Candidate: Union Street
Location: Aberdeen, UK
Category: The Great Street Award
Union Street is the main focus of Aberdeen City Centre and plays a major role in the commercial, economic, social, civic and cultural life of Aberdeen and the wider North East. The street offers access to a wide range of goods and services, and it’s a place where many people meet socially and choose to live and visit. It is vital for the future prosperity of Aberdeen that the City enhances Union Street and promotes it as a safe, attractive, accessible and well connected place that contributes to an improved quality of life. Union Street’s built heritage makes a significant contribution to its attractiveness and prosperity. A strong and thriving Union Street will be key to delivering the wider strategic aims of the City’s statutory plans.
Union Street features in the City Centre Neighbourhood Community Action Plan. Unlike other neighbourhoods in the city, it has a wide range of stakeholders including those who live on the street and those who visit on a daily basis whether to work, shop or for recreation and social purposes. There is an ongoing need to balance the needs of the street to continue to be vibrant and economically viable against the expectations of those who live in the vicinity.
The unique form, variety and quality of architecture found in Union Street are unified by the universal use of local granite as a building material. The variety of buildings ranged along the street are enhanced by a sense of austere simplicity in the materiality. Corners and doors are celebrated with many fine examples of the art of granite masonry.
As the principal thoroughfare in the City, Union Street has a major strategic role to play in the future of the City Centre. Recent development has altered the orientation of the city centre from the east-west along Union Street to north-south – echoing the old medieval structure. Economic circumstances and modern retail trends have led to the shopping mall becoming the dominant focus of retail activity in the City which could erode the integrity of Union Street. Nonetheless, Union Street remains the focus for Aberdonians when the City celebrates or comes together for a parade including annual Tartan Day, British Armed Forces and Veterans Day, Aberdeen Students Torcher Parade, when the T all Ships Race comes to town or even when Aberdeen FC parade trophies in an open-topped bus – admittedly a rather less frequent occasion of late. A range of activities take place on the street, such as the Local Farmers’ Markets, International Markets, closure to traffic for Christmas shopping. The 2004 Union Street Bicentennial Celebrations saw well over 100,000 people in Union Street and the City Centre.
Union Street has seen few new buildings since the middle of the 20th century. However, conversion and restoration of existing fabric in and around the street has served to reinforce and enhance its character and unique sense of place. Examples include former commercial buildings, like Archibald Simpson’s bank at the junction of Union Street and King Street (now a public house named after Simpson), the Commercial Union at the junction of Union Street and Union Terrace, (now a public house/restaurant) and Langstane Kirk (now a restaurant and casino).
Spaces along the length of Union Street including Castlegate and St Nicholas Street, together with extended footways along the length of the street, recognise the importance of creating increased space for pedestrian use.
As the central spine in the structure of the City Centre, Union Street is the focus for activity. During various times of the day the Street teems with residents, business users, shoppers, tourists, school children and students. The variety of uses and concentration of retail activity in and around Union Street ensures that this remains an important central place. There are issues in the evening and at night with the number of licensed premises in the City Centre, however, the Police, working in partnership with local communities and bars and nightclubs, make the place safer by measures such as increasing community policing. Other measures such as introducing night-time taxi ranks on the street are contributing to more effective policing.
There are a great many streets, spaces and squares with different character connected to Union Street, including formal squares such as Castlegate; St Nicholas Street, a busy pedestrian area; St Nicholas Kirkyard and Union Terrace, which offer green spaces, mature trees and the opportunity to experience important vistas in the City Centre. Other spaces such as Golden and Bon Accord Squares contribute to the wider network and help link Union Street to surrounding neighbourhoods. To the south, Union Street is connected by a variety of routes to the medieval Green and to the City’s bus and rail stations. There is an intensity of use at most times of the day.
Recently, the upgrading and widening of the pavements on the south side of the street has helped to increase footfall, encouraging people to spend more time shopping, which reflects the prosperous local economy. The City hopes that pedestrianisation of a part of the street will further enhance the retail opportunity and transform the street, augmenting its contribution to Aberdeen’s prosperity.
The construction of Union Street at the start of the 19th Century was a significant intervention in local topography, connecting a series of hills together by means of a viaduct and bridge over the Denburn Valley. This civic endeavour has not altered significantly in the last 200 years and the medieval core of the City can be clearly perceived in the old Green and St Nicholas Kirk; the more formal 19th Century expansion of the City lies to the west. The striking changes of level and associated connections along, across and under Union Street emphasise its importance as the central street in the City. The geology of the north-east of Scotland is clearly evident in the majority of the buildings on Union Street that have been hewn from locally sourced granite. The simple elegance of much of the terraces is complemented by often intricately detailed corner pieces, celebrating the local masonry industry.
As user needs and habits change, so buildings and activities on the street have evolved. Union Street has become a major public transport hub for the City with the majority of bus services touching it at some point. Union Street is the central focus for public transport in the City. Bus services within the City all travel along or across Union Street at some point, providing excellent connections to the rest of the City and its surrounding hinterland. Taxi ranks are located strategically around Union Street, but relocate to Union Street during the night to better serve needs at different times of the day.
Access to the central train and bus stations has been improved recently, offering two main pedestrian routes directly from Union Street; an all weather route through the Trinity Mall, and another strolling route via Market Street and the Green area, which benefits from a newly completed Townscape Heritage Initiative. Union Street and Aberdeen City Centre generally have been the subject of previous place-based learning programmes through Aberdeen’s Education Centre, interacting with schools; further education, interacting with the Robert Gordon and Aberdeen Universities in relation to masterplanning, site specific opportunities, transport and movement strategies.