“LDA Design had to somehow pivot distrust, disillusionment and consultation fatigue into a groundswell of support for regeneration.”
Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens is one of the UK’s most important park regenerations. Situated in the heart of the city, the park was designed by the architects who built many of the listed granite buildings which surround it and for which the city is famous.
Despite this heritage, Union Terrace Gardens has been the subject of fiercely waged disputes which have split the city. Such was its decline over the past 20 years, there was even a proposal to fill in the park valley with a shopping mall.
While Union Terrace Gardens is the city’s most significant park, at £28m the level of investment still contrasts sharply with diminished funding to other major parks and green spaces throughout the UK. The choice demonstrates trust in the power of high-quality green space to lead the regeneration of a city centre. We are at the start of seeing how that turns out.
The two and a half acre Gardens are in a steep river valley so have striking topography for a city centre. They opened in 1878 when the ‘bleaching greens’ next to the railway line were given to the people as a pleasure ground by the Council and designed with lawns, a grand granite staircase to the lower level, fine statuary and formal planting including a Bon Accord crest.
The site is bounded to the north by a viaduct and to the south by Union Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. To the east is that railway line and to the west Union Terrace. The decline of the Gardens in the late 20th century reflected the wider deterioration in the condition of central Aberdeen. Scotland’s third city grew out of fishing and shipbuilding and then the petrochemical industry. Industry downturn and the opening of two shopping centres led to Union Street going from the bustling Granite Mile to empty units and unkempt buildings.
By the start of the 2000s, the charm and beauty of the Gardens had eroded, and personal safety had become a growing concern. Poorly lit and with no facilities, a thick canopy of mature trees obscured sightlines in and there was nothing to attract visitors and keep the place busy. The park became a magnet for anti-social behaviour, drug taking and drinking, with even a small, tented settlement.
Proposals to regenerate the Gardens failed to unite support behind them, and then in 2010 particularly intense public concern was triggered when an oil tycoon proposed building a subterranean shopping mall in the valley, with ribbons of modern park above. The scheme appeared to promise a massive injection of external investment in the city centre, and for some this seemed good enough. However, the Friends of the Gardens fought a hard campaign. The argument that the city needed green space more than more major retail space was won, but not before bitter divisions had opened up between residents across the city.
In 2016, a newly appointed city centre director was tasked with leading a masterplan to drive regeneration as part of the local authority’s multimillion-pound vision for the next 20 years.
The new masterplan identified 30 potential sites for investment, but it was decided that the Gardens would be the best catalyst to bring people back to this end of the city centre. It was also agreed that the Arts Quarter alongside should be revived, and the Art Gallery on Schoolhill was to be restored.
Turning the park around
Following a design competition, LDA Design was commissioned by Aberdeen City Council to reunite the city behind a scheme that would reclaim the Gardens for Aberdeen’s citizens. But what did the people want? LDA Design had to somehow pivot distrust, disillusionment and consultation fatigue into a groundswell of support for regeneration.
This meant finding ways to put local people at the heart of the design process and demonstrate that the Gardens truly were theirs to shape. Thousands of cards were distributed around Aberdeen showing ‘Instagrams from the future’, to renew interest in the potential for change. The images invited people to imagine the many different ways the park could be used and the lively calendar of potential activities and events which could be experienced in restored Gardens.
The fine heritage to build from was also celebrated. On a cold November day, the lawns fluttered with over 200 brightly coloured flags featuring drawings of details found within the Gardens. Mosaic Gardens, designed with engagement specialists NADFLY, was an installation which attracted over 400 people. Everyone was invited to take a flag home with them as a new memory of the Gardens. This way, the flags filtered out across the city as a symbol of reclamation and hope for what was to come.
Core objectives were defined through the participatory design process, including making the Gardens inclusive and accessible for all, creating new spaces for community events, improving safety and increasing footfall. LDA Design recognised the importance of respecting the special Victorian charm and character of the Gardens and the value in providing opportunities for small-scale commercial activity.
Transforming the Gardens was full of complexities, and LDA led a large team to deliver the vision. This included major engineering works, the construction of a new bridge and aerial walkways, three new pavilions and extensive public realm and park improvements. One of the key moves was to make a steep-banked park accessible for the first time. The Disability Equity Partnership and Aberdeen Bon Accord Access Panel were consulted throughout the development of the design, from concept to completion. The Chair of the Disability Equality Partnership described the plans as one of the best examples of inclusive design they had seen.
The grand centrepiece, the granite staircase into the lower Gardens, has been painstakingly rebuilt.
What’s smart about the new design is how it balances enhancement of existing natural and heritage assets with elegant contemporary interventions. The grand centrepiece, the granite staircase into the lower Gardens, has been painstakingly rebuilt to also provide a wheelchair friendly route, to complement new lift access. An overhead, oversized halo light illuminates the steps. As an icon, it is visible from the Art Gallery.
Aberdeen’s last tram ran in 1958, but the form of the city’s tramcars inspired Stallan Brand in the design of three light-filled pavilions. These provide flexible space for new facilities, whether cafés, restaurants or arts and cultural space. The pavilions ensure the park is activated throughout the day and evening.
A neglected series of archways under Union Street has been transformed into gallery spaces, with opportunities for small business use. Restoration of the original statues included giving William Wallace a dramatic new setting, rising out of a mirror pool.
“Union Terrace Gardens is now visited by large numbers of school children, and it is full of mums and toddlers. The plan was to make green infrastructure the catalyst for wider city regeneration and that seems to be happening.”
In response to what people wanted to see in the Gardens, there is now a range of play equipment and a combination of incidental play and learning as well as more formal fitted equipment. The central lawn has been retained as a flexible space with capacity for sizeable gatherings and city events, such as the winter Festival of Light.
Union Terrace Gardens remains the Granite City’s green heart and there is a net gain in planting and biodiversity. The Gardens now have more trees, including new horizon elms which are resistant to Dutch Elm disease.
Making sure the Gardens continue to feel well looked after and cared for is now a top priority. Provision has been made for revenue generated from the rental of the pavilions to go towards the long-term maintenance of the Gardens and its facilities. There is currently a five-year maintenance contract to care for the planting. In time, the Council will fully adopt and manage and maintain the Gardens.
From every project, especially one of this scale and complexity, there are lessons to be learnt. A gift to the city, the Gardens remained much loved, even if people no longer felt safe using them. For change to be successful, it was vital to listen to what people wanted, to act on that listening and to get people excited about what major investment could do here after years of frustration. This backing, once secured, hasn’t wavered.
Reinventing a historic park for the 21st century is challenging because it needs to have new life breathed into it while the existing drama, charm and relationships are made stronger. What’s special about Union Terrace Gardens now is how well balanced the space is. The historic, graded and planted banks and essential structures have been made to work for a new time, creating a space that’s generous, open and welcoming. New additions had to be of the highest quality, with the pavilions acting like jewels that are properly embedded. Sensitive to the heritage but with new purpose and meaning. That’s the high wire that has been walked. That’s the achievement to celebrate.
Kirstin Taylor is a director at LDA Design and joint lead of LDA’s Glasgow studio. Kirstin is a chartered landscape architect who has led on the regeneration of the Sighthill estate in Glasgow; the rethinking of George Street in Edinburgh; and the restoration of historic Union Terrace Gardens in central Aberdeen. Kirstin is working on a manifesto to bring about a design inclusion revolution.
‘Reclaiming the Gardens’ first appeared in the Landscape Institute Journal, autumn 2023.
All photos by Christopher Swan Photography