Friday, 20 January 2012

Union Terrace Gardens or City Gardens Project - A Final Thought or Two Before You Decide

OK, there's so much in the media about the ongoing controversy surrounding oil-tycoon Sir Ian Wood's vision of comprehensively redeveloping Union Terrace Gardens and imposing a new building on precious, protected green space in the heart of Aberdeen that there's not much for us to add other than to tie up a few loose ends.

If you live in Aberdeen, you'll know well that you're about to be asked to take part in a postal referendum which will determine the future of our only town-centre park. The choice will be to retain the park - Union Terrace Gardens - or endorse carbon-mogul Sir Ian Wood's City Garden Project (the real-estate boosters of the project used to call it the "City Square Project", but that name didn't play too well in focus groups). If the people of Aberdeen choose destruction of the existing park, the park will be comprehensively redeveloped, and the valley it currently occupies (much like a small-scale version of Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens) filled with a new building which has become known as "The Granite Web". This new building appears to be a catwalk-bedecked semi-outdoor concert venue and shopping mall. We used to say "shopping centre". Do you remember when we used to say "shopping scheme"?

Existing - Union Terrace Gardens

Proposed - The Granite Web
Anyway, there's little we can add to the overwhelming dissent, disgust and indignation which characterises the discourse about the comprehensive redevelopment proposals in new media outlets and social media forums, so we present some samples here:
STV Local
[Aberdeen] Youth Council’s official view [is] that the City Gardens Project is an environmental, social and financial gamble.
Blouin Artinfo
It’s a fabled and oft-pursued “Bilbao Effect,” or in this case, High Line effect, that we strongly caution against. Recent failures to create this coveted tourist-draw include Oscar Niemeyer’s shuttered cultural center in Spain, and Rafael Viñoly’s critically pummeled “Golden Banana” in Colchester, England.

Lena the Hyena

Aberdeen did have a park in its centre. It does have a park; Victorian gardens. And it is reasonable to see why someone with disposable income measured in millions might want to influence improvements to the centre of his home town (although that in itself calls into question the morality of influencing policy just because you have more money than most) but the motives behind the proposal have shifted since it was first envisaged. [...] Suffice to say that by creating a piazza (and that was the term in use at the beginning of this whole UTG episode) the city would attract business is specious. I don’t for a moment imagine that Mr Wood ever moved his business into anywhere because of the look of the place, whether or not it had a piazza, but because of the economic returns his company hoped to bank.

Moved to Comment


Sterile, stale and uninspiring are just three of the words that have been used to describe the scheme – a cross between Tellytubby land and a ’70s skatepark with myriad opportunities for graffiti artists and multiple jumping off points for the suicidal. Contempt for heritage is shown by the fact that the historical features of the gardens are wiped away with the distinctive (and listed) granite balustrades going the same way as the mature trees.
We would also recommend the incisive commentary, spread out over many many posts, on the wonderful Blerr de Blerr Blerr blog from videographer of Aberdeen, Fraser Denholm

And we too have covered some aspects of our own objections to the proposed comprehensive development:

... our personal greatest vexation with this proposed redevelopment was the way than an opportunity to anchor a progressive arts and creative sector in Aberdeen was so thoughtlessly as to appear maliciously squandered. The City Square proposals caused the collapse of the Peacock Visual Arts Northern Light initiative which would have created a new contemporary arts centre for Aberdeen and the north of Scotland.

We are concerned that ACSEF's [local business-interest quango/lobbying group, boosters of the project] 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.

To all of which, let us add the reminder that this proposed comprehensive redevelopment and building project is on common-good land (pdf) - sometimes referred to as "burgh commons" - as established by land rights campaigner Andy Wightman in his 2011 paper Union Terrace Gardens - Historic and Legal Status (pdf). This is land which is owned exclusively by no-one and generally by everyone, and which is held by the town authorities in trust for the people of Aberdeen.  The Wikipedia entry for "burgh commons" states: "By the early 19th century, most burgh commons had been appropriated by the wealthy landowners who dominated burgh councils, and very few have survived." At the risk of appearing churlish, should we applaud the fact that the affluent capitalists of Aberdeen are at last making this effort to catch up?

Permission granted for entry
No public right of way constituted"
In all seriousness, though, this proposed development is of course an attempt by business interests to privatise public-realm space for profit. Or "adding shareholder value" as they tend to say - why use one straightforward word when you can use three obfuscations? Should the development go ahead, we will be able to visit these "gardens" only by the grace of the private sector owners and/or operators of the new building. Experience confirms that those private-sector operators will impose arbitrary restrictions on behaviour and appearance, and will undertake intrusive surveillance on all passing through. Indeed, our town has form in allowing the private sector to extinguish public rights. Where once a public right-of-way south from George Street continued all the way south to join with Market Street via St Nicholas Street, today a huge real-estate company called "Land Securities plc" grant permission for pedestrian access through their Bon Accord and St Nicholas Centre shopping malls only under the condition that no public right of way is (re)established. Where once we had a right of free access and passage, association and discourse, now all we have is consumer choice, that choice itself from a diminishing handful of shargar shoppies. 

