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. 


Anonymous said...

That's an excellent proposal, and one that I sincerely hope will be seen and considered by those in the council. Aberdeen really deserves a project like this. What a wonderful shift of emphasis from changing the gardens to changing the carriageway.

I don't have a car, nor have I ever taken the bus since moving here (only because this city has such walkable distances), but I know only too well how frustrating it can be to walk here. More than anywhere I've ever lived, cars seem to have priority and pedestrians this 'guest' status of which you speak. For a city and country this small, I cannot understand for the life of me why there are so many cars.

Here's hoping that a project such as yours is seriously considered.

Mick Miller said...

It would be wonderful to think that those myopic souls whose intention is the effective destruction of the Denburn Valley and Union Terrace Gardens might take note of this fabulous and visionary piece of writing. Here is a proposal of genuine benefit and fitting of 'scale' for the centre of Aberdeen that would work, would not cost prohibitive amounts and would realise, indeed 'sweat' the value of the existing assets that comprise the Denburn Valley.

Stuart M said...

There is an interesting article in this month's National Geographic about the transformation of an unused elevated train track in New York City into a public garden. This scheme came to fruition because of the determination of two individuals, and it is similar in scope to the ingenious plans outlined here. Not too long ago, Ian Wood suggested that UTG could be transformed into a 'mini-central park'; perhaps he should be looking elsewhere in that city for inspiration?

Anonymous said...

Even though I do use the Denburn Road on my morning commute (precisely because it's empty), I would happily go another way if this brilliant idea happenned.


Unknown said...

Detailed, thought provoking and brilliant. Thanks !

Anonymous said...

excellent article alan. i'll need to go back and read all the detail (it was so comprehensive)but the essence of the article the car being a guest and using this great space is excellent. cheers andy oxbow lake clucas

Anonymous said...

This is a great post - so creative! And I've learned a new word: woonerf. I really like your blog, and couldn't agree more that it's nice to live in the Other Aberdeen that one finds on foot. I'd be so happy if the City Council shared your vision... (And: I've answered your question on my own blog post page - thanks!)

Nala said...

I don’t know why you don’t just re-title your blog ‘Anti-Car Rant’, for that’s all it is in various disguises. The truth you avoid recognising is that most people aspire to the convenience of personal motor transport, pay dearly for the privilege, provide much employment, contribute greatly in taxes, and then people like you expect them to ‘leave the car at home’, while their money is spent creating cycle lanes and the like for freeloading cyclists, who then don’t use them, much preferring the ‘sharing’ of pavements with pedestrians.

David Cooper said...

Nala - if you want to know why cyclists avoid cycling in cycle lanes, why don't you try cycling in them and see how enthusiastic you are as you get puncture after puncture from all the fragments of glass swept into them by passing cars. The real solution to the problem is on the way, and you can see it in the form of computer driven cars using lidar for vision. Ten years from now it will only take a couple of webcams and a single processor to do the job, and then insurance costs will force human-driven vehicles off the road. It will then be safe to let small children cycle on the busiest of roads, and no one will need to park anywhere as they can send their car home and call it back when they need it, or just hail a cheap driverless taxi costing far less per trip than a bus. That's where things are going to go, so we need to stop building for the past and start thinking about the real future that lies just around the corner.

OtherAberdeen said...