As part of our regular blog series, this month we invited fellow Chamber member and board member of Aberdeen Inspired (the city’s Business Improvement District), Derren McRae to tells us why he thinks pedestrianisation of Union Street is crucial for the future of Aberdeen City Centre. His thoughts are set out below.

In 2017 I signed up for a new Chamber of Commerce initiative called Vanguard, where a cross section of volunteers offered their time and enthusiasm, with the goal of making good things happen in the region. Of the eight projects to pick from, the one that most grabbed my attention was: “What will it take to make the people of Aberdeen fall back in love with Union Street?”.

With thirteen other volunteers from a mix of backgrounds, but all with a shared passion for the city centre, we were tasked with coming up with ideas for this specific topic.

For our first meeting we decided to meet at Castlegate and collectively walk up the length of Union Street to Holburn Junction. The overriding feedback at the end of the one-mile walk was that it was not an enjoyable experience. The pavements were not particularly wide, so you spent your time trying to avoid other people, bus stops and street cleaners, then constantly stopping at traffic lights to wait for cars and buses to pass. We all agreed that Union Street had some stunning buildings but there were very little opportunities to stop somewhere pleasant to look up and enjoy the architecture. We all felt that pedestrianisation of Union Street was therefore needed to make it a more appealing place to spend time.

We knew the prospect of such major change would be controversial so, at the first Vanguard conference, held at Belmont Filmhouse, we pitched the concept of closing Union Street for four weeks one summer to trial pedestrianisation. We put together an itinerary of different events to take place over the period to give the public a reason to come to the city centre. We also suggested hospitality venues be encouraged to have outside seating areas so that the public had the opportunity to sit outside and enjoy the views, whilst having a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. The hope was that the public would then see first-hand that pedestrianisation of Union Street can happen without the rest of the city centre coming to a standstill.

Fast forward three years and for an entirely different reason Union Street was temporarily part pedestrianised. Yes, the Spaces for People measures had their faults, the traffic cones looked a mess and the temporary marquees that popped up on Union Street were not particularly pleasing on the eye. However, if the city centre was to become more pedestrian friendly, the traffic cones would be replaced by high quality pavement extensions, and the temporary marquees would be swapped out for well-designed (and heated) outside seating areas as operators would have the confidence to invest money if there was the certainty of more permanency.

Having watched Aberdeen City Council’s video of how a pedestrianised “Union Street Central” could look (available here) we had a vote in our office with 12 to 0 voting in favour of the proposals as opposed to the alternative option opening up the central section to traffic again. If you were to show this video in your own office, it would be interesting to hear how that vote goes?

Some of the reaction to this change reminds me of when Marischal Square was going through planning. A lot of people I spoke to were originally against the development, however having now used the completed scheme, the same people have changed their opinion and believe it has regenerated that end of the city centre. I can’t help but feel that a lot of people who are against Union Street pedestrianisation would ultimately change their view if it was to happen in the future, once they had actually spent some time there post-completion. I believe it would make for a far more pleasant experience to be able to walk from Guild Street, up through the new market, along to Union Terrace Gardens and the Art Gallery, then down to Marischal College without having to stop for traffic to pass.

I also strongly believe that going down the route of a more pedestrian friendly Union Street would help to attract a better mix of quality retail and hospitality operators. It is not a coincidence that some of the best shops, bars and restaurants in the city centre can be found at the likes of The Green, Back Wynd, Belmont Street and Broad Street, all areas which have seen investment and change to make the overall experience more pleasant for pedestrians. I fully appreciate concerns over accessibility for certain groups, however I am sure through proper engagement, experts can come up with a workable solution that enables this once in a lifetime opportunity for positive structural change to our city centre to happen.