Friday, 29 April 2011

I Walk, I Cycle, I Look, I Think. I am the Bad Man of Rubislaw Hill.

I've just been Krakened!

After yesterday's upbeat feeling when we reported that maybe the tide was turning for the creative and progressive sections of Aberdonian society, we've been brought back to earth with a thump provided by the agency of our burgeoning police state and its ad-hoc amateur army of self-appointed busybody petit-police informants who have been empowered by the urgings of Operation Kraken - which we've complained about specifically before.

Denburn flows beneath Seafield House
'underground' carpark at Hill of Rubislaw
A little while ago, on the 10th of April, I was up on the Hill of Rubislaw. There are many, many interesting aspects to the geography, industrial archaeology and current use of this part of our town and the human interaction with that geography. We've got quite a lot to say about it, and will do so over the coming weeks and months as part of several interestingly intersecting projects. So there I was, on a mountain bike that day, photographing the Denburn as it disappears underneath the carpark of Seafield House. There are no signs which prohibit access, there are no notifications that the space is private; footpaths and roads criss-cross the site providing access from all sides and various routes across the campus.

Seafield House is a huge office building, once occupied by UK state oil corporation Britoil, latterly occupied by multinational plc oilco Shell, now split into suites with various occupants, some empty. Shell are still in some of those suites, I think. I took a handful of photos and had conversations with a couple of private security guard petit-police who (obvously having espied me on their CCTV panopticon monopticon screens) emerged from their airless cabin and took an indignant interest in what I was doing, they asserted (incorrectly) that I required permission to take photographs. I told them I was working on a writing / geography project, and they seemed to accept that. They didn't bother asking to see the photos I'd taken. They did ask my name. I declined to provide it. In hindsight the way they 'dealt' with me is quite fascinating and enlightening. One of these private-security guards was a blond-dreadlocked white-rasta multi-pierced crusty-type. When I explained the parallels between the non-underground underground carpark of Seafield House at Hill of Rubislaw - the way it fills the valley of the Denburn at that point - and how it parallels and provides a precident for the notorious proposal to fill in another part of the Denburn Valley further downstream, he agreed with my aims in wishing to point out this parallel. I can now see that this was one of the ways that these people have been trained to 'contain' non-conforming behaviour - I thought I'd made an ally for progressive urbanism - I thought I'd made him think, but all the time he was making me reveal my hand, reveal details about myself, and once I'd gone he got on the phone to the police. Stupid me.

Denburn re-emerges from beneath carpark
and Seafield House
So today, the police come to the door of our studios in the upscale heart of downtown Pituxton, demanding to be let in to interview me about this "incident" at Seafield House. ("Incident"?) As far as I was aware, I had a conversation with a couple of over-officious security guards who appeared to accept my explanation as to what I was doing - it's stretching a point to label this an "incident", surely? As I hadn't provided the petit-police with my name, I was surprised that the real police had managed to connect me with the "incident" at Hill of Rubislaw. It is of great concern to us, and a source of anguish and worry that police resources and capital have been expended in reviewing, cross-referencing and collating CCTV footage in order to arrive at an identification of me.  The footage was circulated within the police, presumably via some sort of internal notification communication system, and seen by a significant proportion of their officers, until one could identify me (no doubt from my 'footprint' left by the famous 'incident' at Union Square.) We cannot say how many police man-hours have been expended in making that cross-reference identification. Maybe they have AI expert systems based on fuzzy logic which help them make these connections. But perhaps we're getting just as paranoid as they are if we start to think like that - robot overlords, the singularity is close, etc...

Sign says "Underground car park"
But it isn't "underground" at all...
It's build into the natural contours of the Denburn Valley
In any case, with so much time and manpower being spent on mopping up the fallout from our perfectly legal activities which impinge on no-one else's rights, it seems clear that we've become quite a pest to the authorities (or businesses, or something) - what with all that walking and cycling around and noticing stuff and thinking about it and writing about it. How dare they accuse me of any wrongdoing or assume that I am intent on causing harm? Our intentions are quite the reverse. Yet there they were, in our studio, two Grampian Police officers excusing themselves that they had to investigate the "incident" because of the "terrorist threat". Really. The female officer said that she understood that what I had been doing at Hill of Rubislaw was harmless, but that nevertheless she was duty-bound to follow up, just as the petit-police were duty-bound to report me to the police. At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, it all sounded a  bit "we're just following orders" to me.

During the interview with the police, which was conducted in the working studio of our business, surrounded by the tools of our trade and by artwork in progress strewn around the place in various stages of completion, I was insultingly asked by the interviewing officer: "Do you work, at all?" It was firstly incredible to us that she didn't notice that she was actually within a place of work, but secondly, and probably more pertinently, what difference should it make whether I work or not? Is it as if the unemployed are all evil with malfeasance on their minds, more likely to be involved with terrorism?

"Ground" level. Parking in the Denburn valley beneath.
I expressed my incredulity to the police officers as they stood in my studio, implying stuff. I expressed my incredulity that the petit-police at Seafield House, while appearing to accept my explanation on the day had actually taken the puffed-up indignant and self-important time to take the 'matter' further. "Oh, but they've got to report 'incidents' like these, d'you see" the female police officer patronisingly assured me.
"Incident?" I asked, eyebrows raised.
"Oh yes, there's a heightened level of threat at the moment," the policewoman told me. "Just look what happened in Morocco."

