Preface: I wrote this piece in November 2011, when the winning proposal was revealed after the conclusion of a design competition. As it explains the back story behind the Gardens fiasco in my previous piece, I thought it worth uploading here.
The current proposals for Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen are a perfect demonstration of Mark Twain’s belief that, “History doesn't repeat itself - at best it sometimes rhymes.” They are the latest in a long line of unbuilt, and unbuildable, schemes which chime down the decades.
Lying to the north side of Union Bridge, there have been many proposals to gentrify Denburn Park and the Gardens. At the moment, they look similar to Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh: a linear park with mature trees, grass and flower beds, part of which is shaped like an amphitheatre. In both cases the gardens lie in the city centre where the higher edge is a busy city street, and the lower edge a railway line. The grassy slopes are well used on sunny summer afternoons, although at night they tend to be deserted other than by a few dossers and drinkers.
Most previous schemes relied on roofing over the Aberdeen-Inverness railway line and Denburn by-pass: the top level becomes a park raised up to the same level as Union Terrace to make access easier; part of the gardens remained sunken, with the railway running under that; and finally the suppressed Denburn flowing in a culvert beneath it all. As it happens, these proposals have been rejected several times, just like the original idea by Tom Scott Sutherland was before the war.
The first modern-era scheme came from Gordon Cullen, the well-known urban designer who came to Aberdeen in 1985 when the Scottish Development Agency invited his consultancy, Price & Cullen, to undertake a study of the city centre. The brief was to examine Union Terrace Gardens, with a view to roofing over the railway line and the Denburn Link road, as well as increasing the size of the city’s “green lung”, and remaking connections across the valley of the Denburn. Cullen’s recommendations were rejected, but his ideas were seized upon by Ian Wood.
In fact, re-shaping this area has become something of an idée fixee for Ian Wood, a local businessman. His first attempt to transform the Gardens came in 1987 under the guise of the Aberdeen Beyond 2000 campaign, where a committee of local business and civic interests attempted to masterplan the city centre to promote economic growth. Wood was chairman of the group, but Aberdeen Beyond 2000 failed to gain much traction, so nothing was built.
Gordon Cullen’s and Aberdeen Beyond 2000’s failures were followed by the Aberdeen City Centre Partnership’s unsuccessful 1991 “Heart of Aberdeen” scheme, promoted by a mixture of business and public figures. A few years later came the £30 million Millennium Square project of 1997, which once again proposed to irrevocably alter the Gardens – but a Lottery bid for funds to create a giant glass-roofed winter garden alongside Union Terrace came to nothing.
By now you can tell that a pattern is developing … yet Wood’s preoccupation wasn’t forgotten. He was interviewed by Jeremy Cresswell for the book “North Sea Oil Moguls” in 2005, and spoke about his ambition, a massive collective enterprise to improve the city – “When I was chairing Grampian Enterprise, I saw the revamp of Union Terrace Gardens as one thing that might have a huge impact. It’s that scale of enterprise that’s lacking. It might still come.”
The latest iteration of the “City Garden Project”, known until recently as the “City Square Project”, was launched by Ian Wood at a press conference in November 2008. He pledged £50 million towards the new scheme to redevelop the Gardens, although that only meets part of the anticipated cost. In fact, on the City Garden group’s own figures, the project will cost £140 million. Much of that will come from “Tax Incremental Financing”, which means that increased business rates will pay for it. That must raise anxieties amongst Aberdeen’s hard-pressed businesses.
The project has taken three years to reach this point, where a design competition has yielded six schemes. Now, the extent of the proposed transformation is clear. There is the serious matter of destroying the city centre’s only green lung, and chopping down many handsome trees: each of the six schemes reduces the extent of greenery in order to form large areas of hard landscaping.
In several schemes, the gardens become more like Castle Terrace in Edinburgh, creating a “plaza” on top where farmers’ markets, carnival jugglers and political rallies can do their respective piece. Yet the north-easterly aspect of Union Terrace is ill-suited to public gatherings, and creating a vast open space will open the Terrace up to the biting wind which howls in from the North Sea. The sunken form of the current gardens provides very necessary shelter.
If you’re dead set on creating a City Square, you should first consider that Aberdeen already has a large urban plaza, at the knuckle of Union Street and King Street, and it was the hub of the city’s life for hundreds of years: the Castlegate. The City Garden scheme aims to create “a civic space for major outdoor events, gatherings, festivals and concerts”. Perhaps the Castlegate could be better utilised?
Creating a “cosmopolitan city centre café quarter” is another aim of the City Garden Project, yet nearby Belmont Street has innumerable coffee shops. The proposal also aims to create “an inspirational building to house art and artists, sculptures and sculptors, dance and dancers, music and musicians.” Yet just across the road from Union Terrace Gardens lie His Majesty’s Theatre, plus the city’s art galleries.
It is also telling that Peacock Visual Arts had a scheme to build a new gallery in the Gardens: it had received full planning permission, secured £9.5 million of funding and was scheduled to break ground late November 2009… before being rejected by the city councillors once Ian Wood’s proposals broke cover. It seems that a realistic prospect was sacrificed for an unbuildable vision.
The City Garden scheme certainly doesn’t have broad support - a majority voted “no” in the public consultation exercise - yet at the launch of the project in 2008, First Minister Alex Salmond said: “I cannot emphasise more strongly that for anything like this to happen and to be able to harness public funds it has to have the support of folk in the North-east, and Aberdonians in particular.”
Perhaps the final word should go to Professor Robin Webster, whose students looked at the Union Terrace Gardens “problem” many times. Webster wrote a letter to the P&J, “The schemes propose an all or nothing approach, whereas some more modest links across the road and railway, along with redesigned graded access from the perimeter, could resolve the problems without sacrificing the gardens themselves.” Judging by other letters to the local papers, it seems that many Aberdonians hope that this proposal will go the way of previous schemes…
Postscript: And so it came to pass. On 22nd August 2012, Aberdeen City Council rejected the Ian Wood scheme by 22 votes to 20, and the day after, Wood retracted his offer of £50m. You can be sure, though, that the scheme will resurface some day, in another form…