Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Charm Agenda, Charm Offensive, Offensive Charm

A whole month after our "Final Thought" about the planning debacle surrounding Aberdeen's only town-centre green space - Union Terrace Gardens - events conspire to make liars of us, and we're obliged to offer yet more "final thoughts".


I was leafing through the most recent edition of Tyler Brûlé's Monocle "cultural briefing" magazine the other day. (Yeah, yeah, I know.) But we very much like Tyler's takes on urbanism, on transport and on modernism (in architecture and design). Since he turned the 'lifestyle' magazine market inside out when he launched Wallpaper in 1996, his editorial push has been characterised by a purity of vision and a earnest championing of good taste and human scale urban design - quality, authenticity and integrity in urbanism. Looking at his magazines, you might think that postmodernism never happened.

The most recent edition of Monocle points out that, as we're getting accustomed to having tough economic forecasts thrust in front of us, and as politicians and mass-media pundits struggle to begin to think about how they might approach - as they eventually must - the necessity of starting to condition the general public to the fact that a return to economic growth may not actually be possible - certain brands, businesses, regions and people seem not to be merely surviving, but rather thriving despite the economic crisis. The magazine devotes an editorial and an entire globetrotting section with travelogues (dérives) and essays (polemics) all turned to the examination of that special quality which allows some to float easily to the top to enjoy the oxygen of prosperity while others sink in the stifling mire of economic depression. Tyler's travel writers, photographers, philosophers, and graphic artists are flung to the four corners of the earth and return to identify this fundamental ingredient of resilient success. They conclude that this vital essence is charm.
It's a set of attributes got by doing things based on human feelings and not because a focus group says it sounds good or the numbers seem to add up when you pile them on to an Excel sheet. The reason we think this word [charm] is key in 2012 is because it adds the DNA for longevity into brands, business and neighbourhoods
Honesty, integrity, simplicity … are other words that help all manner of firms thrive, but oddly, they never seem to make it past the door of a business school. That's because these things can't be taught; you have to genuinely possess these qualities.
Charm is unquantifiable, which is why management consultants and MBA graduates overlook it. Decisions about the future of a town, building or business that are made in the boardroom don't consider the importance or charm. … And yet charm is arguably the most important factor for securing repeat business, which in today's financial climate is invaluable.
Charm is fragile too - it's not something you can buy (think Dubai), it takes time to nurture and requires safeguarding because, once lost, it's near impossible to reinstate.
So you can see that this resonates with today's urban planning tumult in Aberdeen. Since the intervention of oil-tycoon Sir Ian Wood in 2008 caused the collapse of the project to build the Northern Light (a contemporary art centre) in favour of his own vanity-stroking City Square Project (as was), the discourse in Aberdeen has been characterised by a singular lack of charm. Accusation and counter-accusation have flown in an increasingly polarised debate as the polity is subjected to the spectacle of a process which has been distressingly divisive. Misdirection, misinformation, sock-puppetry, DPR, website hacking, vexatious allegations, character assassinations and other dirty tricks have all been rumoured to have been used by one side or the other or both. Allegedly. We have been disappointed but unsurprised to see a lack of balance in the local press, who have continued to act as editorial mouthpieces for the boosters of CO2-supremo Sir Ian Wood's project, their pro-development articles hitting their own front pages with predictably metronomic regularity. But then, we've long since aired our disappointment about how our Aberdeen newspapers are operated.

In our opinion, the distasteful aspects of this process which will in effect privatise commonly-held land, were inevitable. When carbon-bigwig Sir Ian Wood first announced his intention to outbid the creative and performing arts community in Aberdeen he set our teeth on edge by going on record and saying:
Eighty percent of the people who spend time in [my] square will have no interest in the arts.
So breathtaking an expression and expectation of philistinism, both patronising and dismissive, used by the emission-king Sir Ian Wood as a justification for why his scheme would be preferred by the people of Aberdeen over the Northern Light scheme, was inevitably seen by the creative arts community - both producers and consumers with curator-types in between - as an opening pre-emptive strike in a dirty war for the soul (both metaphysical and urban-physical) of our town. Thus was the wind sown, and now we reap the whirlwind as the time has arrived and the people of Aberdeen are now making a decision on whether or not the park gets bulldozed. A postal referendum is in progress at this time. What emission-monger Sir Ian Wood first called "The City Square Project" has been re-branded "The City Garden Project". You can see what they did there.