Yes. That's what she said. Words almost fail us. We find it offensive in the extreme that my taking photographs of buildings and burns in the West End of Aberdeen should be compared to the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents in a faraway foreign country characterised by unstable social, political and religious conditions. It is sick and sickening. The minds which make these connections are sick, it sickens discourse (this being an example) and it is part of the ongoing pathology of the society which we had hoped to help to remedy. It makes us nervous about our whole lives - nervous of finding things interesting - structures, textures, imprints, buildings - nervous and afraid to share the delight we find in the things we find interesting. Nervous to even write this. I steel myself and write on...

It sickens us to our stomachs that we're being made to feel bad about our way of life, our interests and the way we explore our city in order to reach an understanding of its past, present and future. In this way; in our own small way we hope to help influence societal development here, to try to make our future in our town better, livable, human. We care about our lives in our town, we care about this passionately - which is why we look so closely. And then for this we have to explain ourselves at length, to authority figures (and petit-police para-authority figures) who think it's just weird to look at a river and wonder where it goes. We submit that it is we who are normal and they who are weird, using as they do their authority to nosey in about and ask us impertinent questions, to compare us to terrorist murderers and to keep and refer to records on us at the behest of private security part-time self-empowered petit-police squinting suspiciously at their CCTV screens, hating, fearing, paranoid. We have done nothing wrong. We should have nothing to fear - yet we feel the yolk and shackles of suspicion beginning to chafe. As they have managed to identify me, and come to my door simply from pictures of my likeness, we wonder just how deeply their investigations into the background of my private life have gone. It's a creepy feeling.

It is becoming clear that by looking at, thinking about and writing of our surroundings in the way we do, we stand out to a degree which is increasingly regarded as unacceptable in our society. There is a Japanese saying "The nail-head that stands out will be hammered flush". Our interest in urbanism has prompted a three-week police investigation and has brought officers to our door: We just felt the hammer.

We'd like to say to the interests which wield that hammer:

Stop guessing! Go out and catch some effing criminals; go out and gather some intelligence on those who perhaps do wish to cause harm to people, property, society - these people emphatically are not us and you know it. Stop trying to stifle the creative people in Aberdeen, for one day you'll find there are none of us left. Our patience is wearing thin.

Of course, by writing all this, we are putting ourselves further in view as outliers. We are nail-heads that stand all the further out. By oppressing us and attempting to suppress our perfectly innocuous actions - by attempting to hammer flush the nail-heads - the authorities and para-authorities provoke our further criticism.

And so on...


A friend points out that I'm probably not right to believe that I've been tracked by my likeness on CCTV:
...the way I'd do it would be look at the cellphone info to see whose phones were in the cell, get their numbers, id the owners. Fairly straightforward if you are in a position of power. Not that I do, but just saying. Going to CCTV mode is so inefficient.
Indeed, and thanks for that.

After having had a few days to reflect, we think that the most interesting aspect of the story is that the police went to the bother of tracking me. It strikes me that the Oilco's here in Aberdeen may be behaving a little like those A+ list celebrities (Tom Cruise and the like) who ban eye-contact with their underlings. Shell are saying "don't you dare look at me!"

We think that there are three possibilities for the police having followed up on the security guards' reporting of my presence in this semi-private semi-public place.
  1. Oilco paranoia - police willing to act as oilco agents and deliver me a fingerwagging rebuke for daring to notice that there are oil company premises in Aberdeen. Police owned by business. We're doomed.
  2. Genuine fear of terrorist attack by slightly chubby middle aged man making no attempt to hide his actions and happy to discuss what he's up to with the security guards. In which case the three weeks they took to getting round to intercepting me simply demonstrates their incompetence. We have no hope of these officers protecting us from genuine malfesance. We're doomed.
  3. Mechanical box-ticking follow-up by-the-book. 
Of these, we reckon that the third is the most likely. It's the book that's wrong. It still makes the security-guards and police guilty of 'just following orders' by the agency of 'by the book' and incapable of autonomous action which would allow an independent response to unique circumstances. We're doomed.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

A Turning of the Tide

A little while ago, we pointed out that the banner pic at the top of the Other Aberdeen blog has a significance beyond what might be apparent. We might change it one day, so here it is on this post:

There it is: Aberdeen's North Pier, Breakwater, Guiding Light and Harbourmaster's Tower photographed at the exact moment of the turning of a very high tide at the mouth of the Dee.

