonians cowered and offered Bruce whatever he wanted. The fearful and pusillanimous capitulation of Aberdeen's burghers (who had been loyal to the English crown until the pogrom in the hinterland) no doubt, in time, pricked Bruces' conscience and lead to his eventual largesse towards our town. According to the Aberdeen City and Shire website, the ordinary people of Aberdeen also "furnished" Bruce with "large supplies" of cash, food and other goods. Under what levels of terror and sword-edge compulsion was this "furnishing" obliged? In this context, the "gift" of the Freedom Lands more than a decade later might be seen as a form of belated conscience-stricken compensation from Bruce to Aberdeen's craven burghers.

The numbered stelae boundary markers which show the edges of that “gift”, the Freedom Lands are known as March Stones ("march" being the Old Scots word for "boundary”).

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Why a Third Crossing is Wrong - We Try to Explain Electricity to a Cat


Our attention has been drawn to the "Why a Third Crossing is Wrong" blog at, in which a community activist in Tillydrone logically sets out the reasons why Aberdeen City Council and their business-community sponsors are wrong to push ever onward with their antiquated proposals for a damaging new bridge (the "Third [sic - see below] Don Crossing") over the River Don at Tillydrone. This new motor-vehicle bridge, if built, would form part of the much larger grand project to build a new (but paradoxically, as we have explained, very old-fashioned) radial expressway in Aberdeen, pointing directly at the heart of the town centre. We've touched on some of the aspects of this new radial expressway once or twice before.

We admire the systematic and thoroughgoing approach demonstrated by the author of Why A Third Crossing is Wrong (let's call it "WTCW") - but of course, the damoclean situation which the Tillydrone (and wider Aberdeen) community finds itself in demands nothing other than all the rigour that can possibly be mobilised in opposition to this road and bridge project which will slice the community in two. The case against the building of this new road and bridge is set out logically and assiduously on the pages of WTCW and the perspicacity and professionalism of the content pages (which are in the form of submissions to the forthcoming public enquiry into the compulsory purchase orders associated with the scheme) does credit to the Tillydrone community. We congratulate the author of the WTCW blog and we recommend it to our readers: go and have a look

Being familiar with some of the issues surrounding the proposed Third Don Crossing, and after reading the WTCW blog, we were reminded of a recent piece on Copenhagenize in which motorists using a street through a community in Ferrara, Italy are referred to as parasites:

What a great word. The host organism is, of course, the city off which they feed. The streets outside my flat as I write this are relatively free of parasites. The ones that plague Copenhagen aren't your traditional parasites. They aren't noctural. They desert their host organism on migratory patterns, scurrying back to their formicaries in the afternoons, only to return to feed upon their host in the morning. To continue their infestation and causing all manner of illnesses that the host organism is unable to defend itself against. 
Traffic pollution with its toxic emissions and noise pollution, a lower perception of safety for pedestrians and cyclists, traffic accidents that kill and maim, reduced property prices and so on. 
Parasites. It's a brilliant way to describe the motorists who roll down these streets, contributing nothing to the liveableness of my neighbourhood and others, hardly making a dent in the economic well-being of the shops, paying their taxes in other municipalities. Rumbling past, spouting the residue of their combusted fossil fuels behind them to the funky tunes on their radio while they text away on their telephones. 

WTDC says:

The academic consensus is that growth in car transport and road haulage mileage should be discouraged as it is not sustainable socially, environmentally and economically and that there should be a ‘modal shift’ to other sustainable forms. i.e. there should be a decoupling of road transport from economic growth.
I am not alone in interpreting that the root of the problem of congestion is the over dependence of the North East on car transport and this is evident by the fact that congestion in and around Aberdeen is not only confined to the Haudagain and Bridge Don ‘pinch points’. I consider that the development will perpetuate this condition by encouraging car usage resulting in more congestion and continuing the progressive marginalisation of sustainable transport alternatives.
Reading through the documentation so far is leading me to the conclusion that there is a bias in the interpretation of the studies leaning towards the conclusion for the need of a road traffic bridge. There appears to be over emphasis on the benefits, understatement of the consequences and the ignoring of alternatives.

