Dundee: Designing the future, drawing on the past

With major investment underway, civic leaders and the creative community seek to unite the city to address persistent social challenges

Networked heritage
Published in
13 min readNov 6, 2016


Dundee’s relatively recent focus on design as a ‘golden thread’ in its identity is promising because the concept of design can absorb almost anything. The heritage sector should take up this challenge. But in co-ordinating activity across the city, agencies and authorities should be careful not to imply that invitations to reimagine Dundee’s heritage are exclusively theirs to make. Success in heritage activities should be understood in a richer light than attracting visitors; it includes inspiring people and developing the capacities of citizens to change their local community.

With the arrival of City of Design status and the V&A Museum anchoring major city centre regeneration, and with the advantage of strong creative networks, the heritage sector has a great opportunity to build on its role in conserving the industrial past. Heritage can underpin a distinct and confident identity, facilitating community engagement in the next design-led era of economic development in the city.

Dundee gained its Charter in 1191 as one of King David I’s new towns. At the mouth of the River Tay, through centuries of dependence on the sea for trade, the city served as a gateway between central Scotland and the rest of the world. It was prosperous in the Renaissance, its 17th century harbour was large enough to hold 100 ships. Trade with the Baltic grew in the 18th century, and the port catalysed expansion of Dundee throughout the 19th century as an industrial node in the global network of the British Empire: building ships, importing raw materials, and exporting processed goods and manufactured products.

Similar to mill towns in England, Dundee traces its built form, and its image in the wider national consciousness to its status as a booming industrial city in Victorian times, and the subsequent economic reorganisation and social challenges since. Jute mills, eventually numbering 130, were the largest employers for almost 100 years, the largest works complex employing 5,000 by 1900.

With such prosperity, grand mansions were built around Dundee by mill owners, and new municipal assets such as the McManus Galleries were funded. Dundee was the first city in Scotland to introduce trolleybuses, in 1912. In the 1920s, city architect James Thomson masterminded the Logie housing estate with district heating, and the city’s prescient road bypass. The first purpose-built astronomical observatory was finished in 1935.

The city’s prowess in manufacturing machine tools meant that after World War Two, as jute declined from global competition, Dundee attracted modern manufacturing including electronics. Although the largest employer of the 1980s, Timex, ceased manufacturing in 1993, in recent decades Dundee has fused its rich heritage of creative publishing with this technology focus, becoming a centre for digital design industries and computer games in particular.

Designing a culture of growth

Since 2005, the expansion of the universities and of the EU has been the driver for Dundee’s population growth, halting a 30 year decline. The city’s population is still 18 percent below its peak in the 1970s, but is expected to grow at almost double the rate of Scotland in the next 25 years. The strategic plan for the Tayside region projects 600 new homes per year, and makes special policy provision for this to be exceeded should the need arise.

Dundee is looking to develop a proposition to incomers based on a quality of life, including affordability. Median house prices are below the Scotland average. The city is halfway through a 30-year masterplan to redevelop its waterfront, the centrepiece of which is a new Victoria and Albert Museum. In May 2016, Dundee airport gained its first scheduled international flight, to Amsterdam. GQ magazine recently dubbed it ‘Britain’s coolest little city’. One interviewee, who moved to Dundee but still works in rural Angus, summed it up: “We used to call it Scum-dee; now we call it Fun-dee.”

Growth in the creative industries and life sciences means that 49 percent of Dundee’s employees are in ‘knowledge-intensive’ jobs, higher than the Scottish average of 42 percent. But public sector jobs are still declining, and poverty remains persistent. 29 percent of Dundonians live in Scotland’s most deprived neighbourhoods. The Dundee Fairness Commission reported in May 2016, making the case for social issues to be fully comprehended by policymakers during the current focus on inward investment and place marketing.