We've just returned from a few days on business in London, and were amazed to find out that while we were away a metaphorical tide had appeared to have turned in Aberdeen:

  • The Bon Accord Baths, it has been reported by Aberdeen City Council, are set to gain a tenant. The preferred bidder for the lease is to transform what we believe to be this truly iconic building into a stylish new arts centre. Not only are we are delighted that this internationally important building has a future but we are also very pleased that its new use will be as:
a new home for theatre, art and dance studios, a music recording studio and practice rooms for up-and-coming artists. The building could also host half-term holiday clubs for children and workshops for people of all generations, disabilities or backgrounds.
  • The future of The Belmont Picturehouse has been secured. A town-centre cinema valued for providing an alternative programme to the unchallenging anemic diet of Hollywood blockbusters available elsewhere, this arthouse cinema had been under threat of closure after the collapse of lease negotiations between the council (owners of the building) and potential new operators. A petition signed by more than 4500 cinemagoers was instrumental in making the council aware of the affection in which the Belmont Picturehouse's patrons held the cinema.
  • We learned of plans for a commercially-operated convenient car-share "car club" scheme in Aberdeen's town centre. Currently operating successfully in 46 other towns and cities across the UK, car clubs like these allow residents all the flexibility and envirnomental benefit of on-demand motor-vehicle use without the unnecessary environmental, economic and urban-detrimental overhead of actually owning a car - like a taxi you drive yourself. Take a smart BMW to a relative's wedding, take a Transit van to the tip. Brilliant.
Broadly speaking, a car club is an organisation that owns or leases, and maintains, a fleet of cars from which its members can book a vehicle whenever they need it. The club pays for tax, insurance, servicing, cleaning and fuel, whereas members pay a joining fee and a subsequent fee for each journey made ... Studies by Carplus, a national charity supporting responsible car use, have shown that 10% of car club members will give up owning a car or sell a second family car or defer owning a car in the first place. Typically, this results in ten vehicles slipping off the radar for each car club vehicle. The environmental benefits are evident, and individuals are encouraged to consider more closely whether they really need a car, or (more likely) whether they really need a second one.
All small things, yes, but taken together they represent incremental victories for those of us who hope to see Aberdeen build a broad base of creative capital within a new, livable, progressive, human-scale implementation of urbanism. This in turn will provide the foundation for a creative-arts-based regeneration of our city and a virtuous cycle of further iterative progress for the urban livability agenda - both of which being main interests and aims of this blog.

So often at Other Aberdeen we feel we are swimming against the tide. It has been nice to return from a few days away and find that we are, for the moment at least, going with the flow.

Fractal Dimension of Delight or Despair

It never ceases to amaze us how many times we see patterns repeat and laws of nature apply at various scales.

Economic growth progresses in cycles and epicycles, history repeats, social phenomena come and go and come again, normal distribution applies and self-similarity at all levels is exhibited in all phenomena; natural and artificial, historical and cosmic; all manifestations of reality are subject to the same forces which act upon them, whatever their location, whatever their scale, whatever we believe to be their wider subjective importance or otherwise.

As we engage in our psychogeographical praxis in and for Aberdeen, we find that the fractal dimension also extends to the urban realm (of course it does!), it being necessary only for us to slow down for the resolution of our senses to increase. In this way we seek and find the delight which forms the texture of our lives in the urban context. We connect forward and back the small to the large, the past to the future, the specific to the general and vice versa; this helps to lead us towards an independent and autonomous understanding of the world which we walk through; that being our ultimate aim both for ourselves and for all our fellow townspeople.

However, there is a negative corollary: Where by finding the connection between the specific to the general across orders of magnitude of scale we find delight, we might also find a warning for and from Aberdeen's urbanism. We saw this photo of a gardening contractor's van on the "Writing From Scotland" blog:

The wider significance of the fact that the garden contractor who's van this is believes that their Aberdonian clients would regard the removal of practically all greenery from their gardens and its replacement with blockwork and gravel as being a desirable outcome should be obvious to regular readers.

With thanks to Christine Laennec at Writing From Scotland for permission to reproduce the photo.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Woonerf for The Denburn Valley. Philosophy, Background and Site Visits.

On the day of the launch of a private-sector led design competition to re-shape the public realm space of central Aberdeen via a scheme which has as part of its parameters the destruction of Aberdeen's Union Terrace Gardens, we're delighted to be able to offer this alternative conceptual report into a vision which would retain Aberdonian's beloved city centre garden, and make the best possible use of the existing assets on the other side of the Denburn Valley - "Belmont Street Gardens", if you will...

Belmont Street Gardens

A couple of weeks ago, we laid out the beginnings of our vision for an alternative to the existing monolithic all-or-nothing take-it-or-leave it proposal for the redevelopment of Union Terrace Gardens and the east slope of the Denburn Valley opposite. That monolithic proposal was once know as the "City Square Project". Following public outcry at the very idea of destroying Union Terrace Gardens, the promotors of that project now wish it to be known as the "City Gardens Project". You can see what the PR gods have done there. The project is being promoted on behalf of local tycoon oil-man billionaire Sir Ian Wood by local development quango 'ACSEF' (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future).

Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Union Terrace Gardens is NOT the problem.

Denburn Dual Carriageway
Plus somewhere to put the bins.

Existing covered section - alienating.


We are concerned that ACSEF's top-down agenda to impose one single expensive solution to what they perceive to be Aberdeen's town centre problems runs the risk of putting all our civic eggs in one heavily-indebted basket. We prefer a more iterative, yet paradoxically much bolder approach, and have so proposed that that the underused Denburn Dual Carriageway (which so blights the valley) be abandoned, ploughed up and turned into a single carriageway 'woonerf' with streetscape initiative build-outs, planting, street furniture, kiosks; all the usual stuff you might see in the centre of any similar-sized town elsewhere in continental Europe.

