Dundee – one of four cities shortlisted today for the UK City of Culture 2017 -- is the new black. The rest of Scotland hasn't quite noticed -- yet. Which is no surprise. If you last encountered Dundee in the 1980's you'd have found a city ill at ease with itself. The multis -- low-rise flats with high levels of unemployment -- were no-mans lands. Jute and jam had declined. Journalism was flourishing – along with NCR and Timex -- but without central belt readers, who would know. All the population predictions saw tweedy neighbouring Perth on the rise with gritty Dundee on the way out. According to Tom Shepherd, Chief Executive of Dundee-based CXR Biosciences, "Dundee was like Glasgow only smaller and worse." And then….something happened. It could have been the day more than a decade back when Mike Galloway completed his award winning restoration of the Gorbals and came back home to become Planning Chief for Dundee Council. With his encouragement the council started to think differently. Demolition and refurbishment of the worst housing schemes had already begun – but the biggest development challenge lay untouched.
According to actor and Ambassador for the Dundee City of Culture bid Brian Cox, "It was so disturbing to see the mess, I simply avoided it." Forty years later, Dundee Council finally agreed. The car-n-concrete Waterfront was a mistake – and bit by bit it has to go. It's a big admission. But for almost ten years Dundee Council has consulted, cajoled, lobbied and planned. The result is an ambitious plan to build a new dock and civic space below the Caird Hall, to demolish the eyesores including the council HQ Tayside House (which is almost gone) to remove the pollution-generating, space-hogging bridge ramps (also down) and to realign roads so the original old town grid formation reaches right down to the water's edge. The Olympia Leisure Centre, Bingo Hall and Hilton Hotel are also scheduled for demolition – with the Hilton moving to a new prestigious dockside site. A new leisure centre has already been built nearby and the new council offices tucked away in the heart of the city have won design awards. Dundee Council committed to a revamp of the station when Network Rail bottled it and Tesco may redesign their rambling Waterfront site. The whole ambitious £270million project is part funded by public investment – and part by rents from the new office space, with plans for the only UK outpost of the celebrated V&A design museum right at the centre. Its risky, big, bold -- and underway. Will it work? Will the new Waterfront attract investment and jobs -- and persuade Dundonians they inhabit a "ludicrously ideal" city – as actor Stephen Fry believes?
In their time Dundonians have elected Winston Churchill and the last Communist MP. So contrariness is in with the bricks. So is a stubborn modesty. The late songwriter Michael Marra described Dundonians as Glaswegians who listen. Locals won't shout about Dundee -- even though the city is overflowing with superlatives. It is Scotland's life science hub, and boasts Britain's most internationally cited scientists. Dundee University, worked with Ninewells Hospital to bring Britain's best biomedical researchers to the city. And students of Scotland's best art college (Duncan of Jordanstone) cross fertilised with the city's powerful visual culture, and Sinclair PCs to create a digital entertainment industry with £100million annual turnover. The Dundee Courier's circulation is just below the Herald and P&J and above the Scotsman. Abertay and Dundee Universities have been voted the most popular in Britain – never mind Scotland, Dundee City Council was awarded the best promotional strategy in Europe in 2004. The city houses the only urban wind turbines in Britain and with two thirds of its housing stock facing south – it's gearing up to switch to solar energy for domestic heating and has just won a COSLA Excellence for cutting tenants heating bills with district heating schemes. According to Mike Galloway, "Dundee is small enough to get good ideas adopted fast but big enough to feel lively." Or, as the Scotsman's George Kerevan puts it, "Dundee has produced an entrepreneurial revolution of its own," – competing with established centres through ideas, innovation …. and a stunning natural environment.
The city serves up a unique quality of life with more hours of sunshine, the purest air quality and more green spaces than any other Scottish city. You can see dolphins as you walk beside the Tay, and two Munros (mountains over 3000 feet) looking inland to the Angus glens. Eighteen championship golf courses lie within 30 minutes and include St Andrews, Carnoustie and Gleneagles. Thanks to Europe's longest rail bridge, Dundee has direct rail connections with Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow. 200 years ago the city had a bigger population than Glasgow – now it weighs in as Scotland's smallest and most youthful city. There are more students per head of the population in Dundee than any European city bar Heidelberg - one in seven of the population --and probably more fashion shops. With the recent addition of the Overgate Centre and the Apex Spa, Dundee has become a new weekend relaxation favourite for weary central-belt shoppers.
Much of this renewed cultural confidence is due to the vision of one man. Ten years ago Robin Presswood walked along the Perth Road, spotted a disused garage and decided to put a state of the art building there instead. Now the Dundee Contemporary Arts is firmly rooted at the centre of the city's cultural quarter – a short walk from the excellent Dundee Repetory Theatre. Both arts institutions have achieved a genuine mix of avant garde artlovers, shopped out latte hunters, pantomime goers, drinkers and artists. Can one cultural creation remake a city?
Tom Shepherd's story is instructive. As sales manager of a thriving biotech firm in California, he was head-hunted to Paris and then approached to head up CXR Biosciences in Dundee. Like most bio-techers he was a guitar fanatic and a man used to life outside the main centres – San Diego not San Francisco, Boston not New York, Cambridge not London… and maybe Dundee. The ten minute journey time to work was a plus – the view along the Tay another – but the clincher was arriving during the cities Guitar Festival and a DCA French film season – Tom's wife is French.
Dundee's transformation is already underway….. as celebrity locals like Lorraine Kelly, Sheena Wellington, Michael Marra, Brian Cox, Hamish MacAlpine, Eddie Mair and Jim Spence can testify and academics like the redoubtable Professor Charles McKean have never wearied of explaining. Let me chuck in my tuppence worth. Dundee feels eventful and yet it always feels like home. It's physically stunning and the sea is breathtakingly beautiful. Above all though the folk have canniness, humour and an enduring wild streak. It's a survivor's town – a bit like Derry. And I'll bet they'll put on just as good a show if the City of Culture title for 2017 heads their way.