How does City Square stack up?

In the 19th century Aberdeen made great strides. Union Street – a viaduct on huge granite arches — was built to extend the city west over the Denburn Valley. It was the realisation of a remarkably forward-thinking vision and a breathtaking feat of civil engineering in an era of wheelbarrows, picks and shovels.

City Square Project

In the 20th Century, following the two world wars, there was an attempt to embark on a similar ambitious vision for the city with the publication of Granite City: A Plan for Aberdeen published in 1952. Very little was ever implemented. The reality, instead, was that most development was piecemeal and hap hazard.

There must be hopes that the 21st Century can be different.

But, it hasn’t started well:
  • What happened to Aberdeen Beyond 2000?
  • Where are we with progress on the Bon Accord Quarter plans?
  • How did we allow a £250 million shopping development to be built on the railhead at Aberdeen Harbour without, apparently thinking how to link it to the city centre?

But we are only ten years into the 21st century, there is still time to make this more like the 19th century — a dynamic city where we don’t just talk and debate grand visions, but actually do something to implement them!

The Louvre
The Evening Express reports that the creators of the Louvre art gallery are keen to look at City Square

That brings us to the current City Square plans. These bring forward — for the third or fourth time in 30 years — the idea of creating a five-acre civic area right in the centre of Aberdeen.

Regrettably, this time around, the plans have been allowed to become a David v Goliath battle of words between Peacock Visual Arts and the perceived might of ACSEF, the public and private sector partnership tasked with delivering the economic plan for Aberdeen City and Shire.

Chicago’s pride in Millennium Gardens and “the Bean” is clear to see

As with most things, I think it best to put the emotional issues to one side and look at how the proposals stack up:

Peacock Visual Arts plans
  • New public and privately-funded arts venue to bring new life into existing Union Terrace Gardens.

City Square plans
  • New arts centre space on plaza level linked directly below street level to Art Gallery, Cowdray Hall and HMT, creating a cultural network.
  • Pedestrian linkage under Union Street direct to Aberdeen Station and Union Square to bring people by moving walkways and escalators to and from the city centre.
  • Plaza level with space for museums and interpretative centres alongside the arts space. (I like the idea of this incorporating centres focussing on granite and energy, two hugely significant Aberdeen industries.)
  • Five acres of public and green space right in the heart of Aberdeen for us all to enjoy, with performance areas, iconic street art, street theatre and cafes.
  • Enclosure of the unsightly railway line and Denburn dual carriageway (with remarkable foresight the foundations for City Square are already built in to the dual carriageway).

Yes, I would be sorry to see the Denburn Valley disappearing further from view. But, the reality is that we all but lost the valley when the shops were built on the south side of Union Bridge in the 1960s.

Union Terrace Aberdeen
City Square would build over the unsightly railway and dual carriageway to create a new civic space

In all my adult life in Aberdeen, the number of times I have ventured into Union Terrace Gardens can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In their current state, I would, frankly, never consider taking visitors to see Union Terrace Gardens.

By contrast, if it becomes a reality I can imagine my sense of pride in taking visitors to see City Square. I can envisage passing an hour or two lingering with them to enjoy the plaza displays, the arts centre, the gardens, street theatre and enjoying a coffee, or beer, in street cafes at the back of Belmont Street.

I imagine it would be like the pride of my Chicago relatives who always take us to Millennium Park to enjoy the green space, admire the cityscape, and marvel at the iconic artwork including Morning Cloud (colloquially known as the Bean).

Chicago’s iconic “Bean” by day

I can imagine the sense of occasion as you arrive off a train and are whisked straight into the plaza area of this new city centre. (A much more fitting entrance to Europe’s energy capital, than the frankly down-at-heal Bridge Street and the back streets around the station. Would you want to invest in a city that offered that as a welcome?)

I can also imagine congregating for concerts, gigs and Hogmanay street parties in the various performance areas.

For all these reasons I really hope that City Square becomes a reality. All the more likely it is, thanks to Sir Ian Wood’s generous offer to put £50 million of his own money back into the city that has been the launching board for his multi billion dollar international oil service business.

  • There is still time to have your say in the City Square public consultation, which closes on March 5.
  • I am intrigued by the story in yesterday’s Evening Express that the creators of the Louvre art gallery with its iconic glass pyramid have expressed interest in City Square. I’m not so sure about the organic bubbles in the notional drawings for City Square and wonder if more geometric shapes like the Louvre pyramid, or even the glass box of Apple’s Fifth Avenue store in New York would not be better suited.

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