Reviving pride in Aberdeen city centre

by Ken McEwen, Ken McEwen Public Relations

After the sometimes bitter political battles over Aberdeen’s City Garden Project, the initiative by Prof Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of the Robert Gordon University, holds out some hope that it could restore a sense of direction for the city.

In the wake of the vote against the City Garden Project it seems like Aberdeen has lost its way. After keeping us waiting six months, the new city council administration came forward with their alternative plan.

We had lost £182 million investment in the city centre. But, we were to get a pedestrianised Union Street, renovation of buildings, an extension to the Art Gallery and a Hogmanay Party in Union Terrace Gardens.

This hardly amounts to a bold creative vision that would put a global energy hub on the international map.

Aberdeen Town House

Professor Prondzynski’s initiative gives us some hope that the divisions created by the City Garden Project could possibly be put behind us as we build a new vision for a dynamic city centre that all parties can support.

Professor Prondzynski has brought together a team of academics from the university to draw up a plan to revive the fortunes of Union Street, the traditional heart of Aberdeen.

This focus on Union Street seems entirely appropriate.

After all, this street was the result of extraordinary vision and ambition at the end of the 18th century. Aberdeen was becoming constrained by its geography. It needed to expand. But where?

The wide Denburn Valley appeared to prevent expansion to the west. It was roads engineer Charles Abercrombie came up with the solution. He proposed lopping off the top of St Catherine’s Hill and building a new thoroughfare to the west on a huge viaduct across the valley. In an era of picks and shovels, this was ambition at its best.

In the 19th and early 20th century ‘The Granite City’ drew visitors from far and wide to marvel at its sparkling granite buildings and buy their “Granite City Souvenirs”. Union Street, became the place to be seen dressed in your finery or riding in one of those new-fangled motor cars.

It is that sort of pride in the city that the university team wants to see restored. The sort of pride that makes people respect and take care of their city centre.

Among the ideas put forward are for Union Street to become a residential street once again. A more controversial proposal is to bring back the trams.

In the light of Edinburgh’s tram debacle, that may raise eyebrows. But, Aberdeen’s trams and suburban railways were part of what would now be called an “integrated transport system”. A network that was dismantled (by people with no vision for the future) in the 1950s and 60s.

Union Street and the development of the Granite City underpinned Aberdeen’s commercial success in the 19th and 20th centuries. What we need now is to take that same sort of vision and ambition forward into the 21st century.

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