Sunday, 4 March 2012

At the Watershed on the Last Day of Winter

The leap-year day's morning sun shone low and wan, but yes; surprisingly warm - record-breaking warm, in fact - on that windless morning last week above the town. I was between, on one side, the utterly deserted championship golf course at Hazlehead and, on the other, the scrubby edgeland which is made up of the not-quite urban, not-quite rural landscape to the immediate west. Horseriding centres, market-garden smallholdings, deep-infrastructure municipal reservoirs and pine-forested monoculture woods along with all the other usual edgeland ephemera form a patchwork of land use at the western edge of the town. A never-to-be completed network of paths for walkers, equestrians and mountain bikers waits to be discovered or ignored - relaid or allowed to overgrow into desuetude. 

Exploring edgelands like these, where the town frays into the country you might find a path you'd never noticed before. You might follow it through a forested area then between a field of scrubby grass with a magnificent white stallion on one side and on the other, the newly tilled soft rich black soil of this good earth, moist and shining in that warming sun. Your newly-discovered path might bring you to an area you recognise, ah yes, connecting round from a way you'd never come before. And you'd experience an odd mix of feelings. Satisfaction, yes - happy that you'd found a new route that joined up with paths you already knew. But a sadness too - the regret that comes with finally completing a collection, a closing in and rounding off of knowledge, the expiry of a mystery; is that all there is?

Exploring another path - you might find it not-quite-yet overgrown, but hard-enough going, gorse-barbs nipping your arms and legs. Was this an old farm-access road? Was it a drover's road? A tight avenue of mature trees and dry-stane dykes, the once-made now unmade road beneath your feet now grassy green with a desire-line muddy trail up the middle. Who's were the last feet to walk this way? When? And what for? Then the route just stops, cut dead by a recently-built embankment, upon which a commuter's dual-carrageway thunders; Evoque and Focus alike, Hi-Lux and Transit shouldered upon heroic-high revetment thirty feet above your extinguished desire line. You'd have no choice but to turn around and retrace your steps.

And on that anomalously-hot morning last week, that's where I was. Exploring the paths beyond Hazlehead and marvelling at the morning's dew - now sunshine-liberated steamy mist, atmospherically drifting between the pines and highlighting that low-slanting sunshine. Then, secreted somewhere in this liminal zone between the barely-used paths, deep in the small woods I found what I was looking for.

There I found nature's centred silence. A serene stretch of silver-surfaced shallow water amid the trees. These still waters spread wide; a labyrinthine mirror, serpentine between the pines. A seasonally-natural reservoir of the late autumn, winter and early spring months. Then to be exhausted; just-drying cracking mud or even dusty parched concrete-hard in the hottest of summers.

Pushing branches aside, there I stopped and stood by the edge of the still water. As my consciousness slowed and expanded, I began to perceive the sounds which are embedded in silence. A single bird sings to establish territory, or maybe to attract a mate. A sudden gentle breeze ruffles the treetop canopy, it sounds like a breath. Above - dewdrops on the pine-needles come together and surface tension overcomes the tendency to misty evaporation; gravity becomes the major motive force; a drop forms at the end of the needle gathering weight; and more and more, then poink! First one drip, then poit-poit! Two others drip from the branches into the water and make ripples that radiate, disturbing the mirror-perfect surface. Now I can hear, now I know, that this landscape is a waterscape is a soundscape, subtly it is dominated by the gently soft sound of the slowly running trickling gurgles of water flowing from the reservoir. The drips that plopped from the trees above, I knew would find their way to the sea in time; how would they get there?