Human scale - places of refuge and community
St. Nicolas Street - outside M&S
A woonerf is a shared space urban landscape - it's a policy pioneered in the Netherlands in the 1970's. Woonerf is a term increasingly used in the English-speaking world to mean an area where motorists have priority equal to or lesser than other road-users, thus increasing the livability of the city at the human scale, even as residential and commercial-use density increases. Based upon principals of filtered permeability and shared space for transport corridors and thoroughfares these woonerf areas were pioneered in Groningen and other towns in the Netherlands, Flanders and Germany to encourage walking and cycling by giving them a more attractive environment free from traffic and a time and convenience advantage over car driving.


So, with our woonerf proposal in mind we re-examined the material on the City Gardens Project website. Once or twice in the past we've raised specific concerns about some of the aspects implicit or explicit in the material on the site, but over the last few days, we had the chance to examine in detail the presentation material on their website, specifically the input of Charles Landry (author of The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators). You can download this material here:
We also refer to Scottish Government policy statement documents:
We also undertook site visits to Union Terrace Gardens and the footway (such as it is) which runs on the east side only of the Denburn Dual Carriageway. We also visited Aberdeen's existing woonerf exemplars at Belmont Street, St Nicholas Street and The Green.


Where is everybody? No pavements, no cyclelanes.
Em. No cars, either.
As we already pointed out, the Denburn Road urban dual carriageway represents a problematical conundrum to Aberdeen. Barely used, it sits dog in a manger at the heart of the city centre's prime real estate, the footway used for the storage of refuse recycling bins. Lovely. So rarely is it used by motor traffic that what vehicles do use it invariably do so at excessive speed, the granite-canyon walls of the carriageways reflecting and reverberating their engine roar. We are given to understand (and this is hearsay, so take it as such) that the Denburn Dual Carriageway had been planned and drawn up many years before it became a reality, and was finally given the go-ahead as a goodwill gesture to the designer who was due to retire around that time. This ill-conceived piece of urban motorism actually has not one but two plaques commemorating its creation. How embarrassing.

Not one...
Now, as we begin to chew on the meat of the 21st century, this 20th century solution to urban transport looks more and more old-fashioned and shaming. Two schemes are currently officially proposed which will tackle this blight. Both appear to be aimed at providing the Denburn Dual Carriageway with more traffic. Firstly, we have the Berryden Corridor Urban Dual Carriageway project, which will link with the Denburn Dual Carriageway. Secondly we have the City Gardens Project, which has as one of its parameters the requirement to 'cover over' the Denburn Dual Carriageway - thus turning it into an urban motorway tunnel. Indeed the conceptual report (big pdf) into the (then) City Square Project shows some 500 parking spaces on two underdeck levels occupying the volume currently 'airspace' above Union Terrace Gardens. That would certainly put lots of traffic onto the Denburn Dual Carriageway.

but two...
We find that both of these officially proposed solutions are solipsistic - seeing motor-traffic transportation as being the desired outcome of providing infrastructure for motor-traffic transportation. This motorcentric philosophy with its reliance on and pandering to car-dependent obesogenic lifestyles is out of date and out of time.


Charles Landry said that "old thinking" is exemplified by attitudes and policies where the "car is king" whereas "new thinking" is partially characterised by urban planning policies where "the car is the guest". This, of course, is an explicit re-statement of the philosophy behind the Woonerf concept which we propose. In his presentation, Landry says that this "new thinking" based on "shared space" where the person - the pedestrian - re-captures the city from the car, helps create the acme of a city which can compete on 21st century global terms - a "humane city" with "distinctiveness" where people have a sense of ownership, where delight and enjoyment, participation and familiarity are encountered within human scale, liveable environments; "great places". It strikes us that what Landry said in his presentation stands in stark contrast to the irreversible monolithic single building (for that is what it would be) which the City Garden Project proposes.

Belmont Street - the car is a "guest". Can you see it?
Rather than "tear up the rulebook" as Landry exhorts planners to do, the advocates of the City Garden Project are flicking through that long-discredited rulebook of comprehensive re-development and urban dual carriageway schemes and coming up with the type of capital-intensive mega-building projects which have long been consigned to history elsewhere where more enlightened planning policy predominates. The perceived need to spend huge amounts of capital on this sort of regeneration is a fallacy. Indeed, as Landry said, shared-space schemes are a means of recapturing spaces in a very cheap way. One of the things which Landry says is a most important consideration relating to our urban experience is "what does it feel like?". How does it make us feel?


