The recent Scotland's Urban AGE 2022 (SUA2) report – a major academic study on the future of Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh (AGE) and their respective city regions – has highlighted the need for innovation, investment and informed leadership to address the shocks which Scotland's urban system faces in light of the combined challenges of the climate emergency, COVID-19, Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the financial crisis.

The overriding message from the report - commissioned by the Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh Chambers of Commerce and supported by Brodies and AAB - is that our cities need to be dynamic to avoid decline. Given their concentrations of population, wealth and knowledge, SUA2 stresses that the success of the three cities is a litmus test of Scotland's future. 

The authors advocate not only a design-led approach to regenerating the AGE cities, but also a systems and service design approach based on the quality of people's lives and their places. It suggests various scenarios for the potential futures of the business sector; the retail industry; cultural venues; the transportation system; and office property market (all of which are changing at the same time) to help understand the threats and opportunities which we face in finding new, more creative ways to make our cities safe, just and sustainable spaces.

SUA2 highlights that the cities face greater challenges than previously due to the flux in all market sectors in terms of societal need, location, use and design. The report calls for a more flexible, agile and responsive planning function to support greater and faster change. Policy, economic development and design must work together to decarbonise the built environment and create a new vibrancy within each of the AGE cities. This will require retrofitting on an unprecedented scale.

Aberdeen is identified in SUA2 as a unique case currently by dint of its role as Scotland and the UK's oil capital and going forward as a carbon-neutral pioneer. The report posits that the city will be defined by the challenges and opportunities of energy transition which had begun pre-pandemic.

The 2015 city centre masterplan, which is currently being refreshed, is seen as a recovery blueprint. Completion of Union Terrace Gardens; redevelopment of the former BHS/Indoor Market; regeneration of Queen Street and the new stadium and leisure facilities at the beach are all seen as critical to the city's evolution and success.

While the loss of major former office buildings and national retailers has had a palpable effect on our city centre, this can also provide added impetus for investment and diversification, including increased opportunities to increase city centre living, including new models such as build to rent.

Cities excel at bringing people together and SUA2 provides a framework for how we can, and indeed must, work in partnership to ensure the economic recovery and ongoing success of the Aberdeen and the other AGE cities.

Change is often difficult, but it is easier if we are all working to a common goal of making our cities better. Working together: now, wouldn't that be a shock to the system?

This article originally appeared in The Press and Journal on 24 June 2022.