How Aberdeen’s ring road was once envisaged, intersecting with the beach boulevard.
In the foreground an assembly hall and theatre.
That was in 1949. Time now to consider the latest version of Aberdeen’s Master Plan so brace yourselves for an onslaught of fatuous bureaucrat-speak.
Key, transformation, vibrant, reawakening, deserves, accessible, enhanced, significant, enhanced, shaping, stakeholders, did I say? enhanced, revitalisation, dynamic, did I say enhance? ambitious, vision, opportunities, did I say enhance? = an exercise in verbiage.
Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future’s Economic Manifesto, and Action Plan (yes, really) states that the City Centre must act as a key business location, retail centre, major tourist destination, historical and cultural centre, leisure and entertainment centre, key transport node, and a place where people live and feel safe.
It will not have escaped your notice the order of importance listed by Aberdeen City Council – historical and cultural and indeed a place where people live and feel safe as well as transport trail behind retail – as usual.
You cannot ever accuse Aberdeen City Council of understanding the real worth of the city and its own responsibilities.
Aberdeen City Council has never sought to complement and enhance Aberdeen’s unique identity. On the contrary it has sought and succeeded in burying anything unique about Aberdeen in its drive to prove Aberdeen can look like any other town with a bland urban landscape devoid of uniqueness and interest – a cultural desert.
In its Masterplan the Council uses the analogy of the human body to describe the city with Union Street as the spine. It is tempting to suggest that while the city may have a spine the council does not.
For all its high-faluting language we only have to look around at the flimflam chaos and lost opportunities to discover where reality lies. Instead of me setting out what might, but probably won’t, materialise I’m reviewing what has been dished up in the name of planning.
Take the fairly recently built bus station – could it be any more alienating to passengers? People struggle to get there with luggage, from taxis and cars. Families find it virtually impossible to see off family, rushing them out of cars with their luggage from no waiting streets such as Guild Street and Market Street. Why was seating not provided for waiting bus passengers? Why do buses have to perform hazardous reversing manoeuvres when leaving bus stances? Whoever designed the bus station and whoever sanctioned it should have been sacked for incompetency. As soon as it was built it was discovered the place was not fit for purpose, as the man from the council might say. You can be fairly certain those who designed it don’t use it.
Take the Green, or the Merchant Quarter as we are encouraged, unsuccessfully, to call it, where charges for cafes providing seating outside put obstacles in the way of creating a relaxed café atmosphere that the council made such a hoo-ha about wanting yet had no idea how to implement. And it is typical that these guys don’t appreciate the area’s name used and recognised by generations of Aberdonians, the Green. If they don’t get this they won’t get any of it.
Take the ugly, ugly mini retail park at the historic Bridge of Dee. Who but a group of madmen on speed would sanction that?
Take the traffic nightmare on Guild Street, all manufactured by the well-paid jobsworths of Aberdeen City Council.
Take the current state of the once majestic Bridge Street transformed into a state of tacky ugliness.
Take the beach Esplanade nice enough it runs along a magnificent beach front but don’t look landward at the horrendous erections city planners let companies away with. Why has this choice site never been reclaimed? Another sacking offence surely?
Take the demolition of old Torry. That sums up the short-sighted, blinkered, ignorance that marks out Aberdeen City planners over the years with no conception of the value of heritage.
Take the Castlegate. Once bustling and a traffic hub it was killed stone dead by planners who thought shutting out traffic would make it people-friendly. It didn’t it made it a no-go area.
Take the shoddy and shabby upper deck at the St Nicholas Centre that closed-off the historical St Nicholas Street and in its place created a dead space; unfriendly and creepy area after dark. Name and shame the architect responsible and the planners who ticked his box.
Take the approval given to the bland, boring and out-of-keeping blocks that will surround Aberdeen’s only red brick spire at the Triple Kirks. Shameful.
I could go on because quite honestly it’s think of an area and chances are the cack-handed touch of Aberdeen Council has damaged it in some way.
Aberdeen bureaucrats speak a good game, as good as any in other parts no doubt. They don’t deliver on their prattle. They deliver all that is vulgar, uninspiring and tasteless.
Pedestrianisation is back on the agenda. Pedestrianism is a tricky trick to master. It can deprive areas of life – again those dead spaces, far from creating pedestrian friendly areas cut them off as useable.