Dundee scored top of the RSA Heritage Index, which ranked Scotland’s 32 council areas by their concentration of heritage assets and activities, adjusted for their size and population. Reflecting on Dundee’s success in other indices, such as the Cities Outlook, Professor Mike Press opened the Heritage Question Time event in Dundee by noting:

“In employment rate we were right at the bottom. Residents with no formal qualifications — 57th of 62. But the story is complicated. But then in residents with high level qualifications we were 14th — up there with Guildford and Oxford. There are strange and interesting things going on; in a sense we can characterise Dundee as two cities in one. How can heritage and culture bring them together? How can we actually use it to capitalise on advantages we have and bring benefits to people who aren’t doing well in the city?”

Dundee’s civic leaders have increasingly seen cultural regeneration as a route to social and economic success, following precedent in larger UK cities (notably post-industrial waterfront in Salford, Gateshead and Birmingham) and smaller European cities such as Gdansk, Eindhoven and, most famously, Bilbao.

In the mid-1990s Dundee Heritage Trust refurbished Verdant Works, a former jute mill, as a museum of industry in the city, and created a permanent home and exhibition for RRS Discovery, the ship purpose-built in Dundee for Captain Scott’s ground-breaking Antarctic survey of 1902. Dundee Contemporary Arts opened as a new venue in 1999. A large number of former industrial premises have come into reuse in the last decade as shared workspaces, with an array of networks and collectives.

High Mill at Verdant Works, Dundee

In Dundee, more strongly than in Bristol or Greater Manchester, the aspirations of the planning system for the city are reflecting in the plans of the city council itself. The Local Development Plan (2014) states that “preserving and enhancing the historic environment is an important factor in maintaining the heritage and distinctive identity of Dundee”. This marries to the city’s Single Outcome Agreement, brokered by Dundee Partnership on behalf of eight statutory partners and seven supporting partners, for Outcome 11 of the Council Plan — “Dundee has an attractive and sustainable natural environment where the built heritage is valued and protected”. However, none of the performance indicators or targets relate to built heritage.

Beyond this headline aspiration, strategic support for heritage tends to be articulated in abstract terms rather than specific actions. Only two of the city’s eight local community plans make reference to heritage — one in relation to improving access to city centre attractions and the other offering support to the local voluntary sectors groups — in sports, environmental awareness and social history — who create learning opportunities.

The city’s tourism action plan doesn’t mention heritage or history at all. The official tourist literature points visitors to a handful of Dundee’s heritage attractions; this is within a wider narrative of the city as a ‘vibrant, cosmopolitan hub’. As culture-driven tourism becomes a principal plank of Dundee’s economic development strategy, agencies would do well to respond to the evidence collated by Visit Britain: “Almost all nations and age groups see Britain’s built heritage as a priority if they were to visit Britain, so it should be very prominent in marketing materials.” Increasing the promotion of heritage external to Dundee without a commensurate growth in engagement in heritage among Dundonians, risks creating an alienating disconnect.

Small but imperfectly informed

“Dundonians are aware of their own past and proud of it, but we have a problem telling people outside about us. Other cities look down their nose at us.”

In June 2015 the RSA ran a workshop to consider Dundee’s use of heritage in plans for the city. This revealed a consensus that the media were felt to have more influence in shaping identity and heritage in Dundee than other identified influencers, and participants felt that young people in particular are affected by this.

Further research has revealed several projects which reflect the creative and independent spirit of Dundonians towards self-determination and self-definition. For example, city residents submitted 500 responses to a public consultation to suggest names for new streets as part of the Waterfront development.

Interventions in the public realm include a community group focused on improving green spaces around the Dighty Burn river have created a heritage trail and found creative ways to engage — challenging locals to find out whether they live on a lava flow; a major public arts event in 2016 saw 50 statues of comic strip character Oor Wullie (published by local firm DC Thomson) placed around Dundee, aiming to make Dundonians ‘tourists in our own city’. Each statue was uniquely decorated by local and national artists and celebrities.

Dundee has seen a range of efforts to foster community food growing, building on the memories people have of the ‘berry buses’ which used to transport Dundonians to rural farms to pick raspberries in summers; and ‘tattie fortnight’ a two-week school holiday (still common) during which many children helped harvest potatoes. Partnerships between schools, council-owned allotments and community groups have won awards, while a city-wide campaign seeks to create an urban orchard.