OtherAberdeen's regular readers will of course know that our position is uncompromisingly against the use of motor-vehicles as a personal transport mode in the centre of Aberdeen (or any town centre). Policies which discourage cars in urban centres and reallocate roadspace away from motor traffic are mainstream throughout continental Europe and are being adopted even in the USA to the great benefit of local economic prospects and urban social profiles, but when we publish blog-posts demanding that similar policies be adopted here, we generally get a whole lot of quite nasty abuse. 

So… it's a tough nut to crack… Going hard at the technical aspects of specific projects, as WTCW does, and as RoadSense (for instance) are doing with regard to the forthcoming orbital motorway project (the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, or AWPR), is vital - for without these efforts and others like them, 'facts on the ground' would change rapidly and irreversibly, as road-building proposals are presented as plans, and plans are presented as faits accomplis. But it's troubling that efforts like these have to be made at all, for they are fighting a rearguard action against a democratic deficit. And as we have pointed out before, the current road-building obsession in Aberdeen is an atavistic desire for the realisation of plans which were first drawn up in the centre of the car-crazy twentieth century, before the externalities of motor-centric policies were understood. Car-dependency (or is it car-addiction? - so hard to tell the difference) as pointed out by WTCW is endemic in this part of the world.

We believe that the underlying problem lies in the mind-set of the polity here (just offering an opinion like that expressed in the previous sentence can provoke reams of abuse). It's a problem of framing, of context. We said, in the conclusion to our "Woonerf for the Denburn Valley" piece:
"…once our scheme is up and running … who would ever want to take their car all the way into the town centre ever again?"
And among the responses we got was one from someone who said:
"Yeah, exactly. That's the serious danger of schemes like these which remove road capacity"
The point being that, here, in this town, in this area, more cars on more roads is ipso facto regarded as being the desirable outcome. This is the context - the frame - in which we try to make the case for sustainable and active transport. You might as well try to explain electricity to a cat. The framing, the prevailing mindset, makes the case for any alternative to motor-transport practically impossible to promulgate. For example, take the forthcoming "Berryden Corridor Improvements" [sic] project, which forms part of the same radial expressway as the Third Don Crossing. The use of that word 'improvements' is telling, for it is the consequence of an a priori assumption on behalf of planners that more cars on more roads in the city is a good thing. So the  use of that word 'improvements' can be seen as a political deployment of language; for who could credibly oppose something which is an 'improvement'? The questions that exercise us at OtherAberdeen are, firstly: Why is car-dependency endemic here? And secondly: What is to be done? What can be done to break the frame, change the context?


Why is car-dependency endemic here?

Historically and broadly-speaking, economic progress and improvements in living standards have been accompanied by an increase in car ownership and use. This is understandable. The affluent society, status displays, the growth of suburban living and commuting, the upgrade cycle, etc. All other things being equal (and in the absence of civic policies to discourage motoring) economic growth provokes more motoring; cause and effect. It appears that our policy-makers have got this back-ass forwards; mistaking cause for effect they now believe that more motoring on more roads is a primary cause of economic growth. This is a cargo cult.

OtherAberdeen has explored the impulse for hierarchical status-display through motoring and, while that's an effect that's evident everywhere in the UK, we feel that the extreme affluence of the upper percentiles of the Aberdeen population has a disproportionate psychological 'pull' effect on those 'below' them in the hierarchy, many of who mistake affluence for wealth and so cannot understand that aspiration is not the same thing as acquisition. "Aberdeen is Tycoon-town, / If you're not a tycoon yet, you will be soon." So, aping the transport choices of the hyper-affluent, the people of Aberdeen and its hinterland are delighted to put more cars on more roads, because to them it demonstrates that Aberdeen is a town on the up-and-up, a town that's going somewhere (even if that's only to the shops for a pint of milk).

