The importance of a vibrant city

by Ken McEwen, Ken McEwen Public Relations

I have an old photograph of Aberdeen in the 19th Century, soon after the Granite City gained that title, following the completion of the huge granite viaduct that carries the grandeur of Union Street across the Denburn Valley.

In the photo a sign can clearly be seen on a shop at the corner of Union Street. “Granite City souvenirs here” it proudly proclaims.

Every time I see that, it reminds me of the importance of a city having unique, or spectacular, attraction to draw visitors. These days it tends to be called the Bilbao effect, referring to the draw that is Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum.

The city fathers in Victorian Aberdeen realised that, to put the city on the map they had to come up with a bold and visionary plan to establish Aberdeen as a place to live and do business. It was they who coined Aberdeen’s famous name, the Granite City.

In an era of picks and shovels, they boldly planned the building of Union Street on a series of 30-foot granite arches opening up the opportunity to extend their new town on land to the west. Fast forward to the 20th Century and Aberdeen – still a prosperous commercial centre building on that Victorian foresight – found itself chosen as the base for the North Sea oil industry.

Union Bridge old
Union Bridge (now built up on its south side) is just one of the sections of the amazing viaduct that is Union Street

But despite the bonanza that followed, the cityscape of Aberdeen has changed little. In fact it has fallen into disrepair.

Right at the heart of the city, between His Majesty’s Theatre and Union Street is an area that features a derelict church and spire reminiscent of a decaying tooth. The run-down back yards of buildings on Belmont Street hardly excite the eye and a classic vista of Union Terrace and His Majesty’s Theatre is ruined by an aerial view (and noise) of the railway and dual carriageway.

As long ago as the 1980s I can remember writing about a proposed solution. Union Terrace Gardens would be raised to street level. It didn’t happen. The idea was dusted down as a Millennium Project but again failed to get backing.

I hope you will forgive a little Aberdonian chip-on-the-shoulder, but for the host city of the industry that is Britain’s biggest industrial investor, these constant rebuffs hurt. Especially when we saw millions being invested in Scotland’s other cities.

The idea of creating a large city centre park, bridging over the railway line and dual carriageway, was rekindled when Sir Ian Wood, chairman of the Wood Group plc, made an astonishingly generous offer to personally fund £50 million of the £140 million estimated costs.

In March this year, I joined in the celebrations when a sometimes bitterly-fought referendum produced a positive vote in favour of the design by New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro – the Granite Web.

Two months later, our joy has become despair as the new Labour administration in Aberdeen City Council plan to ignore the democratic vote in favour of the project and to kill it off.

As I write this, with growing frustration, the date of the council vote is still being argued, but it looks too close to call.

Labour do not have a majority. But, if a number of the Liberal Democrats and Independents were to join Labour in the ‘no’ camp, Aberdeen’s City Garden could once again become sad a reminder of what might have been. Our Victorian city fathers would be so disappointed in us.
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