The Maxwell Centre is a social enterprise which has grown up in converted premises — a former church, school and builder’s yard. New food growing architecture sits adjacent to listed paving stones which formed a school playground originally.

Several participants in our research noted that the city’s ‘goldilocks’ size is an asset: Dundee is big enough to have a diverse range of assets, but small enough to have effective networks for collaboration. Venues are able to learn quickly from each other, for example in creating education materials. Creative Dundee has partnered with networks in Edinburgh and Stirling to share ideas and build learning and capacity to help inform practice and policy across the three cities. Ideas emerging from our events in Dundee included a shared heritage season across cultural venues, community venues and shopping centres. The collaborative nature of the creative environment in Dundee is a strength.

The scale of ongoing investment in Dundee, and its emergence into a Scotland-wide and UK-wide spotlight, is focusing minds on coherence and the idea of authenticity. As the head of Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland, Lucy Casot, articulated: “The approach has to be true to its own context and therefore can’t be driven by ‘experts’ in placemaking coming in to a place and deciding what is important.”

Concerns were raised at our events about the external focus of investment. While according to the Dundee Fairness Commission, “waterfront and V&A development offers a chance to maximise job, training and learning opportunities for people in Dundee”, Dundonians are absent in the official vision of Dundee’s Waterfront. Its drive is ‘to transform the City of Dundee into a world-leading waterfront destination for visitors and businesses through the enhancement of its physical, economic and cultural assets’ [emphasis added]. One participant asked “how much of a say should tourists have in what gets built and what gets made?” and questioned the “ultimate aims” of culture-led and heritage-led regeneration.

“What you are creating is another industry for Dundee… If you are totally successful, you will kill off the nature of Dundee as it is. Visitors wipe the place out, as in London.”

Another noted the challenges of remembering difficult periods:

“Social history is important in Dundee. There is still bitterness in relationships with employers. You get it when you see it.”

Responding to this context, former employees of Timex have formed a history group and are archiving documents, amassing images and taping interviews with former staff. They note that: “The bitterness surrounding the firm’s departure in 1993 tends to overshadow the fact that the history of Timex in Dundee was also one of a highly profitable — and mutually beneficial — connection between the company and the people of the city.”

With increased public attention coming Dundee’s way, the consensus view among people we spoke to was that the strength of networks and spirit of collaboration in Dundee provided a strong basis to resolve these tensions. However, to avoid a dispiriting process whereby Dundee’s popular image is subject to a ‘selective remembering’ led by elites, more inclusive processes are needed. Many of those we spoke to wanted to encourage risk-taking and nurture new ideas for heritage spaces. Particular reference was made to the poor diversity among boards and management of heritage organisations — in age, class and cultural background. Dundee has successfully overcome contentious challenges in the past — for example in a balanced representation of historic industrial disputes at the Verdant Works mill.

Culturally, the heritage sector needs to welcome people with ideas, especially those from other sectors. Responsibility lies with protagonists of heritage projects as well as with funders. Investment is needed in processes which ‘actively curate’ heritage resources and experiences which are accessible in their language and format. Several ideas were developed at our Mapping the Gaps workshop in June 2015:

“We need a booklet of Dundee pioneers — most people don’t know of all the amazing things that have happened here. We need to have a sense of pride. There is huge scepticism — everyone thinks the V&A will provide all of that. The community can’t see how it might affect them and how the city will benefit. People see piles of money, but there’s a lot more we can tell people about the city.”

“We want to create an evolution of heritage towards wider ownership: personal connection, and any activity that brings that out. Things in folk memory, with cultural resonance and tradition, can break barriers. Language is important — how and what is communicated. Engagement can be physical, mental and virtual, or all three: for example coming together in a flash-mob of historical characters.”

Dundee’s heritage will flourish if it continues to attract and retain civic-minded people with a networking approach and design skills to make these ideas a reality.

