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How did small, impoverished Dundee end up on the list of global cool cities?

Jessica Cargill Thompson asks what the locals really think about the V&A and how a 30-year regeneration project is transforming Dundee

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Dundee was selected to be the location of the V&A’s first outpost outside London. Photo: Lydia Smith
Dundee was selected to be the location of the V&A’s first outpost outside London. Photo: Lydia Smith

Dundee’s recent regular appearances in global cool cities lists – The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and National Geographic, to name but a few – has brought bemusement to those of us more familiar with the city as a shabby backwater of the late 20th century, at the same time as piquing the interest of the many more who would struggle to place Dundee on a map.

 

This was once a great port – the wealth accrued from whaling, jute processing, shipbuilding, machine tool manufacturing, jam, journalism and revered universities is still visible in the solid stone architecture of the Victorian town centre. But at the turn of the millennium, Dundee was a city down on its luck, its social and economic troubles a dark contrast to its picture-postcard setting on the north shore of the River Tay. A model of post-industrial blight, it suffered from high unemployment, crime, a rampant drug problem, a diminishing population and visible homelessness – a social malaise exacerbated by the thundering road and soul-sapping 1980s eyesores that clutter the waterfront, cutting the city off from the water that had once been its lifeblood and identity.

 

It was the late ’90s when the city’s council decided on a dramatic cure: a £1bn, 30-year regeneration project of the scale and ambition normally associated with the big fish, rather than this modestly sized city of a mere 147,000 people. The project would reboot 8km of the city’s waterfront, from the airport in the west to the port in the east, by compulsorily purchasing any plots of land not already in public ownership, inserting some hitherto missing high-end uses, seeking development money from a combination of national funding pots and private investment, and using subsequent land and unit rentals to secure an ongoing income for the city. Students and young people would be given faith in the city and persuaded to stay, while business and visitors would be attracted from around the world. The council predicted the scheme would create 8,000 jobs and a cultural offering that would give citizens renewed pride in their city.

 

“Apparently, you make your mind up about a city within two minutes of arriving. Railway stations are supposed to say something powerful about the place you arrive in… ours was a bit of an embarrassment”

 

Nearly 20 years on, Dundee’s chutzpah has begun to pay off. In 2014, it became the UK’s first UNESCO city of design. In September, the V&A turned heads when it opened its first outpost outside London in Dundee – designed by Japanese ‘starchitect’ Kengo Kuma, Scotland’s first design museum was an instant landmark at the heart of the waterfront.

 

There was even a speculative application from house builder Invertay Homes for ‘Scotland’s tallest tower’ (141m) in December. The council quickly said this was pure fantasy, totally out of alignment with the entire masterplan, but the proposal demonstrated a level of ambition that would have been unheard of in the city even five years ago.

 

“One of the things we learned very early on was to ensure we got the full attention of [the Scottish] government – we needed something of real scale,” says waterfront project director Allan Watt, who has taken the helm since the scheme’s main instigator and executive director Mike Galloway retired last year. “It was always intended to rejuvenate the central waterfront [between the road bridge and the railway station] but we realised it needed to be transformational. To get their money, we had to persuade the Scottish government that this would be important to the economy of the whole of Scotland.”

Dundee’s railway station was designed by local architects Nicoll Russell Studios Photo: Lydia Smith
Dundee’s railway station was designed by local architects Nicoll Russell Studios Photo: Lydia Smith

 

John Alexander, the SNP leader of the council for the past 18 months, was just a schoolboy when the scheme was first put to public consultation in 2001, but he is confident the local authority can deliver against the odds. “Generally speaking, the public sector is risk-averse, because of its very nature and the constraints on the financial position that we’re all in. I certainly hold the view that we need to be much more commercial in our outlook. To realise inward investment, private investment, you need to create the landscape, the foundation on which they can build that.”