Related to that upper-percentile affluence is, of course, the fact that the predominant industry round here is concerned with oil extraction. An acquaintance, defending his excessive motor-mileage said he was "supporting the local economy" by using so much petrol. He wasn't joking. But there's a bit more to it than that: Aside from the impacts upon urban liveability, aside from the detrimental personal and social effects of sedentary lifestyles, and aside from the impact on the perception of safety and desirability of switching to other transport modes, excessive motoring also contributes to climate change (motor transport causes about a quarter of UK carbon emissions). As motor transport and the oil extraction industry are critically co-dependent, so it is psychologically impossible for a motorist in Aberdeen to integrate the fact that motoring is harmful into his or her world view, for that is the same thing as acknowledging that our town's success (such as it is) is based upon that same globally harmful thing. If you want to get Aberdeen people to admit that motoring is harmful, you are asking them to admit that the North Sea oil industry is harmful, and that, by extension, Aberdeen itself is harmful. As Upton Sinclair (author of "Oil!" filmed as "There Will be Blood") said:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it!"

What is to be done?

We've mentioned that asking people in Aberdeen to switch to a mode of transport which is less amenable to hierarchical status displays is hard going.

Having spent a lifetime on the upgrade cycle gathering those letters and numbers on the boot-lip of their car - those glyphs and cartouches which so shorthandedly signify their importance - to then tell them that it was all for nothing and that they must abandon these status-displays is to so undermine the foundations of their world-view that they cannot integrate it into reasonable discourse. You might as well tell them that everything they believe in and hold dear is demonstrably wrong, and that everything they think they have achieved and hope to go on to attain is just an illusion. It's like telling a toddler that Santa doesn't exist, and taking away their lollipop at the same time. The reaction you get is not good.

In an ideal world, the fact that there is no 3rd Don Crossing would be seen as an opportunity. For instance, in both Oxford and Cambridge, high levels of active and sustainable transport are the norm. In Oxford's case, this was policy-driven. There it was decided in the 1970's that the urban environment in the town centre was simply too precious to expose to the detrimental effects of motor-traffic. Park-and-ride was pioneered in Oxford, but - crucially - it was accompanied by a moratorium on the creation of new parking spaces in the town centre. No new public car-parks, and - even more importantly - no employee carparks for businesses. While we have excellent P&R facilities for Aberdeen, they are fatally undermined by policies which continue to attract large numbers of motor journeys into the heart of the town.  Cambridge benefitted from a different dynamic; though, paradoxically, it was a lack of dynamism which has lead to today's happy outcome. In that town, civic neglect meant that they missed out on the late 20th century enthusiasm for inner-city ring-roads and radial expressways and the like. What turned out to be benign neglect meant none of that sort of motor-pandering infrastructure was installed, and - the ancient town centre being largely unsuitable for motor-traffic - the people of Cambridge took to bikes (or, rather, never got off them). Today, Cambridge has the highest modal share for cycling in the UK. It's worth emphasising that this is not the result of a specific pro-active-transport policy, but rather is the outcome of doing very little to encourage motoring.


But where does that leave the likes of us active-transport advocates in Aberdeen? In Aberdeen, it leaves us out on the edge; that's where. Sniping from the fringe, marginalised, a hated out-group, seen as dogs-in-mangers; anti-progress, anti-business, anti-Aberdeen. But, of course, we are none of those things.

Additionally, we are highly skeptical of the compromises offered by groups such as Get-About, and Aberdeen Cycle Forum - because what they ask is that sustainable and active transport be considered, be included in strategic plans which are largely about putting more cars on more roads. And they get exactly what they ask for - tokenistic half measures, afterthoughts and unsuitable infrastructure tacked onto major road-building projects. Where these groups fail is in their acceptance that active and sustainable travel is 'in addition to' business as usual, whereas, if campaigns for active and sustainable travel were successful, there would be significantly less pressure on existing road capacity, and calls for more roads would simply evaporate. For active and sustainable transport is not 'in addition to' business as usual - rather, it is 'instead of' business as usual. The policies of GetAbout and the like have failure built in, for they first acquiesce unquestionably to the a priori calls for more roads, and then seek to piggyback on that.

