What’s next for Aberdeen’s city centre?
That was the question on my mind while wandering around the heart of Dundee one sunny July afternoon.
As I strolled up Reform Street during my first visit to Dundee in nearly two years, I was struck by how many shops remained occupied. There were still some vacant spaces but, crucially, the town centre still had a buzz to it, with families milling about in the sunshine.
And the best part? There was so much variety in those shop fronts. Of course, there were the chains which you’d expect of a high street, but there was a healthy mix of independents, too. Coffee shops. Hairdressers. Quirky emporiums selling a dazzling array of arts and crafts.
What a difference compared to Aberdeen’s historic thoroughfare, Union Street. The number of empty shops in Aberdeen has risen during the pandemic, but truth be told, the rot began even before Covid struck.
Nearly a fifth of retail space on the Granite Mile is empty
What was once a grand route of chains, independent businesses and eateries has declined into a mile of bookies, pound stores and charity shops. Whether we like it or not, the effects of online shopping and the convenience of home delivery have changed the face of Union Street forever.
The era of the flagship department store is arguably more irrelevant that ever before. To a generation used to the pace and choice of online shopping, going into the centre of town for your special purchase, such as furniture for a house move or a wedding gift, holds little appeal when there’s more choice and better prices to be found from the comfort of your sofa.
Nearly a fifth of retail space on the Granite Mile is empty. Add into the mix the inordinately expensive cost of parking, exorbitant business rates and half-baked pedestrianisation measures, and it’s no real wonder our city centre is suffering.
It was only 15 or so years ago that I’d be dragged into John Lewis, Debenhams or Esslemont & Macintosh with my parents to look at furniture or clothes – and how I once took those boring childhood afternoons for granted.
There is still an appetite for the ‘city centre experience’
So, how can we attract people back to Union Street and the surrounding areas?
I believe the answer partly lies in the shopping patterns of the past. Until the latter half of the 20th century, people visited independent butchers, barbers, florists and countless other businesses, building up a rapport with the staff. This all changed with the rise of the supermarket or shopping centre, which offered a one-stop shop for most of life’s necessities, at the cost of depersonalisation.
A network of family-owned and independent businesses within the city centre would help to create a vibrant, urban culture and foster repeat custom
To lure people back, several things need to change. One only needs to look at the successes of independent coffee shops, cafes, record stores and fashion houses in Aberdeen to see that there is still an appetite for the “city centre experience”. Our bars and cafes still generate considerable footfall and interest in our urban spaces.
We need more independent businesses to set up shop on the Granite Mile, so that office workers, tourists, locals and city centre visitors alike can visit that independent book shop, tailor or fishmonger and benefit from locally-produced goods.
A network of family-owned and independent businesses within the city centre would help to create a vibrant, urban culture and foster repeat custom.
Funding can surely be found
Aberdeen City Council needs to reacquire as many of the grand buildings on Union Street as possible from their property developer owners.
I’m no politician, but if a £1.76 million investment from the Scottish Government for the Spaces for People work (including the failed Aberdeen beach measures, which were installed and then removed again within seven months) was secured, then funding can surely be found for a more beneficial cause such as this.
Imagine a pedestrianised east end of Union Street with flowerbeds, outdoor seating, thriving local businesses and sparkling granite frontages
Once the shop fronts have been acquired, start-ups and small businesses would need to be tempted into making these places their homes. Full or partial business rates deferral or relief would go a long way to mitigating some of the costs involved in getting a business up and running, allowing the most successful of these to thrive and repay the faith shown in them once they have gained a footing.
Finally, the city needs to get off the fence with its pedestrianisation measures on Union Street. Either formalise them or remove them entirely, as a sea of discoloured plastic signs, bollards and haphazard structures doesn’t encourage people to dwell in the area, and looks like an unfinished building site.
Imagine a pedestrianised east end of Union Street with flowerbeds, outdoor seating, thriving local businesses and sparkling granite frontages. Maybe then you wouldn’t have to leave Aberdeen to see a city centre people can be proud of.
- Editor’s note: Aberdeen City Council have responded directly to this comment piece. You can read their response in full here.
Sofiane Kennouche is a social media manager for The Press & Journal