Please excuse us while we quote the current Prime Minister, David Cameron:
Too often in politics today, we behave as if the only thing that matters is the insider stuff that we politicians love to argue about - economic growth, budget deficits and GDP.
GDP. Gross domestic product. Yes it's vital. It measures the wealth of our society. But it hardly tells the whole story. Wealth is about so much more than pounds, or euros or dollars can ever measure. It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB - general well-being. Well-being can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It can't be required by law or delivered by government. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture, and above all the strength of our relationships.
Improving our society's sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times. 
An existing garden off Denburn Road
Right, sorry about that (feel a bit dirty now), but we completely agree with everything he said there. In his book "Cities for People" Jan Gehl, leader of Copenhagen's transformation into a walkable city, examines the necessity to encourage urban design from the perspective of the five senses (we would say six), taken at walking speed. This eye-level approach does much to address the needs -and happiness - of the individual and it is central to our critical approach to current proposals. There's no doubt that we have much to learn from continental Europe, but we also have something to learn from the developing world. In particular, we are aware of the Urban Happiness movement in Bogota, Columbia, and the spectacular advances they have made in creating happiness through livability and inclusive participation in Bogota for all the people, no matter their wealth or social status. Often it is pointed out that Aberdeen is the most socially stratified of Scotland's cities, so we should listen to what this movement has to say. The movement is spearheaded by former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa. “There are a few things we can agree on about happiness,” he says. “You need to fulfill your potential as a human being. You need to walk. You need to be with other people. Most of all, you need to not feel inferior.” A key to equality is providing dignified, functional transportation, which Bogota has done with a powerful version of bus rapid transit as well as extensive bike and pedestrian networks. “When you talk about these things, designing a city can be a very powerful means to generate happiness,” Peñalosa says. By linking urban design to the economics of happiness, Bogotans have become happier. The murder rate fell by an astounding 40% during Peñalosa’s term and continues to decrease, along with the number of traffic deaths. Traffic moves three times faster now during rush hour. And the changes transformed how people feel.


An existing garden off Denburn Road
As mentioned, there is much we can learn from our neighbours in continental Europe, and indeed a great deal of work has been done by policy makers at Scottish Government and quango level to provide frameworks for our planners to follow. The most recent of these documents "Civilising the Streets" (pdf direct download) specifically matches the needs and requirements of specific Scottish Cities (including Aberdeen) with the grass-roots liveability and urban environment initiatives undertaken in analagous cities in continental Europe. This sophisticated document provides specific conclusions and recommendations for the implementation of human-scale active travel and transportation policies in Scottish towns and cities. Read in conjunction with the policy documents "Designing Places" (pdf) and "Designing Streets" (pdf), we can conclude that our Woonerf proposal for Denburn Road would meet with political approval.

From "Designing Places":
The most successful places, the ones that flourish socially and economically, tend to have certain qualities in common. First, they have a distinct identity. Second, their spaces are safe and pleasant. Third, they are easy to move around, especially on foot. Fourth, visitors feel a sense of welcome. Places that have been successful for a long time, or that are likely to continue to be successful, may well have another quality, which may not be immediately apparent – they adapt easily to changing circumstances. Finally, places that are successful in the long term, and which contribute to the wider quality of life, will prove to make good use of scarce resources. They are sustainable.
Sustainability – the measure of the likely impact of development on the social, economic and environmental conditions of people in the future and in other places – must run as a common thread through all our thinking about design. Thinking about sustainability focuses in particular on promoting greener lifestyles, energy efficiency, mixed uses, biodiversity, transport and water quality.
A cantilevered cafe over Denburn Road,
looking across to Union Terrace Gardens.
We will integrate this.
We believe that the back lots of Belmont Street - the front lots of Denburn Road, have huge potential to fulfill these six qualities and that the only barrier to them doing so immediately is the fact that they face onto an urban dual carriageway. The fact that that urban dual carriageway is so sparsely populated with traffic is our opportunity to boldly seize the initiative and remove it once and for all, thus also removing its inhuman blight from our townscape. Once achieved, this reversion to a more human-scale streetscape will, as Landry promotes, provide a familiar and convenient space at a human scale in stark contrast with the inhuman alienation of an environment which is at present designed exclusively for use by machines. From being a dead space which specifically and intentionally excludes human activity, we will transform it into a "great street".

From "Designing Streets":
The process of street design offers an opportunity to deliver far more to our society than simply transport corridors. Well-designed streets can be a vital resource in social, economic and cultural terms; they can be the main component of our public realm and a core element of local and national identity. Well-designed streets can also be crucial components in Scotland’s drive towards sustainable development and responding to climate change. Attractive and well-connected street networks encourage more people to walk and cycle to local destinations, improving their health while reducing motor traffic, energy use and pollution.
Discovery, delight, access
We believe that the placing of the redevelopment of the Denburn Valley on our civic agenda in Aberdeen provides us with a once-in a lifetime opportunity to create a "great space" at human scale and minimal cost. Already many streetscape enhancing enterprises back onto Denburn Road. Bars, cafés, hotels, photographic studios, restaurants, high-end engineering consultancies and even a cinema (notwithstanding it's current difficulties) already have street-level access to Denburn Road - given the right streetscape these enterprises will thrive in the human-scale environment which a woonef has been proven time and again all over the world to provide. We should have that here.


Bustle in heritage.
Too often, Aberdeen is characterised as exemplifying an insular "not invented here" attitude. That need not bother us in this case, for we already have successful examples of woonerf operating in the commercial heart of the town. In Belmont Street and St Nicholas Street, people walk the centre of the road untroubled by motor traffic - yet in Belmont Street motor traffic is not specifically banned - it has "guest" status. St Nicholas Street links well with the Belmont Street area through the St Nicholas churchyard, which is a green haven in the town centre. Most recently, an urban streetscape initiative has been implemented in "The Green" a historic part of our town.

