Aug 13, 2015


Last Spring I was invited to Aberdeen, Scotland as part of a three-part Citytalk speaker series.  The team preparing a plan for Aberdeen’s centre city asked each speaker to give different perspectives on city building.  There was an urban designer from Goteburg, Sweden, an expert on the resurgence of Manchester, England and myself talking about Calgary and other places I have worked and the different experiences with visioning and translating those visions into on the ground change.

Aberdeen is the Granite City. Narrow streets, dark buildings with a beautiful
historic street grid on a hill overlooking the North Sea.
I had never been to Scotland, and what a time to visit. The weather was amazing -- sunny and warm -- and this was certainly reflected in both the welcome I received and the friendliness of the people. 

I was invited to talk about the similarities between Aberdeen a port city serving the North Sea oil rigs and Calgary and how an oil city is dealing with the future, particularly the role of the Calgary Centre City plan in drawing people back into the core. After watching a video of the other speakers, I decided to expand on that theme.  I believe it is important to think past design to the realities of implementation and impacts. 

 I arrived amidst a very big controversy. Aberdeen is built of granite, just like a curling stone. You see it from about 15,000 feet as the plane descends to a wonderful small and intimate airport, where the customs folks ask you about your upcoming speech with the City Council. As the plane approaches the  city, the dark brown grey buildings begin to appear. Not just a few, but all of them.  Aberdeen is known as the Granite City.

The ride into town from the airport brings it close.  Beautiful, old granite residential and commercial buildings are everywhere.  And as everyone who has visited Europe knows, they’re built right up to the edge of the sidewalk along the commercial corridors. And like commercial corridors anywhere, including YYC many of the buildings have been converted into a variety of commercial uses. And like Calgary, these commercial streets could use some thinking, which is what our Main Streets Study is currently working on.

Everything changes as you reach the urban core of one of the most preserved inner cities in Europe.  I was surprised as I stepped off the bus and walked up through the narrow streets, very close quarters, to see so much activity. It was just after lunch on a Wednesday, and the streets were alive with people. The sidewalks are lined with commercial activity, many of the shops recognizable on our side of the Atlantic. For a city of 225,000 and a metro area about double that, the inner city was much busier and had more commercial establishments than YYC.

There are three indoor malls in downtown Aberdeen, nestled among the 
historic buildings. For a small city and region, the quality of the shops is i
mpressive and national land use policy helps ensure a vibrant city centre
In fact, it is a direct result of Scottish national policy regarding sprawl and the impact on the inner cities.  There are no suburban shopping malls in metro Aberdeen, despite the amount of growth outside the inner city  (not large geographically) in what is called Aberdeen Shire (I’m pretty sure it was named before The Lord of the Rings trilogy.) While there are some strip malls outside the city proper, none of them draws retail out of the inner city.  There are actually three indoor malls within an area a fraction the size of downtown YYC, located among the historic buildings.
A researcher could go to Aberdeen and do a thesis on how the national policy has preserved a vibrant inner city core, resulting in one of the most active pedestrian environments I’ve seen.  My home town of North Bay, Ontario had its core greatly impacted when two malls were built outside the city centre years ago.

I mentioned I arrived in Aberdeen in the middle of a controversy and was forewarned I would need to address modern architecture in a place of very, very old granite buildings. On a mid-sized development site, where a 1970s 14-floor office building had been torn down, the city is leasing the property for a new development.  The site is not big, nor is the proposed seven-story building.  And there is a small historic building being preserved on the site.

Some folks want it to be a park. Folks in YYC would certainly think there was a lack of parks in Aberdeen. Yet, the deal for the city is quite amazing. After 35 years, not the 99-year leases common in North America, the land comes back to the city. Also, it generates £ 2 million (about $3.9 million) a year.  The debate centers on the fact the architecture does not look like a very historic building across the street (the second largest granite building in the world).  And that building is stunning, really very beautiful. Until recently, there was not much in it until the city renovated it for city hall.

This is Marischal College, the second largest granite building in the world. 
It is now the home of the Aberdeen City government. Across the street is a 
development site which is the subject of debate about integrating modern 
architecture into an ancient city fabric.
All of a sudden, a Council meeting to discuss the project was called for late afternoon the day of my speech, and a protest was scheduled for 3 p.m. The outcome of the Council meeting was 22 to 21 in favour (similar to many votes in YYC).

Many of the people in attendance came to my presentation. I have never had so many informed seniors in a meeting.  These folks were on it. I was getting detailed questions about tax increment financing (TIF), which I addressed in the presentation. A shop keeper wanted to see TIF used to help upgrade a main commercial street, another person considering my value capture idea as a method for creating regional rail connections to a smaller neighbouring city.

I also covered Calgary’s City Centre plan, which is a good model of connecting land use, transportation and funding to make strategic investments happen.  We have 43,000 people walking or riding under the rail corridor every day. Investing strategically to improve those spaces is no different than Apple investing in a new version of the iPhone.  I mentioned that in the presentation.

Aberdeen is a city deciding what it wants to be. YYC has already made the decision to move forward, look to the future, yet still needs to define how we can diversify our economy. Aberdeen has that in common. If you want to meet people as friendly as Calgarians, in a place not on the common tourist radar, use Aberdeen as your starting point in Scotland. You can’t beat Aberdeen for quaint pubs on very narrow streets in a city on the edge of the North Sea. 

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