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The new Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen

Laura Puttkamer

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December 2022 saw the reopening of Union Terrace Gardens, a popular public park in the heart of Scotland’s coastal city. Before the redevelopment with LDA Design, there was a controversial and lengthy planning process. Read more about the redevelopment and the citizen-focused planning process here.

The most important park in central Aberdeen

The Scottish city of Aberdeen is famous for its enduring grey-stone buildings, giving it the nickname “Granite City”, as well as for its offshore petroleum industry. Despite for being known more for grey than for green, at the heart of the city is a green space: Union Terrace Gardens, surrounded by some beautiful architecture, used to be one of the most important parks in city centre. After years of decline and controversy, a restoration has led to the reopening of the sunken park in late 2022.

Landscape architecture and urban design consultancy, LDA Design have worked with the city and with the people of Aberdeen to create a new masterplan. Aberdeen City Council organised artistic activation events that were widely accepted by the population.

Originally, the Union Terrace Gardens opened in 1878 on the land of the former “bleaching greens” next to the railway line. This was an open area used for spreading cloth on the ground to be whitened and purified by sunlight. City Council decided to give the land to the people as a pleasure ground. However, by the early 21st century, decline had already set in. The charmingly landscaped gardens became neglected. Especially after dark, safety was a source of concern.

In 2010, the City Council of Aberdeen unveiled plans to transform Union Terrace Garden. These would have included filling in some of the park valley and building over it. The community group Friends of the Gardens fought against this proposal, which led to a lot of controversy.

Visualisation of the Union Terrace Gardens in the heart of Aberdeen. Copyright: LDA Design

An inclusive public engagement process

In 2016, LDA Design came on board to reunite the city behind a new design. The idea was to “reclaim the Gardens for the people of Aberdeen”. However, residents were disillusioned about public consultation and any plans were going to be the subject of intense public scrutiny. As a solution to this challenge, LDA Design and the City Council came up with Mosaic Gardens as an act of reclamation. It showed that the design process would be more inclusive this time. Together with engagement specialists NADFLY, organisers installed over 200 bright flags featuring details of the Gardens and people could take a flag home.

They also distributed cards all over the city, showing “instagrams from the future”. These had images showcasing the many different activities and events that could take place in the restored Union Terrace Gardens. It was key to renew people’s interest in the potential of the Gardens, to celebrate heritage, and to create new memories.

These events enabled a more formal consultation process that was widely accepted. A survey on the city’s Citizen Space portal collected more than 1,400 responses. Residents asked for the Gardens to be conserved, but to have improved access and more amenities and activities.

LDA Design and Aberdeen City Council are hoping for the population's support of the new park. Copyright: Christopher Swan / LDA Design

The new Union Terrace Gardens

In the proposed masterplan by LDA, which now has been implemented, protection of the original Union Terrace Garden is key. By working closely with Historic Environment Scotland, traditional park enjoyment and new uses are combined. The views and the statues of Robert Burns and Edward VII are now protected. The Victorian toilets and the Arcade Arches have been refurbished. Lighting, programming, and clear views throughout will make the Gardens safer at night.

Another priority for the design was disabled access. Together with NGOs and expert panels, LDA developed and tested designs for accessibility, facilities, and safety. This includes improved wheelchair access.

By reinstating the grand staircase and building ga new informal amphitheatre along two new viewing platforms, LDA Design and the City Council aim at restoring civic pride. Similarly, the proposed pavilion within Rosemount Plaza will help to foster a sense of community. The design proposals received a 91% public approval rating. Aberdeen City Council unanimously approved the planning application. Work started in 2019.

In February 2023, a light festival took place in Union Terrace Gardens. Copyright: Christopher Swan / LDA Design

A multi-million-pound refurbishment

On December 22, 2022, Union Terrace Gardens reopened to the public. The refurbishment cost around 28 million GBP (32 million Euro). Some of the most remarkable changes include improved wheelchair access, new amenities such as a play area for children, toilets, and cafés. The Gardens now also include extensive seating, new lighting features, specially commissioned artworks, new native planting, more trees, and the reinstatement of a planted city crest. In addition, there is a new water feature and historic elements have been refurbished and reinstated.

Earlier in February 2023, the SPECTRA lighting festival took place in the new Union Terrace Gardens. The popular event improved visibility and acceptance of the Gardens, but also delayed the central lawn area. Now, the new plants and grass turf will need some time to grow in order to be ready for spring and summer.

Read more: Another Scottish city, Paisley, had a culture-led approach to regeneration.

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