One of the many aspects which has characterised the moneymen's push to foist their debt-creating real-estate land-grab and building project on the people of Aberdeen is the use of pubic relations (PR) consultancies who are involved in projecting a presence (we think that's the kind of thing these sorts of people tend to say) for the City Square Garden Project. Posters, flyers, web, social media, radio, tv and print. It's all been very slick and impressive. If you think that a corporate branding and impression management (as they say) exercise can ever be impressive, that is. Many people do in these hyperreal times, more's the pity.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked one of the social media manifestation aspects of the City Square Garden Project a straightforward enough genuine question. Here's what I asked:
One of the things which is a perennial spectacle in Aberdeen, in the city centre, is the sunset gathering of starlings - vectoring in from all directions and amorphously flocking in the sky above Union Street. The spectacular flock (numbering tens of thousands of birds) swoops around the city centre, gathering strength of numbers as subsidiary flocks join, before groups break off and dive beneath Union Bridge to roost.
The RSPB and the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) state that: "starling numbers have fallen by 66 per cent in Britain since the mid-1970s. Because of this decline in numbers, the starling is red listed as a bird of high conservation concern." 
And the RSPB also note that the Countryside Act (1981) makes it illegal to intentionally kill, injure or take a starling, or to take, damage or destroy an active nest or its contents. They say that preventing the birds from gaining access to their nests may also be viewed as illegal by the courts. And indeed, the provisions of the Scottish Nature Conservation Act (which supersedes and modifies the Countryside Act) are more stringent yet when it comes to bird habitat protection, making it an explicit offence to: "obstruct or prevent any wild bird from using its nest". How can this be avoided by the plans as proposed? 
How will the project circumvent the provisions of the Countryside Act and the Scottish Nature Conservation Act? How will the promotors of the project deal with this issue? Has the City Garden Project been in touch with the RSPB and the BTO?  If they have not already contacted the RSPB/BTO, why not?
The response from the City Square Garden Project's social media manifestation:
We love the birds too and want to see them remain in the city centre. What is exciting about the new gardens is the fact that new eco-systems and habitats will be created by the larger gardens with a greater diversity of plants and wildlife. 

Ugh. Firstly, when I read that, I had the feeling that I'd been mugged. It's that superficial charm of the PR "handling" thing that they do by the numbers; that thing that's straight out of the first year media studies playbook where they 1. gushingly agree ("yes we love birds too, see - we're just like you!") - then 2. deflect by issuing handwaving boilerplate ("the new thing will be EVEN BETTER"); all without addressing the serious and genuine specific concerns I'd expressed. At the time of writing, I've seen no genuine response to my questions from the City Square Gardens Project PR people. 

The thing about charm is, it cannot be faked. We can all tell when a corporate entity has a "workshopped vision" rather than a genuine opinion. We are used to the cant of the scripted interactions we must suffer with call centres and checkout till operators. We can even now detect when the script has been drafted in order to appear unscripted. It's wearing, it's tiring, it's disheartening. We live now in an age of flesh-robots consulting decision-tree boilerplate scripts. Where are the real people? What are their genuine opinions? It's doubly disheartening to realise that the real people promoting this real-estate venture (in this case, emission-king Sir Ian Wood and a group of 50 anonymous(ish) - certainly faceless - businesspeople who are bankrolling the PR initiative) reckon themselves to be so lacking in genuine charm that they must retain a PR consultancy to generate a continual outgushing of superficial charm boilerplate in order to deflect public attention away from them, and away from key questions and problems with the project. I suppose, at least, we should congratulate the group of fifty anonymous(ish) businesspeople for their self-knowledge. 