Do not pedestrianise Union Street. Remove the pedestrianisation of the Castlegate and bring buses back there and reinstate a direct route to the beach.
I wholly agree with the intention to utilise upper floors of Union Street buildings. Where they cannot be turned into shops or offices I think upper floors that are not used should be taken over by the council and used for social housing. This would bring life back into the centre of the city.
Another ambition, they claim, is to encourage high quality architecture. That is precisely what has not been happening and will not be delivered in the disastrous Broad Street shopping centre nor those bland boxes at the Triple Kirks.
Making our towns and cities comfortable and safe and practical places for the people who inhabit them is too important to leave to the whims of dubiously qualified planners, developers and their cronies.
Following World War II the city plan shows how those then charged with responsibility for modernising Aberdeen considered thirty years the lifespan of a building and after that it was fair game for replacement having outlived its usefulness.
‘…it must not be overlooked, that sooner or later, buildings of all classes, no matter how well preserved structurally, become out-of-date from a functional point of view.’
It was this mindset that lost Aberdeen its interesting old wynds and courts and old Torry. The drive for modrenisation that involved ripping out and tearing down. We saw it during the years of Harold Wilson’s government when dead-eyed concrete towers sprang up in all our towns and cities as a harbinger of the new age which unfortunately turned out to be an age of instant slums and social alienation.
Back in 1949 there were good ideas mixed with bad in its Master Plan such as an entire ring road, not only Anderson Drive, that incorporated a bridge over the harbour mouth to permit industrial traffic from the eastern parts of the city and the fishing ports of Fraserburgh and Peterhead, the harbour, fish market and so on, easy access north and south.
The proposed assembly hall at the beach (see top picture) did not materialise and neither did the graceful bridge that would have offset the burden of traffic crawling through the city and away from the congested Bridge of Dee. Something of the kind could have be built now in place of the western peripheral route but the vision wasn’t there.
Notice, too, the elegant line of the banana pier that has been lost by the addition of an ugly light at its end and wire mesh to keep people off. It is another mark of how in this country people are stopped, blocked, prevented from getting close to the nooks and crannies and places familiar to previous generations by increased private restrictions and overarching public regulations.
You’ll see what I mean with this ’49 proposal for Market Street; a working area of the city. No high fences to keep people out but the integration of people and space. I struggle to understand how it is people elsewhere survive wandering around harbours when we are deemed incapable of walking past water without succumbing to the urge to fall in.
So much of urban life is about alienation. People are valued for how quickly they will part with their cash – hence the preference for shops over community spaces, as in a Marischal Square. It is as if our councillors work for private business and not citizens. Their concerns are purely economic. The well-being of the citizens of Aberdeen comes way down any list of priorities, if it makes that list at all. There is a shallowness that pervades Aberdeen Town House, a general incompetency and disregard for their roles as guardians of the past as well as the future.
It is interesting that the creation of space in the 1949 plans was regarded in keeping with the concept of functionality. Space now is at a premium and as we know from the Marischal Square debacle must give way to yet more retail – as far as the eye can see.
The spaces that would have been created in ’49 would have come from flattening what was there. Flattening there certainly was but those bold ideas remained on paper and never found expression into bricks and mortar.
The illustration of how the beach might be transformed at the end of the Second World War with a short pier and play pool areas to the north of the Broad Hill looks child friendly but were never built. But at the same time thank goodness those acres of flat-roof blocks, like some prison complex, did not see the light of day. But a pier would have been nice.
When future plans are written we can be sure they will contain key terms then current, variations on
key, transformation, vibrant, reawakening, deserves, accessible, enhanced, significant, enhanced, shaping, stakeholders, revitalisation, dynamic, ambitious, vision, opportunities
as an exercise in ticking boxes but our children and grandchildren will left to ponder when those terms lost all meaning, leaving their value only as word count to bulk up planning documents.
Meanwhile the little that remains of Aberdeen’s unique heritage is dependent on the whims and abilities of this and the next incumbents of the Town House. It is an absurd method of determining the future of the city that is guaranteed to plunder its past and waste opportunities in the pursuit of short-term ambitions of a few men and women of dubious capability. We have seen it before. We see it now. And we will see it in the future. One thing is certain, planning officials don’t change their spots.