We note that Aberdeen City Council's plans for the Third Don Crossing bridge and its feeder roads include some tokenistic cycle paths, some of which are labeled as being 'segregated'. You'd think we'd be pleased, yes? Well we're not, because this labelling demonstrates that road-planners in this town have completely misunderstood what segregation of facilities for cycling should actually encompass. We couldn't put it any better than the Lo Fidelity Bicycle Club, so we'll leave it to them and their discussion of what "Going Dutch" would mean for UK cycling infrastructure:


The fact is that ‘Going Dutch’ does mean having segregation everywhere! But there’s one fundamental caveat; The British assume segregation to mean ‘segregating cyclists from the road to ’improve traffic flow’ for motorised traffic’ whereas the Dutch mean ‘segregate motorised vehicles from people to improve movement for everyone’.
Through the years, the British have created a lot of bypasses, relief roads, motorways, urban expressways and the like. The Dutch did the same but ensured that it became an utter pain in the buttocks to get across the town being bypassed in a car, in effect forcing motorised traffic to use the new infrastructure built. The British didn’t and are still paying the price with heavily congested town and city centres. In fact we keep using it as some perverse justification to build more bypasses, relief roads, motorways, urban expressways and the like.


Quite. Here, in Aberdeen, we have both plans for a new orbital motorway bypass and a new radial expressway (as well as other radial access 'improvements' for motor transport). Additionally, so great is the fear that the orbital motorway bypass road will reduce traffic flows into and through the town centre, that NESTRANS (the North East of Scotland Transport Partnership - a political/business quango) document "Optimising the Benefits of the AWPR" (pdf) includes specific provision for measures  to 'improve' radial flows of motor traffic towards and through the town centre. This is the direct polar opposite of the more modern transport planning we see in continental Europe (in particular Netherlands and Denmark) where, as the Lo Fidelity Bicycle Club point out, yes indeed they have bypasses and motorways and the like, but it is this infrastructure itself which forms the major plank of the segregation policy. 
For these roads fulfil the policy of segregating cars from people, keeping motor-traffic flows away from where people want and need to be. And so, in this way, urban centres - centres for entertainment, residences, commerce and community - are allowed to fulfil their correct urban function as human-scale places for people, rather than machine-scale places for cars. Were our forthcoming orbital motorway bypass project to be accompanied by policies which would prevent radial flows of motor traffic into and through the centre of our town, there would be no greater advocates of it than we. But it is not, so we are not. 

Incontrovertible evidence has been mounting for some time now, demonstrating beyond doubt that motor-centric policies to encourage ever-increasing numbers of motorcar journeys into the centres of towns are wrong. Wrong for the environment, wrong for personal health, wrong for the community and wrong for business sustainability. Indeed, we were delighted to notice that a raft of recent studies encompassing places as diverse as The Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Canada, Swizerland and the United States shows policies which cater for bicycle transport are better for local business than those which cater for motor transport.

 ...a study from the Dutch city of Utrecht which found that whilst bicycle-based consumers spend less per transaction, they make more visits and spend the most collectively. This isn’t the only connection – a German study found similar results, calling cyclists ‘better customers’ due to them making eleven trips per month compared to seven for motorists. And the Swiss are in on it too, where research into parking space profitability found that each square metre of bicycle parking generated €7500 compared to €6625 for cars.

When will Aberdeen get the message? In the past, when they didn't know what else to do, physicians used to allow fevers to run high - kill or cure. Perhaps the motor-centric policies of Aberdeen - with our forthcoming orbital motorway, accompanied as it is by this new bridge and other access projects at Haudagain, 3rd Don Crossing, Bridge of Dee replacement, Berryden 'Improvements', and a great big new carpark where Union Terrace Gardens used to be are an attempt to provoke just such a crisis - for once these projects are complete, large volumes of high speed traffic will power unimpeded into the heart of our town, causing atrocious levels of noise and chemical pollution, heavy congestion and destroying liveability for the communities the expressways bisect. Once this crisis is upon us, policy will - must - inevitably shift, for there will be nowhere left for new roads to be built.

Or will there?