 

After two decades, this new urban landscape is taking shape, physically and culturally. Locally reviled buildings such as a Hilton hotel, leisure centre and the council’s own offices have been demolished, with sightlines opened up through from the city centre to the Tay, reconnecting Dundee with its sense of place and history. The first wave of low-key offices and residential buildings to the east of the road bridge are filling with tenants, bringing everyday life to the area. Landmark projects such as the V&A and new railway station have finally opened. Empty sites are now filling with construction activity.

 

The most surprising addition to the waterfront’s portfolio remains V&A Dundee itself. The masterplan was already in the making in 2007 when the council got wind through mutual contacts at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (part of the University of Dundee) that the V&A was looking to build an outpost. The council offered it a plum site on the water’s edge, next to the city’s existing big attraction: Scott and Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition ship RRS Discovery.

 

“It was always intended to rejuvenate the central waterfront but we realised it needed to be transformational. To get their money, we had to persuade the Scottish government that this would be important to the economy of the whole of Scotland”

 

It was a shrewd move by the council, but surely a leap of faith on the part of the V&A to accept, when presumably it could have taken its pick of cities? Philip Long, director of V&A Dundee, explains: “What the V&A saw was an opportunity to become involved with a city where there is a great ambition to redevelop, which we could help contribute to through involving the importance of design in a city’s redevelopment. A development such as a V&A in Dundee would be a very exciting means by which the V&A could demonstrate the institution’s commitment to the importance of design much more broadly across the UK.”

 

Instrumental in making it happen was former V&A design director and proud Scot, the late Moira Gemmill, described as the “driving force” behind the project.

 

If it was a gamble, it paid off. As well as winning architectural plaudits, the V&A attracted 320,000 visitors in the first three months after its September opening, a third of whom come from the local Tayside region, a third from outside Scotland. This is not a London institution colonising the provinces – Long takes pains to point out that V&A Dundee is its own institution, run jointly with the local authority and universities. Not so much V&A Dundee, but V&A x Dundee.

 

The other key project completed last year was the railway station, designed by local architects Nicoll Russell Studios. The previous ‘plastic box’ appears to have caused great civic shame and has now been replaced by a vaguely postmodern, curved wall, presumably intended to evoke a triumphal arch reminiscent of London’s Docklands.

 

Space above has been taken by budget hotel chain Sleeperz, making it one of several new hotels on and around the waterfront, anticipating new city break and business meeting crowds.

Four Hilltown tower blocks were among the first things to be demolished Photo: Iain Masterton/Alamy
Four Hilltown tower blocks were among the first things to be demolished Photo: Iain Masterton/Alamy

 

With the V&A one of the first things you see on exiting the station, arrival now has a sense of occasion. “Apparently, you make your mind up about a city within two minutes of arriving,” Watt tells me. “Railway stations are supposed to say something powerful about the place you arrive in… ours was a bit of an embarrassment.”

 

One of the most successful innovations – and perhaps the only one about which I hear universal praise from the Dundonians I meet – has been Slessor Gardens, a 10,738 sq m public park. Opened in 2016, it has brought an open green space into the heart of the city and become a popular spot for morning dogwalkers and lunching office staff. At least in warmer months. A large central lawn is edged with themed garden rooms that tell the story of Dundee’s global links, part of the city’s outward-looking vision. A versatile space, it has also hosted festivals and big-name concerts by the likes of Rita Ora, Simple Minds, The Pretenders and KT Tunstall. While such gigs generate income, as well as kudos, an overabundance could risk excluding other citizens and other uses, but Watt tells me the waterfront looks at events case by case.

 

Starting on-site in spring on a plot to the south will be an ‘urban beach’ of sandy dunes reflecting the Tay estuary’s shoreline and capitalising on Dundee’s statistical claim to be Scotland’s sunniest city. It will extend the public open space to the river and reinforce a central axis of public piazzas that carries through to City Square in front of Caird Hall to the north.

 

At barber-cum-cafe Hard Grind, manager Colin is noticing the change: “Before, the centre of Dundee was up towards the west end and there was nothing much here. Now it feels like there’s a real adventurous, independent spirit, with lots of cool, quirky places setting up.”