Serenity and refuge
With our proposals for the Denburn Road area, we can link all these pedestrian-friendly areas together, and, moreover we can increase connectivity with other transport modes. Our proposals would have the east side of The Green terminate at the railway platform which currently serves the suburban service to Dyce. There are plans to greatly improve the suburban and exurban rail service to and from Aberdeen, and our proposals would integrate with that. At present the east end of The Green terminates in the Denburn Dual Carrageway, beyond which is a loading bay for the Trinity Centre shopping mall above, in turn, beyond that is the railway platform Our proposal to close the Denburn Dual Carriageway would re-develop the loading-bay space as Railway Station space and would fulfill the 150-year-old dream of providing direct access to Union Street from that Railway Station Platform via existing lift-shafts and stairwells at the Trinity Centre shopping mall. This scheme would also provide pleasant and direct access to the Union Square shopping centre and its huge car-park, obviating the need to bring any elevated levels of motor transport any farther into the town centre than that which we suffer already.

The east-end of The Green as it is today. It just stops.
Dual Carriageway, then loading bay. Then Railway Station.
But no access. We will fix that.

Nooks and corners add interest and intrigue.
This is an imaginative and simple scheme; a low impact but high effect plan which radically alters the emphasis of our town centre away from motorcars, and provides space in a pleasant environment for commercial, retail and residential development. And all at very little up-front cost to existing businesses and residents. A little while ago we wrote about the return of a mixed economy to the towns and cities of the USA; a grass-roots sustainable movement of entrepreneurs providing goods and services in the new-economic realities of the 21st century. Our proposals for the Denburn Valley support this new vision of capital. Our proposal to turn an underused urban asset in the form of the Denburn Dual Carriageway into a "great space" which could be linked to Union Terrace Gardens by footbridges allows a modern and radical human-scale vision for Aberdeen's town centre. This is an achievable vision which allows for organic growth in business sectors making the best use of our splendid and iconic existing buildings.

Development opportunity.
Our imaginative proposals would put our town at the forefront of the new urbanism and would allow creativity to flourish at a human scale in a familiar and welcoming environment. This environment provides choices, promotes connectivity and provokes delight while retaining what is best about the built environment of our town. What is more, this proposal is a minimum intervention and allows enterprise to flourish sustainably from the grass roots, not by top-down once-only fingers-crossed-and-see-what-happens decree. In effect our proposals would turn the whole breathtaking scenographic vista of the entirety of the Denburn Valley transected by Rosemount Viaduct into an enormous (nearly) natural-topography entrance porch - a cultural crucible - for our town for those arriving by rail. This "sense of arrival" (per Landry) would make this town famous, and for better reasons than it is famous today. Maybe even the Denburn itself could run in the open once more, the living water flowing in the heart of our town, it certainly makes a picturesque scene further up its valley at the Grammar School.

In the grounds of the Grammar School
There are many options along the way: Our new plan to turn the existing dual carrageway into a new contemporary garden, the Denburn Valley Gardens (if you will) would encompass both east and west slopes of the valley, so some part of the gardens would always be in direct sunlight. The existing Victorian gardens would be fully retained at practically no cost, and when the sunlight moves off them, garden users can cross over to new, modern gardens on the east bank, terracing down from Belmont Street, accessed by footbridges over the railway line which itself would be retained lending scenographic drama to our showpiece city centre and displaying the latest railway technology. There need be no hurry to proscriptively pedestrianise Union Street, as by the agency of our scheme, private motorised transport in the town centre will simply wither away.

Indeed, once our scheme is up and running, seamlessly connecting the Green with the Railway Station; with Union Square and St Nicholas Street; with St Nicholas Churchyard and Belmont Street with Union Terrace Gardens - all at pedestrian scale with charm and delight around every corner - who would ever want to take their car all the way into the town centre ever again?

Just needs a bit of care.

ALREADY part of this beautiful vista seen from Union Terrace Gardens.


As part of our researches, we found that there's another woonerf already in existence in the Denburn Valley which could serve as a precident for our proposals. It's at Rubislaw Den South, very near the home of Sir Ian Wood, oil-man tycoon and backer of the City Gardens Project. It's lovely.

Existing Denburn Valley woonerf. 

Friday, 15 April 2011

Men of Violence. Enough!

To our shame, we hadn't noticed until the week before last that Aberdeen is to gain yet another statue commemorating men of violence. This new statue, to sit in the  Castlegate at the heart of the historic town, commemorates and lionises the Gordon Highlanders regiment; to remember them "with pride and gratitude".

At the outset, let us acknowledge the regrettable fact that war and war memorials are part of the weave of the fabric from which our society and civilisation is tailored. We have many war memorials, including the most impressive, beautiful and apt statuary and colonnade, reliefs and inscriptions at Cowdray Hall on Schoolhill.