Tunnels Vision for Aberdeen Transport
(a must-read)

If we tolerate current plans, the risible nonsense of grandiloquent proposals for tunnels and monorails and god-knows-what-all will surely follow. For that reason, as well as everything else above, we wish the Tillydrone community and the author of Why a Third Crossing is Wrong every success in their resistance.

But finally, there is another reason why a "Third" Don Crossing is "wrong". For, having successfully framed the discourse - the promoters of this scheme have managed to get us all to use the name "Third Don crossing" when referring to it. But it is not - if this scheme goes ahead - this will be the sixth bridge over the Don in Aberdeen. Count them.


Friday, 18 November 2011

The Spectacle of the Symphony

THE WHOLE LIFE of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.
IMAGES DETACHED FROM every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation. The tendency toward the specialization of images-of-the-world finds its highest expression in the world of the autonomous image, where deceit deceives itself. The spectacle in its generality is a concrete inversion of life, and, as such, the autonomous movement of non-life.
The Society of the Spectacle
Guy Debord
La société du spectacle (Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1967)
Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994)


To Aberdeen’s down-at-heel Georgian/Victorian concert-hall - The Music Hall - last night for a performance of Sibelius’ 5th Symphony, the concert forming part of the “Naked Classics” series from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra


The RSNO's successful Naked Classics is coming to Aberdeen for the very first time!
Presenter Paul Rissmann uses an innovative mixture of projections, lighting, on stage demonstrations and interviews with players [sic] to reveal the stories behind musical masterworks and the composers who wrote them. Then, after the interval, sit back and enjoy the work being performed in all its glory by the RSNO.
A distant horn-call, a flight of swans, and copious quantities of vodka – Jean Sibelius got his inspiration from some unlikely places. But when it all came together in his Fifth Symphony, the result was one of the most stirring masterpieces in modern music (and a tune so good that it's been covered by everyone from the Beach Boys to Sinitta). Paul Rissmann and conductor Christian Kluxen take it to pieces and show you how it all works.


The RSNO’s “Naked Classics” format forgoes the traditional programme of an orchestral concert. The first half of the concert - in which the orchestra usually will play an short overture (opening) piece followed by a concerto (a longer piece, featuring a soloist) is dispensed with in favour of a 45-minute lecture with a sort of son-et-lumière and power-point presentation which tries to explain both the composer and the symphonic work in an informal and entertaining way, the intended aim being to improve the accessibility of symphonic music.

We had serious reservations about this format from the moment we learned that we were to be subjected to it. Firstly, we felt we were being short-changed - we knew we would feel keenly the absence of the overture and concerto. Particularly felt was the lack of a soloist, for often (yes, even here in Aberdeen) we are delighted to be treated to a virtuoso performance from a world-class musician at the very top of their world-renowned talent. But not yesterday. Instead we got a quite boring talk with slides not enlivened even slightly by all the possible bells and whistles of special PowerPoint page-turn and cloud-puff transition effects and the like.

Now, a symphony can be programmatic - which is how the piece is described when it attempts to render an extra-musical narrative or explores a particular thematic subject in linear progression. But more usually the symphonic form exemplifies absolute music which is intended to be appreciated without any specific reference to the outside world. The unity of the symphonic form and its effect upon the listener is enabled by that self-same continuous unmediated single experience which is the symphonic form itself. Other than competent musicians, their instruments, a hall to play in and the score, no other thing is required. It is not textual, it is not pictorial, it is not verbal; it is pure music, it is symphony - the artistic pinnacle of rendered human emotion. So, once the lecture was underway, we were disquieted by the risibly literal interpretations and pat explanations mapped directly one-to-one onto the musical forms and intentions of Sibelius and his work. We were issued a Baedeker, a guide for tourists. We were spoon-fed an insultingly childish sequence of comfortingly primary-colourful pictorial and textual symbols to use as a meaning-eliding gazetteer with which to summarise and contain, categorise and control the abstract and terrifyingly vast depths of unfathomable emotion which are the true content of the monolithic work of genius which is Sibelius' 5th Symphony. The first movement is a bit like a flower opening, apparently. The second is a stream or river - who knew? And the third is exactly like some swans, seemingly. There. Now you know.