I perceived that from this reservoir the winterbournes trickle out slickly, slowly propagating and shallowly leaching, following inevitable gravity - reaching down through the woods to the three watercourses which originate nearby. Water branches, like the bifurcations of the trees' branches above, radiating out through the sphagnum carpeted, cone-strewn winter-wet forest floor. This landscape is alive with sluggish silvery gurgles; some streams as wide as I am tall, some as thin as my wrist. A temporary and ever-changing dynamic wetland, the channels altering week to week - day to day. I stood perfect still, slowed my breaths and harkened, listening to the trickles of this three-way watershed. And I sent my thoughts out through the landscape, accompanying the waters on their journey to the sea. Down through finding folds in the landscape; rushing tumbling through gushing gorges and dens; sluggish broad floodplains; dead straight constrained in dug channels; sometimes in the open behind the terraced homes of west end; then covered in concrete culverts and brick-vaulted crypts, audible beneath manhole-covers in the town centre. 

Out from this secret reservoir, those flows which run to the south find their snaking way between the two municipal golf courses, and eventually become the water of Holburn then the Ferryhill Burn which empties into the big famous River Dee near Union Square's shopping complex car-park. And water which spills west from the watershed trickles to Countesswells and adds to the source of the Cults Burn, rushing spectacular and steep down the Den of Cults hanging valley, again into the Dee. But water which runs from here to the north and east forms seasonal streams which empty into the finger-pattern drainage ditches of the woods and become an ornamental stream which is wrangled to run picturesque through the plastic-wrapped-bouquet-strewn garden of remembrance at the City Crematorium, then to swoop down and beneath the Skene Road commuter route, emptying into the Den of Maidencraig and the Denburn, the nearly-river which gave our town its name.

My feet had gone on paths new and old, discovered and forgotten, and came to be standing at the three-way watershed on the last day of the season. The drop of water with its choice to make - to be made for it - from three options, three ways to go. A small change in initial conditions will lead to radically different results. I went to walk away through the trees back to the path, and as I looked at the sunlight shining through the mist between the trees, I realised that there was, of course, a fourth option, for some of the morning's dew had, as I had noticed earlier, formed that thin mist in the woods, now rising high to the sky, absorbed into the air, part of the atmosphere and away. Far, far away.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Brand New Old Fashioned Modern Transport System of the Future from the Past

We have mentioned on several occasions the folly of hoping to solve traffic congestion problems by building more road capacity - that would be like trying to lose weight by letting your belt out. So we were pleased to see the major booster of a motorway project - Tom Smith, chairman of local business development quango ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future) - at last admitting to the true motivation for proposing to build a new motorway. Appearing on local BBC news broadcast "Reporting Scotland" Mr Smith said "if it had not been for the [protestors' court] appeals, we would already be enjoying driving on this road".

Mr Smith was invited onto the TV programme because the most recent appeal by campaign group "Road Sense" to prevent the building of an orbital motorway around Aberdeen was rejected by Court of Session judges in Edinburgh on the 29th of February. This new road will be a "special category road" (which is to say, a motorway in all but name) and is known as the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (AWPR).

We found Mr Smith's "enjoying driving" statement refreshing, because - at last - there was no assertion that purpose of the AWPR was to reduce the congestion, pollution, noise or danger caused by motor traffic in Aberdeen. Nor was there any attempt to try to suggest that the £750m project would in some way save (or generate) money for Aberdeen and "safeguard the future" - all of which were the sort of rationalisations offered by him in previous years. No, now that a last barrier to the project going ahead has been removed, Mr Smith reveals what we already knew; this road is for people like him to enjoy driving upon. By this ill-guarded admission, Mr Smith has let slip something else which we already knew: that this road is a solipsistic solution only to itself and the demands of drivers to drive more, drive everywhere, drive always. In the view of Mr Smith and his fellow motorists, motor-traffic transportation is the desired outcome of providing infrastructure for motor-traffic transportation.

