Every time I return to my home town, I return to somewhere different. Sometimes it’s the bulldozers and cranes that have done it. Sometimes it’s the dreaded council with one of their “plans”. Sometimes it’s progress, and sometimes – worst of all – it’s decay. Can I stop it? No. Can someone do better? I hope so.

You’ve probably heard about some of the problems Aberdeen has faced recently. This week, for example, there have been talks to prevent the closure of the city’s John Lewis – if it does shut, there won’t be a single department store left. I think of Fraser’s, where everyone got their tellies, and E&M’s, where everyone got their school uniforms, and Debenhams, where everyone got their coffee and cake. I realise this is nostalgia talking, but sometimes nostalgia is a way of telling you that things are going wrong.

You may want to say at this point that the closure of high-street stores is not unique to Aberdeen and you’d be right of course. The city is merely facing the problem that pretty much everyone is facing: the move to online shopping, accelerated by the restrictions imposed during the pandemic. Convenience, and then coercion, did for the department store.

But Aberdeen faces other problems, some of which were self-imposed. A friend of mine was telling me the other day about an archive article he was reading from 1978 in which the shopowners on George Street – location, famously, of the Rubber Shop – said they were worried the Bredero development (which ultimately became the Bon Accord Centre) would have a devastating effect on their livelihoods. They were right. Not only was the Bon Accord Centre cheap and nasty, it blocked off George Street, like a band of wire round an artery.

What has happened here, essentially, is that the Bon Accord development – and others like it – ultimately damaged rather than enhanced the city centre. Look at Provost Skene’s House. It’s a beautiful little 16th century building, one of the oldest in the city, and yet another nasty development was built around it. And the same happened at the railway station with “Union Square”, all of which – to continue the artery metaphor – has caused the blood to seep out of Union Street. A visit to the street used to be pleasant; now it’s depressing. Grey granite, empty windows.

The council does apparently have a masterplan agreed in 2015 but it might as well have been agreed in 1915 because everything has changed: the pandemic happened, as has the move to online shopping and – another of Aberdeen’s unique problems – the oil and gas industry has slumped. What that means is the city must prepare for a future where there is a lot less money and, like the mining communities in Ayrshire and elsewhere, a future in which the main source of employment has withered, or disappeared entirely.

So how can the city do it? First, it needs to ditch the total reliance on shops and offices – neither of which we are going to very much anymore – and look instead to a city-centre model that relies on leisure and housing. I’m thinking of somewhere like Copenhagen: people live in the centre next to the bars and hotels and museums. Or Gothenburg, which is based around its green spaces and parks (Aberdeen has Union Terrace Gardens right in the centre of town but they have been criminally neglected – why on earth aren’t there public toilets there any more?)

All of this would require a pretty serious rethink – the council would need to start to think of Union Street as just as much residential as retail for example. For a long time, Aberdeen relied on big-names to open big-space shops, but they are crashing out of existence as well now and probably won’t come back. The council also needs to look at parking – it is impossible to park anywhere in the city centre for free – as well as incentives for housing developers to transform old buildings.

I realise some of this is the nostalgia talking again. I miss Watt and Grant’s, and Maxwells, and Nova, and Bruce Millers, and all those other places, and I know they’re not coming back. But I also think there’s a future that can be inspired by the past: the past where people lived in Aberdeen’s great granite squares and where we didn’t rely on a few big, ugly, cheap shopping centres. John Lewis may well leave the city – I fear it’s inevitable – but at least it’s a chance for a re-think, a re-route, a rebirth.

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