A correspondent pointed us towards the blog of local(ish) PR practitioner Ken McEwan, in which the PR-man contends that  - unless the people of Aberdeen consent to carbon-mogul Sir Ian Wood's real-estate development scheme which would destroy Aberdeen's only town centre green space - there will be no further investment of any kind in Aberdeen. When he asserts: "This is an all or nothing package" he's kind-of saying "Vote Yes to the comprehensive redevelopment of Union Terrace Gardens or the rest of the city gets it!" 

Of course, the PR-man avoids any use of the words "loan" or "debt", choosing to use the words "investment" and "funding" instead. But leaving that aside, and also leaving aside the arguable thrust of the "all or nothing" assertion, what we find most enlightening is the posture that this PR-man is happy to be seen to be taking. To us, it seems that he appears to be revelling in creating the impression of a kind of civic-development blackmail. Aren't these PR-types charming?


When we last wrote about this subject, we got a bit of criticism for our use of language like "emission-king" and "pollution-mogul" when describing carbon-baron Sir Ian Wood. Some people thought we ran the risk of undermining the work of the various voluntary groups who are working to retain Union Terrace Gardens. We responded by saying that we would happily consent to the destruction of Union Terrace Gardens were the pre-eminent CO2-magnate Sir Ian Wood to renounce his role in the extraction of oil and gas and denounce the oil industry for the atmosphere-threatening activity which it demonstrably is. We said that we were not interested in coalitions, particularly when membership of a coalition might compromise our principles. It's a matter of perspective - for what use will a small city centre park be should the thermohaline circulation system collapse? How will Union Terrace Gardens in their current form help the hundreds of millions of people who will be displaced from low-lying coastal regions as sea levels rise? When ever will the many hundreds of thousands who will be killed in resource-wars to come be able to enjoy the peace and tranquility of a sunken garden in a provincial northern town? 

So we were saddened when the major grouping of volunteers which is working to retain Union Terrace Gardens announced that they have received the beneficent backing of oil-tycoon Jimmy Reid (yes, another one, another tycoon). We wrote about the intransigence of these pollution-millionaires before, in the context of the financial collapse of the potentially atmosphere-saving carbon capture and storage pilot plant at Longannet power station. 

In a press release, carbon-grandee Jimmy Reid, publicity-friendly MD and Chairman of Balmoral Group said:
I and many of my business contemporaries, are committed to establishing a fund which will help bring the gardens back to their former glory. Without destroying our heritage, and without putting Aberdeen City further into debt, it would not be difficult to breathe fresh life into the park. Improved access, new planting, cleaning and restoration, park wardens and live events could all be relatively easily and cost effectively achieved.

We were sickened by the sycophancy which Jimmy Milne's announcement provoked from some members of the groups who want to retain Union Terrace Gardens. And we were troubled by this talk of a fund set up by faceless businesspeople to run a public park. But, again, these are side issues. More important to us is that we certainly don't want our activism (such as it is) to be co-opted weight-of-numbers-wise (as it runs the risk of being) in support of the consent-manufacturing activities of the pollution-magnates and their climate-jeopardising activities, whatever their views on the direction of urbanism, new or old. Such are the dangers of coalition membership. Which oil-tycoon do you prefer? We prefer neither.

Spot the difference


The whole spectacle of this fight for the future of a small park has split opinion in this town. It has marginalised the creative sector, it has damaged the arts and it has polarised discourse. It has served as a window-dressing diversion away from the necessity to build a truly sustainable industrial future for Aberdeen based upon the exploitation of renewable energy sources. The atmosphere of hostility and distrust is poisonous to the enjoyment of this town for its own sake, something which is one of the avowed aims of the whole OtherAberdeen blog. And now the polity of the whole town has been manoeuvred into the false dilemma of being forced to endorse either the vision of one oil-tycoon or the other. We feel a need to distance ourselves from this spectacle, for sometimes the grapes really are sour.

1 comment:

dorothy bothwell said...

On first reading - I thought Wow. This is captivating stuff, and a pretty good observation of what is the here and now re Union Terrace Gardens. I must read it again later.

Dorothy Bothwell
e-mail mrsb_cafe52@hotmail.com