Peter Ross: Fight for the granite city

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UNION Terrace Gardens has become a battleground for Aberdeen's soul – with one side pushing for a total makeover, the other seeking to preserve the park and put up an arts centre

WATCH yourself, people warn me. Take care down there. What with the heroin and the alkies, it's just not safe. You'd think I was planning to visit some unholy cross between Helmand province and Hogarth's Gin Lane, rather than a public park in the centre of Aberdeen, yet Union Terrace Gardens is a green space that has Aberdonians seeing red.

The latest to do so is Annie Lennox, the quine of pop, who last week posted a blog in which she described as "idiocy and madness" plans to spend up to 140 million to redevelop the sunken Victorian park as a grand and gleaming plaza. "Are you going to sit back and do nothing," she challenged locals, "while the beautiful historic centre gets ripped out and concreted over?"

City Square, as the proposed project is known, is being spearheaded by Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future and bankrolled, in part, by Sir Ian Wood, one of Scotland's richest men, who has pledged 50 million of a personal fortune acquired in the energy industry. Under the terms of the plans, Union Terrace Gardens would disappear, and the space would be built upon, raising it to street level, creating a gigantic civic square with gardens.

The idea is that this would make the city centre easier on the eye and easier to move around, thus making Aberdeen more attractive for the renewable energy companies it hopes to draw in as North Sea oil runs out. It's bad news, however, for Peacock Visual Arts, the organisation which by November 2008 had secured planning permission and 75 per cent of the funding necessary for a centre for contemporary arts in Union Terrace Gardens. Now, with the local council considering the City Square proposal, Peacock faces the prospect of losing its funding and its new building never making it off the drawing board.

So, with a pop star, artists and angry locals on one side, and a multi-millionaire and equally vocal Aberdonians who favour the scheme on the other, the park is at the centre of a storm. Not that you'd know it at half-ten on Friday morning. It's cold, drizzly, the statue of Robert Burns is covered in seagull mess, and the only person in the park besides me is a man in a grey hooded top rolling a joint in one of the arches on the Union Terrace side.

At first glance, it all seems a bit grim, but a few minutes later a young family come walking through – Gabrielle Reith and Philip Thompson with their three-year-old daughter, Poppy. "Look! A humungous apple!" she cries, running her hands over a smooth granite sculpture. "She loves it here," says Gabrielle. "She's always chasing the seagulls."

Once upon a time this park was popular, especially in the summer when there would be concerts, and old men playing draughts on the giant board, and games of football with ganseys for goalposts, and the air full of rasping laughter when the ball disturbed a kissing couple. Now, there's not so much of that, especially since the council closed the splendid Victorian toilets.

But people do still come, not all of them with red noses and collapsed veins, and for these die-hards the park is a passion. I even meet a small local production company, Noble Brothers, who last year showed at Cannes, making their latest short film. For them, the emptiness of the park is ideal – less chance of some numpty strolling into the background of one of their fight scenes. "We also wanted to film here," says the director John William Noble, "because it might be the last chance we get."

Like Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, this is a park you walk down into from street level. The bank slopes down steeply from Union Terrace, spring shoots poking from the dark earth like missile silos, to the railway line from which this place gets its local nickname – the Trainy Parky. The gardens opened to the public in 1877 but are based on an ancient wooded area known, on account of its crows, as the Corbie Heugh.

Standing on the grass at the bottom, it feels as though some of Aberdeen's grandest architecture is looming overhead. At the north end of the park, on Rosemount Viaduct, are the three granite public buildings – the Central Library, St Mark's Church, and His Majesty's Theatre – known colloquially as "Education, Salvation and Damnation".

On the slope leading up to these buildings is the large floral display which, when in bloom, shows two lions holding a shield beneath the words "Bon Accord", the city's motto. Bon Accord is French for "good agreement", which is ironic as that's the last thing anyone would associate with this park at the moment. Ian Griffiths, the gardener who planted all 750 red and 350 white polyanths which make up the display, should dig up the bed and rearrange the flowers to form the more appropriate word, "Stooshie".

When Annie Lennox blogged about the park on Monday, she linked to a petition calling for the new Peacock arts centre to be saved. That petition was started by Katie Guthrie, a 25-year-old local painter, who, with her friend Fraser Denholm, runs I Heart UTG, a group campaigning against the City Square proposals.

Guthrie works in a local skateboard shop, but gamely puts on her duffel coat to walk into the park to talk about her campaign. "It's make or break time for Aberdeen," she says. "We can't just base the economy on oil. A lot of people leave because there's no jobs in the creative sector. We need to start regenerating ourselves like Dundee has. That city is smaller than Aberdeen and it's completely turned itself around since the DCA was built. We are the only city in Scotland that doesn't have a contemporary arts centre, and it's sad that the oil capital of Europe is lacking such a strong part of its identity."

Of the people using the park today, it tends to be the older men and women who are in favour of the City Square proposal. Allan Clark, 84, is neatly dressed in shirt, tie and bunnet, and speaks a doric as broad as the Union Terrace Gardens are deep.

He married his wife 58 years ago in nearby St Nicholas Kirk and they had the reception in the Caledonian Hotel on Union Terrace. But these associations with the area cause him no sentimental attachment to the park. "I'm all for getting it upgraded," he says. "Wha's usin' the gardens now? Just the wine-drinkers. It'll be lovely to see folk comin' here for a stroll again."

Clark is a carpenter by trade and, though long retired, would be willing to pick up hammer and chisel once more if it would hurry City Square along. "Aiberdeen has affy trouble gettin' things done. I'll come down and give them a help," he laughs, "and I won't charge them nothing!"

I'm half-tempted to relay his offer to Sir Ian Wood who, a few miles away at the chamber of commerce, is talking up City Square to local business people. He looks like he could do with cheering up. There's something Lee Marvinish about Sir Ian's appearance, and he has the super-confidence of the super-rich, but there's a softness to his manner and he seems quite hurt by the hostility City Square has attracted.

"I think people have to really stretch to be cynical about my motives," he says when we meet after his speech. "My grandfather was born in Aberdeen, my father was born in Aberdeen, and I want to see my home city continue to prosper. That's all I'm trying to do."

He seems ambivalent towards the city and its people. While clearly wishing the best for both, he believes the Aberdonian mindset is resistant to change. "Absolutely. That's part of a lot of parochial, provincial communities."

In the early 1970s, he felt angry at how fearful locals were about US oil companies descending upon them. He thought they should have more confidence in themselves. He still thinks that, and so City Square is intended, in part, to give Aberdeen a landmark to boost its self-image – filling a hole in the Aberdonian psyche just as it fills a hole in the landscape.

These psychological and philosophical aspects of City Square are, I think, more interesting than arguments about its economic impact. The debate over the development is really a debate about what sort of city people want Aberdeen to be. What are its values? Is richness defined by the wad in your wallet or by the historic soil beneath your feet? Money is important, of course; it's hard to care about architecture when you're on the buroo. But, equally, a city which deifies commerce and denigrates culture is poor in a different way.

Sir Ian Wood talks about City Square as "a new heart". Those who want to keep the gardens the way they are refer to them as Aberdeen's lungs. But neither of these physical metaphors goes far enough. The truth is that Union Terrace Gardens is a battleground for the city's soul.

Back in the gardens, John Rutherford, a 35-year-old postman, is relaxing on a park bench after his shift. Behind him is the large statue of William Wallace from which he once fell and broke an arm while trying to place a traffic cone on its head. "I'm a born and bred Aberdonian," he says, gesturing round at the greenery he knows and loves. "This is my childhood here."