So the interval came, and we thought, with relief - good; that’s that then, we can try to forget all about that crap, disconnect from the imposed context, and engage exclusively with the symphony in the second half. But no, the symphony itself was accompanied by powerpoint slides throughout, projected onto a big screen above the audience; the visually intrusive imagery and text referring back to the words and pictures expounded during the lecture in the first half of the evening, reinforcing their asinine associations. It will take all our kung-fu skills and a passive effort of accepting resistance to expunge those hyperrealistic, over-simplistic and literal images and text from their imposed association with this masterpiece symphony. An association where none should exist - uncomplicated words for a complex non-verbal form, unchallenging images for an elaborate non-pictorial artwork - keeping us from a true appreciation of the artwork, quarantining us from the emotional freight which is the true content of the symphony. Not only all that, but the high-intensity digital projector, from which the powerpoint slides were projected, also issued an intrusively insistent and incessant susurration from its position suspended up on high, at the very acoustic focal point of the concert hall. Thus, the unity of the symphonic experience was polluted and rendered into a juddering discontinuity of distraction and false images, caroming over the mutilated surface of a disjointed experience.

So, this “Naked Classics” is a patronising and didactic cheapening of high culture that fails even on its own terms. Rather than bring the audience closer to the music, as is its intention, this “Naked Classics” format does not succeed, for it imposes a cognitive burden of additional and spurious sensory content - redundant barriers which keep the audience at a distance removed from a direct appreciation of the music. The symphony, the highest form of musical composition, should not be presented as a multi-media ‘event’ - it is a single-media artwork. It is not an object to be contemplated from the outside, by external means - for it requires no explanation other than that which is contained within it itself. It requires no representation other than that which it itself offers, directly and personally encountered by the listener’s abstracted perception, a direct intercourse (mediated only by instruments and musical virtousity) between the mind of the composer and the emotional topography of the listener’s consciousness, directly lived in real time. Any further exposition is redundant, a pointless distraction, a misdirection.

We go to symphonic concerts to avoid the Spectacle. We had thought in our idealistic naivety that orchestral music would remain a safe refuge from the common stream. But last night the RSNO - an organisation which should know better; an organisation with a royal warrant to serve as guardians of high culture - took symphony away from us and instead we were spoon fed with the Spectacle of the Symphony.


THE WHOLE LIFE of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.
IMAGES DETACHED FROM every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation. The tendency toward the specialization of images-of-the-world finds its highest expression in the world of the autonomous image, where deceit deceives itself. The spectacle in its generality is a concrete inversion of life, and, as such, the autonomous movement of non-life.
The Society of the Spectacle
Guy Debord
La société du spectacle (Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1967)
Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

An Energetic Approach to Lingo Bingo and Greenwash

Last year, we wrote an indignant piece about local development quango ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future) and their flagship cargo-cult real-estate project, "Energetica", which had then just benefitted from a relaunch.

The Energetica "leaflet" distributed at the time was, we said: "[a] self-satirising work of pompous cut-and-paste managementspeak buzzword grandiloquence [which] is both a plea by vested interests for development land to be released to construction companies and a sales brochure which sickeningly flatters potential buyers."
A Newburgh
Energetica Tenement

But we've been reading the peerless Auchterness blog, where we learned a much-needed thing or two about planning, so now we take it all back, all that nasty stuff we said about Energetica. For it seems that last year's relaunch of Energetica went so well that they've decided to have another relaunch this year, with a refresh of the offering and rebranding with new brochures to download from a smashing new website with a dot-uk-dot-com domain and everything.

And so we congratulate ACSEF on this re-launch, not least because it shows a praiseworthy evolutionary approach to the use of language in support of the promotion of real-estate ventures. Whereas the previous iteration of Energetica transparently telegraphed the oil-industry legacy of the ACSEF board members (last year we were instructed that the project would "stimulate synergies" and were invited to consider the "private sector vision" of "dynamic organisations"), today, things have moved on, oh yes, and an altogether more modern and forward looking and thrillingly emotional offering is published, ready for you to download in modern, exciting, PDF form here.