 

There are stirrings in the previously forgotten liminal spaces between the chain store-dominated town centre and the waterfront. Pedestrians lured down from the high street to the waterfront are discovering these charming nooks. In Exchange Street, tucked off the main drag to the south of the city centre, a new generation of independent shops has begun to animate the small units with vintage clothes, artisanal cheese and vegan health foods, creating a new community with its own hashtag: #DowntownDundee.

 

At barber-cum-cafe Hard Grind, manager Colin is noticing the change: “Before, the centre of Dundee was up towards the west end and there was nothing much here. Now it feels like there’s a real adventurous, independent spirit, with lots of cool, quirky places setting up.”

 

Last year was certainly a marker for Dundee’s waterfront, but the regeneration spotlight is now shifting to City Quay – the only dock that wasn’t filled in during the disastrous redevelopments of the 1960s and ’70s. Part of the dock is used for water sports in the summer and the council is hoping to attract a private partner to run a marina in the remaining section.

 

Wandering the waterfront and chatting to people in Slessor Gardens or nearby shops, pubs and cafes, I hear a generally positive attitude towards the redevelopment. Venture onto social media or ‘below the line’ on the Evening Telegraph website, however, and there’s a scepticism that can be summed up as: “Why are you spending all this money on flashy buildings when you could be solving Dundee’s real problems?”

 

Aerial view of the V&A at Dundee under construction Photo: Alamy
Aerial view of the V&A at Dundee under construction Photo: Alamy

 

“People sometimes see the waterfront in isolation, rather than as part of the wider strategy for the regeneration of the city,” says Alexander. “In 2018 alone, we built seven brand new schools; we have a programme to invest in 1,000 new social houses; and we are building a new community facility. To achieve what people want to see in terms of tackling poverty and unemployment, we need to create the landscape which would allow that to really grow.”

 

Watt points to the 8,000 jobs being created by the waterfront, from hotel staff to research scientists, a community benefits clause that demands a certain percentage of construction workers and subcontracts must be local, a programme of apprenticeships, and an insistence that any business on-site must pay at least the living wage.

 

Two-thirds of the way into a brass-necked plan that could make or break a city for the next 50 years is a good time to take stock. As someone scarred by grim visits to Dundee in the 1980s and ’90s and determined never to return, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how the city, old and new, seems. Granted, V&A aside, much of the new architecture filling the waterfront plots is rather humdrum, but the spaces in between are, if windy, a pleasure to be in and the reconnection to the river is a reminder of Dundee’s truly special geographic setting.

 

“In Exchange Street, tucked off the main drag to the south of the city centre, a new generation of independent shops has begun to animate the small units with vintage clothes, artisanal cheese and vegan health foods, creating a new community with its own hashtag: #DowntownDundee”

 

In the old city centre, social problems such as homelessness are still very evident, but there’s an energy to the place that I never experienced before: existing cultural institutions the Dundee Contemporary Arts centre, the Dundee Rep Theatre and the McManus art gallery report increased visitor numbers, start-ups take advantage of the relatively cheap rents and interesting new shops are filling spaces.

 

It turns out that those newspaper cool lists may have been sort of right after all. Dundee does have a contemporary credibility, sense of possibility and a renewed civic pride.

 

After my waterfront explorations, I stop to warm up with a cup of tea in charming independent bookshop-cum-cafe Madigan’s, in one of the old streets near Caird Hall.

 

I ask my student waitress what she thinks of the city’s ambitious reinvention. “Lots of people say it’s ugly, that it’s out of keeping,” she admits. “But I think it’s great. Everything looks great and there’s so much going on. Live concerts and festivals in Slessor Gardens. A rooftop bar. More people coming into the cafe. I’m really excited about what’s been happening… and what’s going to happen.”

 

Jessica Cargill Thompson is a freelance writer, editor and urban researcher. She is the former deputy editor of Time Out and the editor of The World’s Greatest Cities

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