Let us be clear: we would be vociferous supporters of the AWPR if this major road-building programme were to be accompanied by a range of new-urbanism measures which would reduce traffic flows into and through the residential and central business/retail districts of Aberdeen - measures like suburban rail and trams, bus-only roads, pedestrianisation, bicycle infrastructure, parking restrictions and charges - just the kind of contemporary urban transport planning policy you see all across continental Europe, the Middle East and increasingly these days even in the cities of the USA. But, unfortunately, none of these measures is present in the planning of the AWPR, quite the reverse. Instead the AWPR will be complemented by multi-million pound radial access projects (including new inner-urban dual carriageway expressways) which will increase motor-traffic flows into central Aberdeen. We can't possibly support a scheme which will dramatically increase the proportion of space allocated exclusively to motor transport in and around Aberdeen. The results will be as predictable as they will be devastating to the liveability of our town.

More than once we have flexed our fingers typing rebuttals to the tired old "predict and provide" arguments for building ever-more motor traffic infrastructure - arguments which decades-long and worldwide experience have long-since discredited. And so then, flexing their politically-aspirant muscles, the business-community boosters of this orbital motorway project shifted their rhetoric onto the unfalsifiable ground of appeals to 'common sense' and populism. "Everyone knows" they said, "that the long-awaited Aberdeen Bypass is much needed, and the majority want it built." 
Check out the 'Common Sense' pro-motorway blog:
(The type of discourse displayed in the comments section of the "Common Sense" blog-post is an object lesson in the dangers of unleashing populism in the service of business interests. Have a read, but it's not for the faint-hearted.)

For the sake of balance, we're happy here to quote some of the opposing voices, which have not been offered a platform by our local mainstream media:

Stan Blackley, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland:
The Scottish Government seems addicted to tarmac yet has set itself demanding targets to meet with regard to reducing Scotland's carbon emissions and tackling climate change. This new road will not help them in this regard, and goes to show that Scottish Ministers just aren't able to see the bigger picture. You can't cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change while simultaneously building massive new roads that create more traffic and development.

WWF Scotland director, Dr Richard Dixon:
It is deeply disappointing that the the court have thrown out this challenge from community campaigners trying to stop the Aberdeen Bypass. This scheme will trash local wildlife and increase climate change emissions as it generates new traffic. We call on Transport Minister Keith Brown to use the forthcoming budget to commit to ensuring that Scotland's transport sector plays its full part in tackling climate change.

Colin Howden director Transform Scotland, the national sustainable transport alliance:
The bypass will do nothing to address the key traffic congestion issue in Aberdeen. The real problem is car commuting into the city, especially during the morning rush hour - something that an orbital road will do nothing to address. The best way that this could be tackled would be to deliver commuter rail routes into the city. It is unfortunate that the Scottish Government seem unwilling to invest in public transport, and instead continues to subsidise car use. The only thing that this project will deliver is car-dependent commuter sprawl and out-of-town retail tin-sheds.

It's that "car-dependent" quote from Colin Howden of Transform Scotland which we think goes to the heart of the issues surrounding road-building projects like the AWPR. As we walk the streets of Aberdeen, we see the car-dependent all around us, and it perplexes us to see self-admittedly car dependent people correctly identify road-provoked urban sprawl as the cause of their dependence, and yet they call for the building of more, bigger, "upgraded" roads as a palliative. 

Only policies which lead to a shift in transport modes by a reduction in the use of motorcars (like roadspace reallocation away from use by motor-vehicles) will deliver a sustainable reduction in motor traffic congestion and its attendant externalities. Yet the old-fashioned motorists of Aberdeen stick to the old discredited roadbuilding polices of the 1960's. Like the people in the US midwest who Barack Obama ridiculed for clinging to their bibles and guns, the car-crazy folks of Aberdeen can't see over their dashboards; they want more, bigger and faster, "better" roads, "upgraded". It's embarrassing.

Those unfortunate addicts who seek the help of Alcoholics Anonymous are invited to consider why they do the same thing over and over again, yet expect different results. Were the extent of tasteless self indulgence, waste of natural resources, and disastrous externalities not so catastrophic it would be amusing to observe how closely aligned the rationalisation strategies of addicts and motorists are. We cannot be sure whether it is car dependency which leads to car addiction or vice versa, it's so difficult now to tell the difference. But what we can say is that the results are devastating.