When old-media outlets, such as our local press, provide a forum for the boosters of this project which would build commercial and retail premises on the site of of our only town-centre park, they inevitably invoke a loathsome and cringing insecurity, a needy aspiration to "attract" businesses and businesspeople to the town and a perceived necessity to make the town an "attractive prospect for future mobile investment". Over the last two years, ever since emission-monger Sir Ian Wood first caused the collapse of the proposed Northern Lights arts centre, which would have created a home for local creative forum Peacock Visual Arts in Union Terrace Gardens, we have had many misgivings about what comprehensive redevelopment of the gardens would mean - we have always had the feeling that the wool was being pulled over our eyes, and not in the obvious way. But it is only today, only now that the people of Aberdeen (despite already once having said "no" to carbon-magnate Sir Ian's vision) approach the final zero-hour decision time that we can put our finger on one source of these misgivings. The City Garden Project, as proposed by CO2 baron Sir Ian Wood, is not for the people of Aberdeen. It's for the much more important people who aren't here yet. It's not for the likes of you and us - we don't count, we only live here already. We are the pre-existingly inconvenient legacy community.

We therefore urge you, if you have a vote, to reject the proposed destruction of the town centre garden in favour of business profits (sorry - enhanced shareholder value). The moneymen of this town, with emission-monger Sir Ian Wood at their head, have made the mistake of believing that a town is nothing more than the sum total of all the business activity which takes place within its borders, and so they then go on to compound their error by thinking that the town should be run like a business. We at OtherAberdeen know that the truth is much much broader than that pencilneck narrow vision promoted by pollution-king Sir Ian, ACSEF and our town council. Towns and cities are communities - places for people, places for association and interchange of all kinds, not just commerce. Show them that you know this too. Vote to Retain Union Terrace Gardens.


Sheila MacFarlane said...

I am an Artist and I think it looks awful !

Anonymous said...

Completely agree with this conclusion of this article – only have one point: if it’s purpose is to promote this point of view ahead of the vote it’s my view that you should ease back on the ‘emission-monger’ chat. I’m pretty confident that the majority of the current population of Aberdeen either work within the oil & gas industry or have loved ones who do. They will recognise that if Ian Wood is an emission-monger then they are as well or that their income and lifestyle rely on ‘emission-mongering’. You are in danger of people rejecting what is an otherwise well-put point because they feel like they are being talked down to. If you want to draw us-and-them lines it’s probably not the best time to do so as in your case there are more of ‘them’ than ‘us’ and the vote is next month…

Anonymous said...

It would almost be worth moving back just to vote! Come on Aiberdeen do us proud and keep the Granite City unique.
Developments like this never add value for the people - the users, the .... key stakeholders.

Great blog, as ever, thanks.

OtherAberdeen said...

@Anonymous #1 on 21 Jan 12:15
We're not interested in the creation of coalitions, particularly not coalitions which would jeopardise our principals. However, having said that, let us offer a counter-compromise, as it were:
Should carbon-lord Sir Ian Wood go on record renouncing his emission-mongering ways, pledging never again to be engaged in activities supporting the extraction of even one more barrel of atmosphere-destroying oil or oil equivalent, then we shall drop our opposition and become vociferous supporters of his scheme to comprehensively redevelop our city centre park. We await his call...

Kynon said...

Unfortunately, although I have an interest in the UTG "redevelopment", and the outcome of the referendum (by "interest" I do not mean financial, political, or otherwise, just that I'm interested as I visit Aberdeen regularly), I live in the Shire, not the City, so I have no say in the matter.

Anonymous said...

The video model is certainly amusing, with its sunny skies and cafe tables under the trees ( The expanse of concrete will look less good in Aberdeen's more usual climate of rain and wind, adorned with half-eaten bags of chips, empty bags of crisps and scavenging seagulls.
This looks like a lid for yet another shopping centre. Wonder how much profit it will generate for Sir Ian Wood.

Anonymous said...

The illustration of the new development looks like a motorway flyover. That will certainly be unique in a city centre. But helpful for anyone wanting to leave quickly.
To paraphrase one of the debaters in the recent BBC debate, it's probably best to get rid of these Victorian gardens sooner rather than later, since they will be built over anyway. Sleepy old Edinburgh still has its Georgian gardens and fuddy duddy Glasgow still has its Victorian parks, but Aberdeen can show that it's way ahead of them by covering its own scrap of Victorian greenery with profit-making 21st century concrete.