I want to love Union Street

Shops open this morning.  It’s the first real day of action for Aberdeen city centre’s ‘Spaces for People’ measures.  These measures are temporary …that’s the plan!

For 30 years I’ve wanted Aberdeen to make changes to the city centre to create spaces for people rather than a through route for motor vehicles.  Union Street is the city’s iconic image and any Aberdonian would be hard pressed to be upbeat about what it has become.  I’ve been lucky enough to visit a lot of cities all over Europe over the years …some on a bike, some on public transport and some by car. I don’t think I have ever visited another where cars could drive down the main shopping street.  It’s not possible in Glasgow or Edinburgh or Dundee or Perth or Inverness either for that matter …while until Covid-19 we had an iconic shopping street that doubles as dual carriageway.

For what it’s worth, this post is nothing much to do with cycling and certainly nothing to do with boring old arguments between cyclists and drivers (I’m both). I always wanted a pedestrianised city centre that would have more people, more shops and cafes, more businesses, more jobs and gave Aberdeen a fighting chance as a visitor destination (as we’ve lost ground to Scotland’s other cities above on that front too).  I know it’s inevitable that some object and some prefer the status quo.  I feel for businesses that believe they will be disadvantaged, but there is a fundamental flaw of having businesses that rely upon customers driving to the door in a city centre.  We have a City Centre Masterplan that sets out a future where we could have a Union Street that is ‘gives pedestrians more priority’ …but would still have buses, taxis and local access vehicles.  It won’t be radical enough to bring about real change.

I read this article https://medium.com/@KennyFarq/aberdeen-portait-of-a-city-and-its-people-d8894f9e3776 by Kenny Farquharson in the Times in December 2017 and this line stuck with me whenever we talk about our city centre …“there is a sense of a city readying itself in the starting blocks, oblivious to the fact that the starter’s gun has already fired”.

On a bike tour of Benelux countries in 2018 I spent a day in the Dutch city of Breda.  Being a nerd about these things, I walked around the centre of a city the same size as the one I live in and counted the number of empty commercial property units.  I estimated 3% of commercial property was unoccupied. They have all the same challenges …maybe they’ve got better solutions?

After building a small indoor shopping centre, then a couple of medium sized ones, then a big one, then a giant one …this otherwise terrible time has to be Union Street’s best (last?) chance!  I the won’t be joining a queue at Primark, but I will go to the city centre this week and show support. We can’t go back to the same old way.  The starting blocks have to be ignored now anyway, as improving the City Centre will be a longer race than a sprint.  Has to start here.