Splendid, sober, restrained, appropriate.
Unfortunately, and contrasting with the sober memorial at Schoolhill, the new Gordons statue will join with and augment the effect of all the other pompous martial statuary which venerates people of violence and slaughter and which peppers our town centre like the cluster munitions which today exemplify the state-of-the-art in these people's stock-in-trade.

Now, let's be clear, some of these individuals made important contributions to our town, to our country, indeed (arguably) to the wider sweep of western civilisation - but the one thing which links them, the crimson thread which runs them all through, is violent slaughter.
What a big sword!
To this list will be added the new Gordons commemorative statue. We must ask: What message about our town does this transmit? Is this a message of open welcome, or is it rather one of vainglorious militaristic bellicosity and triumphalism? Will venerating violence in this way add to our prestige? Or will it just make us look like chauvinistic jingoistic swaggering braggart ruffians with an effusively mawkish streak? Moreover, what is the message which this sends to coming generations of Aberdonians? Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Municipiuum Mori?

We would submit that the Gordons are already quite well-served by memorials (some of which highlight adventures in the mechanised mass-slaughter of 'natives' which today might be regarded as something to refer to The Hague) and a historic regiment could hope for no better commemoration than their splendid and award-winning museum at Rubislaw.

Meanwhile, national bard Robbie Burns stands alone above doomed Union Terrace Gardens and, farther up the Denburn, Lord Byron stands in the grounds of the Grammar School. Our two statuary acknowledgements and commemorations of creative (rather than destructive) genius. Men of peace and justice. Men who literally lauded love and practiced what they preached. Though Burns wasn't from anywhere round here, the sentiments he expressed and the creative genius by which he transmitted his philosophy stands embodied in this statue. Burns clutches not the swords of Wallace or George; not the guns of the Gordons - rather, Burns delicately holds a single mountain daisy in his hand. Byron clutches a book and and a pen.

Mary Garden's little plaque in a verge
off Cragie Loanings.
It's not enough.
We suggest that, rather than have new statuary commemorating men of violence, we would do far better to add to and augment the Burns and Byron statues with statues of men and women of peace, creative genius and scientific and social progress. There are many candidates of international standing, and some of them are even from Aberdeen.

Some of these people are commemorated in little plaques around town. This list isn't exhaustive - we're sure there are many more equally worthy of immortalisation in stone or bronze in the heart of our town. Of these, our personal favourite is James Clerk Maxwell. Without Maxwell's work on electromagnetic theory you wouldn't be reading these words or, indeed living anything like the life you live today. Maxwell truly is a "without whom", critical path, nexus figure. His work at Aberdeen University on the true nature of light, electricity and magnetism, and his special genius in noting that these three manifestations are but three aspects of the one phenomenon, is one of the greatest ever advances in physics. His work is comparable in importance to that of Einstein or Newton. We're not kidding and we don't say this lightly.

We suggest that our town would be much better served by erecting a statue to this colossus of modern science, using as he did his genius to enlighten the world and help generate the future which we live in today. A new statue of a man who can wield his intellect to improve the world would be a much more fitting addition to our town than a new statue of men waving guns and/or swords about.

The plaque on Union Street is the size of a sheet of letter paper.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Thin Places Delineated at the Broad and Gallows Hills

A couple of months ago, we were on Aberdeen's Broad Hill to visit the innovative and subversive art installation: "By Order of Me".

Some of the artworks invite the viewer to consider the psychogeographical aspects of our situation ("You make the world the world"), as well as the psycho-historical aspects of the location ("Just think - there used to be bears here"). Go along with an open mind and time on your hands, observe the signs and you'll see what we mean. The installation is to remain in place until the end of the year.

It was a most raw February day when we were there, with a high tide battering hard against the esplanade which forms the sea-wall protecting the links from the North Sea. We walked under the esplanade and between the beach and the Broad Hill, then traversed the Trinity Cemetery up to the summit of Gallows Hill. Our interpretation of and interaction with the landscape inspired by the artifacts and the topography of the area.

Under the esplanade
Esplanade surveillance cluster.
For your safety and comfort.
From the top of Broad Hill, we see some remarkable views over the town lying to the west and, it being a prominent landmark, we're not surprised to find both an OS Trig Point pillar and a granite boundary stone at the hill's summit.

South face "R"
Both photos are of the same stone, we think it marks the boundary of fishing rights, the incised groove runs west to east pointing seaward. The inscribed letters will be the initials of the proprietors of the fishing rights. We're not certain of this, so if you know better, let us know...

North face "ND"
Traces of the foundations of recent structures can be seen in the low-lying flat links land - now a cricket pitch - beneath the hill. The area was heavily militarised during the Second World War, reflecting one of its historic uses as a convenient open and flat place to hold wappenshaws - "weapon-showings" - mustering of men under arms to satisfy clan or feudal lords that a suitably large, fit, well-equipped and bellicose corps of men could be gathered to execute their war-like bidding. We can't say whether the marks we see are the outlines of military camp structures and emplacements, or whether they are to do with the more conducive sporting and leisure uses of this land, which have included horse-racing, livestock shows, football, golf, galas and markets.

