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Moreen Simpson: If beloved Union Terrace Gardens were never broken, why fix them?

UTG was once a great spot for lunch break sunbathing (Illustration: Helen Hepburn)
UTG was once a great spot for lunch break sunbathing (Illustration: Helen Hepburn)

There’s nae better place tae chew the fat aboot the current state o’ Aiberdeen than… in the chiropodist’s waiting room.

The moment I knocked ower my stick, the mannie opposite was on to me, his opening gambit: “Fit d’ye think o’ the new cooncil?” Not a lot, sez me.

I suspect he detected a kindred spirit, so he warmed to his subject: “There’s aye got to be a coalition at the Toon Hoose these days. I bet they’d loup into bed wie an alien fae Mars just to get a bittie o’ power.” Yowser, now I was fair warmin’ to this chiel.

He wis on a roll; “I was born in 1947 and I’ve never seen the city in sic a state.” My cue: “I wis born in 1948 and I totally agree with you.”

His turn: “I walked doon Union Street yesterday and the whole place looks like a slum. As for the disaster they’ve made o’ Union Terrace Gardens… foo much will it cost at the end o’ the day if they’ve spent £25 million so far and it still looks half-baked?”

Union Terrace Gardens isn’t yet ready for the public (Photo: DC Thomson)

Sadly, just as we were about to put forward our expert suggestions for setting the city to rights, the foot gadgie came for him. But, oor claik fair inspired me. I took the bussie into toon and tottered to the top of un-soft-opened UTG for a good keek.

The Granite City’s green oasis

First, I was hit with the memories of our glorious oasis amid the silver granite. Tootlin’ doon with mum summer evenings or weekends from Watson Street to listen to pipe bands and watch Highland dancers. The wee glen echoing with music, singing and chatter.

Like Edinburgh, we were a city with unique and much-loved sunken gardens

Later, among hundreds of teenagers doing the Twist or Shake to pop bands. A quick sunbathe when we nipped in for lunch from Saturday jobs nearby. Perfect picnics with my bairns and, later, grandtoots.

A crowd watches a band play on stage in Union Terrace Gardens in 1969 (Photo: AJL/DC Thomson)

Like Edinburgh, we were a city with unique and much-loved sunken gardens. Certainly, the place could have done with a few improvements. But no way did our green valley need a complete demolition job.

I was shocked at the state of the place. I can’t imagine that midden suddenly transforming into a pleasant space in the foreseeable months.

What’s really going to be different about the ‘new’ UTG?

Some brainbox in 2007 put out the word UTG needed major redevelopment. Sir Ian Wood offered £50 million towards a hugely costly scheme involving raising the site. (Scyooze me, but isn’t the subterranean state the USP?)

A decade of dithering, including a referendum, the result of which was later overturned. After Sir Ian withdrew, cooncillors settled for a scaled-doon version, started in 2019.

A detailed view of one element of the UTG redesign plan (Image: Grimshaw Architects)

Viewing the artist’s impression, many locals wondered: “Fit’s a’ that different aboot it?” I’m sorry, but I have to join the dismal Jimmys. What’s really going to be spectacularly new about UTG, apart from three pavilions that look like gigantic trams?

And, did the place really have to be laid to waste, then replanted? In other words, if it wasn’t seriously broke, why lash oot a fortune fixing it?

Moreen Simpson is a former assistant editor of The Press & Journal and started her journalism career in 1970

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