For on the Energetica website and in the lovely new brochure we were very thrilled to see a use of words which is designed to push the reader's psychological buttons - evocative words, expressive phrases laden with an abstracted emotional freight - words which connote a softer kind of power than that of the oil-service companies who are largely responsible for promoting this real-estate scheme. Here's the sort of stuff they're saying now:
"Here, now, and on the horizon" - "Inspired through a deeper understanding" - "If it can be imagined, it can be realised" - "Passion and opportunity should be shared" - "We should take responsibility for our world"
Yes, it's clear that - through their stewardship of the International Design Competition for the destruction of Union Terrace Gardens - ACSEF have learned a thing or to about peppering their publications with the very latest kind of Starchitect-style boilerplate. See - the Union Terrace Gardens debacle wasn't for nothing after all!

But above all, one of the most admirable aspects of the Energetica project is its greenwashing credentials - the use of the word "sustainable", for instance is a big favourite of our local oil company tycoons here in Aberdeen, and is highly evident on the Energetica website and brochure. There are, on the exciting, innovative, forward-looking Energetica interactive maps, little glyphs which denote the locations where a handful of wind-turbines might go in-between Aberdeen and Fraserburgh one day. Sustainability, see? And we all know that golf is a "green" activity (geddit?!), so it's heartening to see a preponderance golf courses decorating the map of Energetica - many indeed are the the chances afforded by these exclusive mostly-male bastions for high-ranking executives to discuss important matters in a low-pressure unminuted environment, away from the attentions of the busybody stickybeaks who just wouldn't understand the finer points of high-end real-estate dealings anyway. And as saviour of the future Mr Dr Donald Trump himself has said
...if I added the deals I make on my course to my portfolio then it would be a much bigger part of my business. If I didn't play golf at my course in Westchester County (N.Y.) then I wouldn't have four major buildings there. Owning a great golf course gives you great power.
We offer a word of caution, however, to ACSEF. We know how difficult it is for them to shrug off their existing high-carbon motorcentric and frequent-flyer world-view, but if they are to truly achieve world-class breakthrough greenwash, they should leave out (or at least de-emphasise) all their talk of the Aberdeen Airport Expansion project, which is mentioned in the brochure and on web-pages here and here and here. Moreover, they might consider leaving out (or at least not trumpeting quite so loudly) all their needy-pleading promotion of Aberdeen's mooted orbital motorway project (the AWPR - Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route) and the accompanying intended increase of capacity on the A90 trunk road to Ellon which are mentioned on the Energetica brochure and on the web pages here and here and here and here and here and here.

And a final word of advice. In attempting to issue a greenwashing press-release, when ACSEF speak on behalf of oil service companies who have leased a shed at the Energetica industrial estate, if they are to have us believe that these companies are truly the sort of enterprises which are committed to plotting an entrepreneurial course for Aberdeen "City and Shire" into a future beyond the exploitation of oil and gas reserves, its probably best if they stop referring to sustainable and renewable sources of energy as being "alternative energy". When executives with a background in oil and gas use language like that, it just gives the game away, see?

But, to sum it up, we congratulate ACSEF once again on their re-launch of Energetica. We think it's gone so well that they should have another re-launch, really soon.

More about Golf Greens than Green Energy

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Unbearably Hideous and Detestable

UP AT the top we say: "something is very wrong with this town - psychogeography might or might not help…". And indeed today we are at a loss, for nothing we can say or show could possibly help mitigate the growing horror which creeps across the consciousness as the most recent implications of the budget apocalypse at Aberdeen City Council become ever clearer. No amount of urban exploration or ludic walking could eliminate the hollow feeling of distaste felt when the implications of of the cuts crystallise into words in a policy document which will, in a short time, become facts on the ground.

A summary of the forthcoming budget cuts, how they have been prioritised and what that means for public services can be read here (PDF). It's tough going - the opaque language of the document is as dry as the bones which may be all that remains of our town's civic sphere once the budget reductions have been implemented.

