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A Magazine for Sheffield

Once again, Park Hill could offer a radical vision for the future of Sheffield

Pioneering developments around the world are doing away with the old certainties of urban planning and experimenting with ways to build more liveable and sustainable cities.

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Park Hill was built as a defiant answer to Britain’s postwar housing shortage.

Mark Stuckey on Unsplash.

Our cities are changing. The lockdowns that altered the way our urban environments functioned overnight only accelerated transformations that were already in motion.

Around the world, city councils are making more room for people by reducing the proportion of their urban environments devoted to cars. In Amsterdam, planners are in the process of removing 10,000 on-street parking spaces by 2025 (the Dutch equivalent of the Green Party won a local election landslide on this pledge), freeing up space for mini-parks, outdoor cafes and new places for children to play.

Going one step further, popular Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is removing 70,000 on-street parking spaces in the French capital (that’s around half of the total) in an effort to combat the city’s notorious air pollution and congestion problems. But there’s a possibility that Berlin could out-do them all, with long-suffering residents pushing ahead with plans to make the whole of its vast city centre completely car-free at some point in the future. As well as tackling the chronic problems caused by our over-reliance on private vehicles, these schemes have the happy by-product of creating greener, quieter and more joyful cities to live in.

As well as a journalist for Now Then, I’m also a long-time resident of Park Hill and involved in the ongoing Save Our Spaces campaign. As part of phase four of the refurbishment of the building, trendy developer Urban Splash and architects Mikhail Riches want to pave over two existing green spaces in the surrounding landscape to build car parks for future residents.

These green spaces, which are located in one of the most deprived areas of Sheffield, are open to everybody and are used every day, not just by residents but by our neighbours as well. People picnic, walk their dogs and use the flat lawns (a rarity in this city) for impromptu games of football. When you find out that Census data shows the majority of existing residents don’t even have a car, plans to provide dedicated spaces for 67% of the phase four flats becomes even more baffling.

Public opposition to these damaging plans has been overwhelming. Over 150 people who already live in the building as well as nearby neighbours have lodged objections to the planning application. Dozens of Park Hill residents have put signs up in their windows to protest the loss of valuable green space. The campaign has been covered by BBC Radio Sheffield, ITV Calendar and The Tribune, and questions have been asked at council meetings about how these plans can possibly align with the city’s goal of net-zero by 2030.

But amid all the protest and anger in our community, the campaign to save these green spaces presents a golden opportunity.

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Park Hill residents, including the author (second from left), campaigning against the plans.

Save Our Spaces campaign.

Urban Splash like to tell anyone who’ll listen about how innovative they are. Now they have a chance to put their considerable money where their mouth is – the next phase of Park Hill could be the first major car-free development in Sheffield.

If that idea seems wildly radical, it would not be considered particularly out-there across much of mainland Europe. In large urban centres across the channel, part of the bargain is that if you want to live right in the city centre, you might not necessarily have a right to a parking space. This isn’t meant to be punitive. It’s to free up land for things that everyone can use and enjoy, rather than storage space for a metal box that will be stationery for 96% of the time.

Instead of, in the words of Joni Mitchell, "paving over paradise to put up a parking lot," phase four of Park Hill and its 124 homes could become an exemplar in sustainable development. Instead of a car park, what about guaranteed secure bike storage for every flat. What about two bike store spaces per flat? This could be built using a fraction of the space, and at a fraction of the cost, currently allocated to a car park.

In any Dutch city, you would not have to worry about where to put your bike when visiting an apartment block, because there would be a ubiquity of spaces for both residents and visitors. We could have that at Park Hill too, and the next 124 homes could be actively marketed at people who don’t own a car, but who have bikes and want to live in the city centre. It can’t be beyond the wits of the marketing gurus at Urban Splash to sell flats on that basis.

Equity for people with disabilities would have to be a key consideration of any proposal – in effect, most "car-free developments" are, in reality, almost car-free. Getting people who don't need a car to get about out of them frees up the infrastructure and the remaining parking spaces for those that do.

Park Hill is uniquely well-connected. It’s five minutes walk from the station, five minutes walk from the tram and ten minutes walk into town. But it could be even better. Instead of turning even more public space over to cars, why don’t Urban Splash push for better public transport options instead? They could even join the campaign to bring South Yorkshire’s buses back under public control (several bus routes run right past the future phase four), or support renationalising and revitalising our railways. Urban Splash are not a charity. There’s nothing to stop them getting involved in ‘political’ campaigns which, in reality, are just the basic changes we need to make to build more liveable cities that work for everybody.

The Manchester-based property developer could also throw their weight behind the stalled Connecting Sheffield projects, which could transform our city centre with cutting-edge green infrastructure like the Grey to Green II project on Castlegate. These projects are moving at a snail’s pace because they lack the political will, with many of our councillors still stuck in a harmful 20th century mindset of getting as much traffic moving through the city as quickly as possible. A developer with such a big stake in our city giving their full-throated support to a more radical vision of its future could make all the difference.

But let’s not limit our ambitions. What about following the Ghent model, where the through-traffic that causes such misery for nearby residents has been entirely eliminated from the city centre?

This forward-thinking Belgian city is divided into six ‘sectors’, each of which people can drive into and out of, but not between. Overnight, this created calmer, quieter and safer streets for its residents. In place since 2017, the plan saw the proportion of trips made by vehicle fall from 55% to 27% by 2020, and led to a 17% increase in bar and restaurant start-ups.

If you think this kind of continental forward-thinking would not be exportable to the UK then you need to visit Birmingham, where the city council are currently applying the Ghent model on a grand scale to tackle the chronic traffic problems in one of Europe’s biggest cities.

Park Hill was a product of radical thinking. The estate was built by the city council as a defiant answer to Britain’s housing shortage and the appalling slum conditions that dogged Sheffield in the aftermath of the Second World War. At the time it was celebrated – by its residents, by a proud home city and by the international architectural press. It is still an icon of the city today. But it could once again play an active role in shaping the city’s future.

There is no reason we can’t have nice things here. The people of Sheffield deserve nothing less than the people of Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam. But we need to collectively demand a better city – not just hope for one. It’s time for Urban Splash to go back to the drawing board and come up with a radical vision for this globally-recognised building that is worthy of our beautiful city.

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