Again, let's be clear - we are not anti-car. Cars are undoubtedly useful and I use a car when and where it's appropriate to do so - when and where there are no alternative transport modes available which would be less harmful to health, the urban environment, and the wider ecosystem. I have chosen a way of life which minimises my need to use personal motor transport - it was more than a decade ago when I stopped driving regularly. It was difficult - yes, but only for about a week. I soon became entranced by how quickly I became much, much fitter. I soon became enamoured by walking the urban environment, seeing things unmediated, feeling my range and freedom increase and engaging with the town I inhabited. In short, I began living in Aberdeen for the first time since I was a child. That's living in as opposed to merely inhabiting.

And now, on the rare occasions when I'm obliged by circumstance to drive, I feel the terrible oppression of claustrophobic restrictions. Queuing at traffic lights; one-way streets; speed limits; parking restrictions; inconsiderate fellow motorists; and all the other minor and major strictures which people have convinced themselves that they are happy to put up with daily - all the while tied to a chair in the tightly restricted space of a hot locked box full of plastic and metal and volatile refined hydrocarbons. Isolated from the outside environment. View restricted by glass screens, metal pillars, the rear-view mirror. Hearing restricted. Movement restricted. Personal space restricted. And we are expected to aspire to this? It was Voltaire who said "its difficult to free fools from the chains they so revere". It is clear that today, in this town, in this country, the motorcar is one of those chains. But, per Konkin "each individual can free himself, immediately". All that is required is an effort of will.

The magnitude of that effort of will would be less were our planners, politicians and the businessmen (who wield increasingly more and yet more power) to embrace the new urbanism movement which is sweeping the rest of the world. It's a source of great shame and embarrassment that - as our business tycoons here in Aberdeen gleefully look forward to "enjoying driving" on a new motorway - towns and cities in the United States - Portland in Oregon for instance - have implemented free (yes, free!) public rapid-transit systems while others, like San Francisco, are bulldozing up their urban dual-carriageways (or turning them into woonerf-style mixed use boulevards).

It's heartbreaking to see our town not only falling behind the new urbanism agenda, but so comprehensively repudiating it as to buy wholesale (and at great financial and external cost) into a transport system which was dreamed up sometime in the middle of the car-crazy 20th century - a time when it was thought that there were no limits growth and no limits to the pressure which could be put upon the planet's resources. A time when the devastating impact of high traffic levels on the liveability of urban centres had not yet been experienced. Today, of course, we know different.

Unfortunately, our local politicians, planners and business tycoons are embarrassingly forward at displaying their backwardness when it comes to their love of cars and driving. Their acknowledgement of neither the externalities of their plans nor the unsustainable implications of provoking continual exponential increase in distances traveled by hydrocarbon-powered personal motor vehicles makes us feel that we are the subject of a sick joke. The sickness of this joke is compounded by the fact that (with straight faces) they call this a "Modern Transport System". It is not; it is in fact quite demonstrably more than a little bit old-fashioned.

Friday, 2 March 2012



A few months ago, we heard about urban regeneration in Christchurch, New Zealand. After last year's devastating earthquake it's regrettably necessary that a good deal of the city centre be demolished. What caught our attention in particular was news that, to accommodate retailers displaced from the "red-zone" where the demolition crews are working - a "pop up" mall was being installed, constructed from "upcycled" shipping containers. We'd heard about this sort of innovative approach to construction before, and we found it intriguing - full of possibilities. 

