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Aberdeen’s city centre square proposal represents a loss of democracy

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A one-sided consultation could lead to a controversial, expensivee and unsustainable outcome says Stuart MacDonald

Like many UK cities, Aberdeen has suffered its fair share of post-war architectural travesties, including some grotesque dislocations of scale. The recent proposal to create a vast city-centre square by decking over Union Terrace Gardens is no different.

Promoted by entrepreneur Ian Wood and backed by the local economic forum, this would create a space of about 2ha, comparable to Moscow’s Red Square or Glasgow’s George Square. Those areas relate to large urban populations. In comparison, Aberdeen’s local population is just 400,000. Could that number animate a space the size of Red Square?

Post Copenhagen, any proposal to bury a historical green space under thousands of tonnes of concrete must be scrutinised. But also in danger is Aberdeen’s chance to have a rare piece of architecture. Brisac Gonzalez’s scheme for a new arts centre, which has planning permission and most of its funding in place, is situated in the gardens.

The highly inclusive arts centre (pictured above), uniquely entered via the roof, will host a range of activities – a market, bookstalls, exhibitions and a café – enriching urban life. It will create a relationship between building and garden, art and nature, similar to Denmark’s world-famous Louisiana Art Gallery by Bo & Wohlert. It may be one of the best public buildings of the decade, reaffirming Aberdeen as a place of ideas, enterprise and culture.

Unfortunately, the Wood scheme obviates the Brisac Gonzalez design. Aberdeen makes a stark contrast with its neighbour Dundee, which, because of the regenerative impact of Dundee Contemporary Arts, can contemplate hosting a satellite of the V&A and entertain designs by the likes of Frank Gehry. The quality of the Brisac Gonzalez building, its likely regenerative effect and all the research on creative cities seem lost on Wood’s scheme’s promoters.

Given the controversy, expense and unsustainability of the square proposal, you would have thought that the most extensive civic debate was merited. Consultation in this context has amounted only to the scheme’s supporters offering a single choice – the complete decking over of the gardens as a given but with some additions.

This one-sidedness runs counter to best practice in consultation in the pubic realm and against the latest Scottish Government planning advice, which calls for effective community engagement to ensure ‘people ar made aware of proposals that affect them as early in the process as is possible, that they have the facts to allow them to make a contribution, that they have had the opportunity to engage and that, having made their views known, they get clearer explanations of how and why decisions were made’.

There are lessons here for other UK cities and there is more at stake than the loss of green space or a potential world-class building. Democracy itself may be the loser.

Stuart MacDonald is former director of the Lighthouse and former head of Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen

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