If you can stomach it, the reading of this most recent document will demonstrate to you what our local political representatives, their publicly-paid bureaucrats and their unaccountable businessmen puppet-masters have decided is the prioritised hierarchy of cuts for the coming 5-year period. It's a sort of civic triage, aimed at the delivery of £35.7m of budget savings. The document summarises how these savings are to be achieved, and breaks the savings down by how they are spread across council directorates: Social Care & Wellbeing; Education, Culture & Sport; Housing & Environment and so forth. It is an object lesson in doublethink that these directorates are flagged up along with their corresponding  contributions. Contributions which consist of things taken away, that is.

Local readers will probably be aware that the cuts detailed in this document are in addition to the existing tranche of cuts made over the last two years which achieved a contribution of around £15m. Those cuts fell largely upon provision of services for physically and mentally disabled people, and the terminally ill, including children.

So, additional to that, among the new measures explored and prioritised are:

  • Increasing primary schools class sizes by up to 78% (recommended maximum number of pupils in p3 to be increased from 18 to 33)
  • Sacking pupil support assistants
  • Shutting five primary and two secondary schools
  • Reducing services for the homeless
  • Stopping day care for mentally ill people
  • Closing recycling centres
  • Closure of parks and gardens throughout the city, selling the land.
  • Reduction then cessation of school crossing patrols

We note that there is, in this document, no de-prioritising of our council's continuing push forward with the old-fashioned multi-million pound urban dual-carriageway and radial expressway projects which were dreamt up in the centre of the car-crazy 20th century. Rather than consider a suspension of these motorcentric policies and instead explore the cheaper and more modern transport options common in continental Europe and even the USA, by contrast our local government has, in this budget document, demonstrated its commitment to continuing the enablement and authorisation of car-dependent lifestyles by ruling out the introduction of a congestion charge for Aberdeen. Moreover, the document shows our local authority's  foot-dragging resistance to the implementation of the higher penalty charges for illegal parking which the Scottish Government has requested that local authorities introduce.

No to congestion charge, no to higher parking charges. Yes to more urban dual-carriageways. Yes to bigger class sizes, yes to the sacking of lollipop ladies. The council signals that the right to drive unimpeded at ever greater speed around Aberdeen and park where you will is more important than children's education and safety, more important than services for the disabled and disadvantaged, more important than public parks.

Measures also considered but listed further down the list of axe-ready priorities are the closure of all 16 of our community libraries and the shut-down of all museums and art galleries for one year. It's no surprise that this philistine town should consider the suspension of cultural services, but its a source of spine-chilling horror that, for want of a total shortfall of £70m over ten years, such grave damage is being done to the civic sphere of our town. That these cuts should largely fall on the blameless, the vulnerable, the marginalised, the disenfranchised, the poor, the ill and the disabled - while parallel council activity is intent on borrowing a similar sum in order to realise the vanity project of a highly affluent and locally influential billionaire oil tycoon in his grandiloquent plans for the privatisation of public space in the town centre is beyond distasteful. 

That our local government should seriously consider the closure and sale of many public parks, while doing all they can to toady to the got-lucky businessman - effectively mortgaging the commonly-held land in the centre of our town to discharge the plutocratic aspirations of one citizen and his cadres - while thousands upon thousands other citizens face serious detriment to or cessation of the local authority services which maintain their quality of life - is beyond offensive. Though it is instructive, for it demonstrates the contempt in which ordinary people are held by the politicians, bureaucrats and capitalists who run Aberdeen.

There are other policies both explicit and implicit in the budget-cut document, which we might decide are worth exploring later on. For instance, the document implicitly shows that there's a bit of jiggery-pokery being considered with regard to our Common Good fund. And there is an explicit demonstration that our local authority is reluctant to implement government policy which would see the reduction of council tax reliefs on second homes, but is quite content to implement policies which will remove vital help from homeless people. Something is, indeed, very wrong with this town. In the words of Private Eye's 'Piloti',  
What exactly does one have to do to stop a fine city like Aberdeen self-harming, not to say committing suicide?

Monday, 7 November 2011