Double-deck containers in Biskek market
Throughout former-Soviet central asia (a major overland trade-route corresponding more-or-less to the trans-historic silk road) shipping containers are re-tasked - turned into domestic and retail accommodation, offices and storage, clinics and workshops, military emplacements and so forth. Any use you can think of for a cheap, readily available, robust, secure, resilient, transportable, modular, stackable, standardised box. Notably, shipping containers form the greater part of two of the largest organised regular markets in the world, located like bookends at either terminus of the silk road. The Seventh Kilometre Market in Odessa, Ukraine covers some 70 hectares (170 acres) and the Dordoy Bazaar in Biskek, Kyrgyzstan is about the same size.  

Similarly, but more darkly, you can see shipping containers regularly on the TV news, being used by NATO military as the modular components of blast shelters and barracks, and as detention centres for enemy combatants.

On a brighter note, we're heartened by NGO's use of shipping containers to provide humanitarian aid, most notably the work of Containers2Clinics in creating fully-equipped clinics which are sent to disaster zones and deprived areas all round the world. The C2C units are marvels of modularity -  full-service health clinics with examination and treatment rooms and labs - all within the ISO-standard 8ft x 20ft shipping container, ready to be deployed via the existing global freight network and infrastructure. 

The two things which link all these re-tasked uses of the ISO shipping container are necessity and availability. The necessity to provide a 'building' and the availability of a suitably cheap and fit solution. This is why we find it intriguing that this sort of cargotecture is now popping up in places which are not obviously subject to disaster or depravation. London's Boxpark shopping centre in Shoreditch, which opened last  Christmas is the site which first springs to mind. We can't help but think that there's a bit of posturing metropolitan post-apocalyptic chic going on there. But, on second thoughts and after a bit of research we find that you can buy a newly-built 8ft x 20ft ISO shipping container for USD $4000. Second hand - $1000 or less all the way down to free. These containers are piling up in the Anglosphere West (where we have trade deficits) for it is cheaper to obtain new-built containers for the shipping of goods from the far-east than it is to send empty containers back to the far-east. The result is that we now have a growing glut of cheap, available, transportable and demountable building materials, which already come in the shape of a room, or a shop unit, or a small workshop or lab or office orwhatever. We think it's a great pity that Buckminster Fuller did not live to see this day, for we're sure he would have felt vindicated by this proliferation of "livingry" (as he would have had it, notwithstanding the military stuff we mentioned). But we do feel that cargotecture is, in some way, indicative of disaster or liminal status, conflict or collapse. Perhaps, looking around Aberdeen, and seeing the proliferation of semi-permanent cargotecture deployments even here we might feel that there is some sort of slow-motion crisis going on, some kind of shift in status from permanency to flexibility - a frog-boiling, Zeno-paradox long emergency.

Throughout the latter part of the 20th century and this early part of the 21st, in the developed west we largely used breeze-block units as the primary architectural element of our (non-prestige) buildings - commercial, domestic and military, all made from the same standard concrete masonry unit. Artificial stone, as it were, made from the ashy residue of coal-fired electricity generation. It's convenient that, as we necessarily come to the end of the hydrocarbon era, an alternate building system presents itself.

And all that is solid melts into air...


A man in a small van pulls over to the nearside of the road and winds down the window - it looks as if he's about to ask me for directions. It's a painter and decorator's van, but the driver is wearing office clothes. Frowning, he leans over the passenger seat and shouts out of the open window:

>>Excuse me! Hey there!
>>Yes. What is it? Can I help you at all?
>>Why are you photographing that?
>>That's an interesting question. What's interesting about it is that you feel empowered to ask, and that you expect me to answer. So let me answer your question with another question: Why do you ask?
>>Look, I've asked you a question first, I want to know why you're photographing that.
>>OK, I'll ask you again: Why do you want to know? 
>>'Cos you're photographing it.
>>And how does that affect you? What concern is it of yours? Who are you to ask me about my actions? Again - why do you want to know?
>>Look, I want to know why you're photographing that. I'm being civil.
>>No you're not being civil at all - you're being weird. What I do in a public place is none of your business, and it's kind of bizarre that you should think it is. You're being intrusive and you are harassing me. Eff off.