The Creative Dundee network has created a city guide with content crowdsourced from residents: 99 things to see and do in Dundee. Institutions with typically more traditional approaches, such as the City Archive, have taken entrepreneurial, networked and digitally-enabled approaches. The Dundee City Archive supports a Friends group which started in 1989 and currently runs monthly lectures; the archive promotes engagement with the ‘Dundee diaspora’ through a Flickr page which allows them to track the types of content which are most popular.

Iain Flett, Dundee’s retiring city archivist, suggested several strategic opportunities for archives to shape the continually evolving identity of a place Planners creating or commissioning design codes for new development could draw on the rich evidence on historic forms of urban design and architecture in local archives; something often underplayed in guidance. Contributions from developers to archive teams would be a welcome new revenue stream, but planners need to negotiate this. Dundee’s waterfront redevelopment presents rich opportunities for learning — the city archive could create an educational trail for the 18th century shoreline for schoolchildren — but despite the freedoms and heritage prospects afforded by Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, schools “aren’t embracing the chance to look at geography — they don’t have the resources to tap in to opportunities”. Cuts which sever the links which allow different parts of the public sector to utilise one another’s resources at little marginal cost are a false economy.

A history of designing the future

Dundee has proven to be ahead of its time, several times in its history, in pioneering new technologies and networked approaches. Thomas Smith built lighthouses around Scotland’s coast, championing the revolving light from 1806. James Chalmers modernised the postal system in the 1830s, ushering in the adhesive stamp. Lindsay Bowman experimented with light bulbs and wireless radio in the same decade. Europe’s longest railway bridge was erected in the 1870s; replaced after collapsing in a storm, it still spans the Tay.

From the 1890s, Sir Patrick Geddes, a visionary academic polymath at Dundee University, conceived new frameworks for understanding the evolution of cities in relation to the social organisations they supported. He went on to pioneer slum clearance in India and influence urban planning globally. Geddes argued that the isolation of academic disciplines was detrimental to the sensitive planning for how a city could develop. He understood that ‘everyday folk’ generated meaning for places, and this meant he was concerned with preserving the historic environment when few others were.

Dundee’s cultural strategy seeks to continue that tradition, updating it for the digital age:

‘We invite our cultural practitioners to continue to use the richness of the city’s heritage as a wellspring for their contemporary reimagining and reinterpretation.

To ensure the city’s heritage has a place in its future…we will develop a digital infrastructure that allows greater access and awareness… innovative digital public spaces, including heritage venues…and the sensitive re-imagining of existing buildings.

[We will] ensure the city’s tourism and external promotion strategies feature the full range of Arts, Heritage and Culture that would be attractive to visitors.’

Heritage organisations should make efforts to identify the local historic precedent for contemporary initiatives with design labels. And design initiatives should ground themselves in the heritage component of their practice; the focus on ‘digital cultures’ at Abertay University being a good example.

Famously, designer Charles Eames was asked “what are the limits of design?” and his answer was to ask “what are the limits of problems?”. Bryan Beattie, the Director of Creative Services Scotland, describes the UNESCO status as “not a reward but a stimulus to address some of the broader social and economic challenges that the city has”.

Dundee’s strength in digital industries, and the tight networks afforded by its size, bode well for its economic prospects. This will be supported by a forecast shift in city demographics to favour higher productivity. Stepping back, digital is important because the opportunities to record and distribute information (as data) are exponential. Networks are important because they provide the social connections which govern the distribution of and access to information. A focus for all heritage sector organisations should be to understand the networks they form part of, and the information which they feed and consume: “The more information you have the better decisions you’ll make. The same applies to heritage.”

At Heritage Question Time in Dundee, the panel agreed on the importance of ‘connected heritage’. In connecting the past, present and future, Dundee’s challenge is to connect pockets of economic dynamism to widespread social challenges. A common identity, underpinned by a sense of shared heritage, makes this design challenge easier to solve.



Networked heritage

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