Impressions of previous land-use.
The shifting patterns of land use in this marginal zone between the town and the sea reflect the dynamic nature of this littoral zone itself. It is said that from time to time in pre-history the mouth of the River Don would become silted up and its waters would flow southwards, innundating the area now occupied by a links golf course and exiting to the North Sea somewhere around the latitude of the Broad Hill. Recent geographers doubt this assertion, the impervious clay bed of the links being at too high a level to allow the river to flow all the way south to the Broad Hill before finding an outlet or re-breaching its established one. However, the past undoubtedly saw the area characterised by a dynamic and shifting landscape with boggy quicksands, tidal lagoons, freshwater and brackish lochs (the Canny Sweet Pots - a bastardisation of Gaelic roughly translating as "the head of the settlement by the deep pools of water) fed by the Powis Burn and Banstickle Burns, which now run in underground culverts beneath the links. At their confluence, those burns became known as the Tile Burn which had a tidal flow allowing sea-going vessels to navigate some half-a-mile inland to the 18th century tile and brick works which gave the burn its name.

On the day when we visited, when a very high tide and a storm blowing in from the sea caused the waves to bluster and batter against the sea wall with more violence than we'd ever seen before, it was very easy to imagine a similar day in a time before modern sea defenses, the water inundating the land and reconfiguring the shifting sands, lagoons and watercourses.

This feeling of impermanence; of the diaphanous edge between something and nothing - the delicate balance between certainty and inconstancy which we felt and experienced as we stood braced against the onshore gale surveying the foreshore - put us in mind of the concept of the "Thin Place" in Celtic spirituality and the early Christian church. I've heard there's a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, and that in the "thin places" that distance is even smaller. The early Christian church in Ireland, in Wales and in Scotland sought out these "thin places" for pilgrimage and in some cases to co-opt the sites and plant their missions on the foundations of pre-existing spirituality.

We feel that others have felt the same about this site throughout the history of our town and perhaps before. On the western slope of the Broad Hill, descending into a hollow and then ascending up to Gallows Hill is the Trinity Cemetery, which hosts a unique monument to people who've willed their remains to medical science for research.
The increase of knowledge and the advance of medicine
An ancient scabby dog-shit strewn right-of-way leads up the side of the graveyard to the summit Gallows Hill. As if to emphasise the theme of changeability and inconstancy, as we mounted the summit, the weather changed dramatically, the skies cleared and the sun shone strong and low in the late winter sky.

A young couple on the summit of Gallows Hill

Looking back down the right-of-way from Gallows Hill
 to Broad Hill in the backgound, North Sea beyond.
Some old maps show a powder magazine sited on Gallows Hill, and a rifle range extending down the right-of-way between Broad Hill and Gallows Hill, chiming with some of the martial aspects of this part of Aberdeen. An ancient site of execution, where the gibbet remained in place until at least 1776, the choice of this site for the storage of volatile military materiel was apt. No doubt folk would avoid the area if they could, because of its associations with crime and punishment, death and bodily corruption. The Victorian Trinity Cemetery tempers the negative psychogeographical aspects of Gallows Hill somewhat with the usual mawkish Victorian aspirations towards spiritual redemption and resurrection in an idealised afterlive of child-cherubs and young-women-as-angels. These Victorian signs and symbols strike a saccharine note with us in the 21st century, and so merely add a further freight of peculiar queerness to the undeniably singular atmosphere which is embodied in the topography, artifacts and history of this area, despite it being very close to the town centre today.

Clinging to the old rugged cross
Gravediggers baronial-gothic cottage
The hill is marked with a couple of 19th century (probably) boundary stones and a much older stone, marked with a cross. The retired grave-digger (no, really) who lives in the splendid Gothic-Victorian pavilion guarding the gates of the graveyard told us that this was a "Doupin Stone" like the one out west at Wynford, but we can't corroborate that. Aberdeen City Council's archaeology pages don't appear to have a record for it and the RCAHMS record it as a boundary stone.

Groove-incised boundary stone.

Boundary stone inscribed "TH"

Cross-marked stone
The hill overlooks Aberdeen Football Club's stadium at Pittodrie. We understand that the hill was at one time known as the Miser's Hilly, because hard-up or parsimonious football fans could watch the match free from the prominence. We suggest you read Alex Mitchell's pieces on the Ancient Burgh's of Aberdeen in the Aberdeen Voice for more background.

Remains of a bonfire on the summit
There used to be a manure works nearby to the north at Linksfield, involved in the production of fertiliser and chemicals for the leather tanning industry and bleachings. The feedstock for for the works was provided by a police stables, it's dung-heap occupying the site of the present-day football stadium, the name of which - Pittodrie - is from the Gaelic "pitt" - place of and "todhair" - manure; bleaching

The Manichean paradox embodied in the fact that the filth of manure is transmuted into an agent of purity: the bleach for the tanneries and bleachings, similarly chimes with the transformative and dynamically charged psychogeography inherent in the shifting topography of the area and how that in turn has affected our use of it. A place of comings and goings; of shifting surfaces; of things which are not as they seem; of deaths, planned and natural; of aggression and recreation; and of crime and redemption all in a "thin place", a place on the edge between the land and the sea, the edgelands between here and there; the border between the past and the future. The difference between something and nothing.