Concerns raised over pedestrianisation, pavements and lack of benches on Union Street
By Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco
Looking down Union Street from the new Aberdeen sign in Castlegate
This is the second part of a series about disability access on Union Street. You can read Part 1 here.
Ever since an emergency summit was held last autumn, community groups have sought to reverse the decline of the famed Granite Mile.
While a number of ideas for revitalising the city centre have been raised, disability access is mentioned just once in a recently released list of 17 key themes.
One in six Aberdonians have either a disability or long-term health condition which affects their daily life, according to the 2011 census.
As such, I spoke to some of these individuals to get a better idea of their experiences on Union Street and how the city centre could be improved for those with disabilities.
Poor pavements a major concern:
University of Aberdeen Biological Sciences student Libby Hanson, who uses crutches to get around, has often found Union Street difficult to traverse.
She told me: ‘Trying to navigate Union Street has been a nightmare with the poor state of the pavement, and lack of places to take a breather at the upper half of the street (towards Albyn).’
‘I never go to Union Street anymore unless I have to,’ Libby added. ‘If I do, I rely on buses, taxis or cars.’
Likewise, writer and poet Fiona Robertson has also found issues with the Union Street pavements.
Fiona said: ‘I use a wheelchair intermittently and the camber of the pavement is often exhausting for whoever's pushing me to fight against. There are places at junctions where it isn't smooth to go onto the road and places where there are actually divots, which can mean you get tipped into the street.’
Recalling how her career slipped at a crossing and accidentally pushed her into oncoming traffic, Fiona added: ‘At crossings… there are still some with the metal studs as texture changes. They've been a deathtrap for 20 odd years - in the rain, they are so slidy with wheels.’
Laurie Mackay and her fiancé Ross have also experienced challenges navigating Union Street.
Ross told me: ‘Trying to push a wheelchair for Laurie down Union Street takes so much effort to get up and down uneven curbs and constantly being vigilant for potholes.’
‘After the May Day March,’ Laurie added, ‘I actually got tipped out as we tried to get onto cross a road. Luckily as an ambulant user I was able to catch my fall.’
Many buildings along Union Street lack accessibility:
While Laurie gave high marks to businesses like Sainsburys and B&Q, who allow customers to borrow mobility equipment and wheelchairs, she noted that many buildings in the city centre are inaccessible.
‘The cinema, shops, cafes, and libraries are all very challenging to navigate in town,’ Laurie said. ‘Even wedding dress shopping - every shop had a step at the entrance though staff could not have been more helpful.’
Similarly, Aberdeen FC club doctor Grieg Nicol wondered why more businesses in the city centre don’t have proper changing facilities and toilets for adults and young people who require extra care.
He said: ‘City & nationwide, where's there to help anyone change nappies, pads, and continence if they weigh anything more than the 20kg (a six year old) that “baby change” platforms tolerate?’
Greig, who parents a non-verbal autistic son, added that ‘carers shouldn’t need to be imaginative’ when it comes to issues like this.
How to make Union Street more accessible?
After speaking to Laurie, Fiona, Libby, Ross, and Greig; it's clear that disabled individuals and their loved ones have often found Union Street difficult and unfriendly.
So how do they think the city centre can be made more accessible?
For starters, repair the pavements and add more benches.
Libby said: ‘There are some simple things that the council might be able to do, such as fixing the uneven paving stones or having a few more places to sit along the length of Union Street. Even small things like that are greatly appreciated.’
Last year, reporting by the Press and Journal found just one bench along the entire length of the street.
Fiona believes that people with disabilities must be at the centre of any plans for Union Street moving forward.
She told me: ‘People like to think just being decent is somehow enough and things will work out, but disabled people have had to fight for decades for basic access to services and buildings because we weren't explicitly included in the planning. We're trying to avoid that. We want a situation where everyone can just be happy and excited about new things…’
Pedestrianisation a key concern:
To a person, those I spoke to urged city leaders to take their experiences into account when deciding whether to pedestrianise the area.
Fiona said: ‘50m doesn't seem like a lot to an abled person who thinks just anywhere in the city centre is good, but it makes all the difference to us. We need to be able to park close to the place we're going or those places just become impossible. There has to be a way of still allowing blue badge users access or the city centre essentially becomes blocked off to us.’
Laurie added: ‘It’s important to note that a lot of disabled people don’t have a blue badge. There’s a lot of able bodied people who assume when you become disabled you just get one automatically. Therefore when planners design spaces that are “green” they end up cutting off access to disabled people.’
Libby also weighed in, commenting: ‘When people talk about pedestrianising the area, they rarely take into consideration those of us with mobility issues. Without vehicular access, I won't be able to get in and around Union Street, and I will be well and truly cut off.’
City council voted against permanent pedestrianisation of Union Street last June, but the issue has remained at the forefront of many disabled Aberdonians’ minds.
Who is Union Street for?
The question for city planners and civic leaders is simple. Will the experiences and concerns of disabled people be centred when determining the future of Union Street?
As Fiona said: ‘‘There are solutions to these things. Sometimes they're not as aesthetically pleasing or streamlined but surely disabled people's lives matter more than that?’
If disabled Aberdonians continue to feel that the city centre is not accessible, then they will not return- and Union Street will be the poorer for it.