Sheffield's changing cityscape:
The redevelopment of Park Hill
Park Hill is entering another chapter in its over 50 year history.
See how, why and where it may lead in this feature
The Park Hill estate in Sheffield is hard to miss. Anyone walking to catch a train or to pay a visit to the city centre's east side meets it with their gaze. It is one of the first of the city’s buildings seen by train passengers bound for Sheffield from the North.
Rising up from the top of the hill from which it takes its name, the red, orange and yellow cladding that covers its walls immediately catches the eye. The head turns to look across the a modernist building that thanks to its redevelopment appears to have been built long after it was finished in the early 1960's.
Urban Splash, the developer behind the flats' £160 million makeover, now runs the estate and flats sell from £100,000 up. An estate that saw the numbers of people calling it home decline steadily from the 1970’s is now once again a bustling centre of living.
Residents come and go through new glass doors and travel to and from their homes up lifts and stairways. They walk in the footsteps of those who lived there for over four decades. The decor has altered slightly but the concrete frame remains largely the same.
To pay it a visit is to see why some are so enthused that the building is once again teeming with activity. The site was even shortlisted in the World Monuments Fund's Modern Century campaign which showcases buildings nominated for their value to communities.
The renovation is only one side of the story. Whilst the refurbished blocks stand shimmering above the city, joined on is the rest of the complex which lies derelict.
The rest of the estate is surrounded by metal fencing topped with anti-vandal paint. Chipboard covers the windows and sheet metal the doors to flats and entrance ways to the complex's sprawling walkways.
Urban Splash owns this part of the estate too, and it falls under 'Phase Two' of their plans for redevelopment.
With the refurbished and derelict standing side by side, separated by a fence, it is hard not to draw comparisons. Preserved in the fenced off part of the estate is an image of the whole complex's past.
It is a reminder that although the site is getting attention now, it has long been neglected. The idea that the estate is another case of gentrification is not without its supporters. Recent attention paid to the regeneration of social housing across the country in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire means gentrification is once again on the country's news agenda.
"I think it looks really sci-fi. Like Star Trek or Star Wars. That's one of the big appeals of it for me. From the air it looks like a snake unraveling."
That's Sid Fletcher, a 50 year old social worker, artist and enthusiast for all things modernist. He goes by the name Tower Block Metal online, and has spent much of his time photographing Park Hill. He agreed to be my guide for the afternoon and as we strolled around the estate he pointed here and there at the highlights. His fascination with the place was infectious.
"This is one of the last brutalist buildings left in the country," he said as he looked out over the complex through his dark sunglasses. We stopped a while to take in the derelict part of the building. The brickwork and concrete was streaked with soot and cracks lined its surface.
"Bear in mind this building is over 50 years old. Any building would look worn out after 50 years."
From 'Streets in the sky' to 'Sink estate'
Park Hill's history is a mixed picture and private ownership of the estate was not always so. The estate was conceived in the late 1950's as the demolition of Victorian terraced streets resumed after the Second World War. It was designed by architects Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn under the supervision of Sheffield’s city architect J Lewis Womersley. Construction began in 1957 and when the building was completed in 1961 it was hailed as the first successful slum clearance since the war.
The estate was also praised for its design. The brutalist-modernist approach was seen by some to be at the cutting edge of architecture and the plans were inspired by Le Corbusier’s (also known as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) Unité d’Habitation which was built in Marseilles in 1952. Park Hill contained nearly 1,000 flats and had room for around 3,000 people.
Sid said the thinking behind the design and the challenges the architects had to overcome. One of these was simply building an estate on such a scale on a hill. He pointed out the roof of the complex which is completely flat from one end to the other.
"The building starts at around 14 storeys high at one end of the estate and gets to about four storeys at the other side. So it follows the lines of the hill.There were concerns you couldn't build high rise blocks on hills. So that’s how they got round it.”
Another innovation, again taking ques from Le Corbusier, was the concept of 'streets in the sky'. The idea was to recreate the sense of community fostered by the original cobbled streets of the previous terraces and apply them to a high-rise building.
These streets were even named after the old terrace ones and former neighbours were rehoused next door to each other. They were wide enough to drive a small car through and milk floats trundling down them were a regular site in the mornings at Park Hill.
"You can actually walk all the way from one end of the estate to the other following the walkways," Sid said.
He added one of the appeals of Park Hill is that it is a concrete example of Britain's social democratic post-Second World War vision being put into practice.
"Critics nowadays say buildings like this are unfit for human habitation. But so much thought went into the design here. They even drilled bolts into the walls of the balconies so people had somewhere to hang their washing up!"
The estate also went beyond providing homes. It was home to 42 shops, four pubs, schools, a doctors' surgery and a fish and chip shop. Sid said the cobbled streets here were even made from the bricks of the original terrace houses that were here before.
He added that there was a group of about 12 caretakers who lived on site and were on call 24 hours a day. "They'd tidy up litter and look after the place, but they also provided basic social care services for the elderly residents."
Park Hill's fortunes changed during the 1970’s. As the city’s industry began to falter many of Park Hill’s residents who worked in factories and steel works found themselves out of a job. In the 1980’s the estate’s streets in the sky gained a reputation for petty crimes like mugging, vandalism and drug use. The pubs and shops closed and people began to talk of a once innovative housing project as a 'sink estate’: a place of high levels of poverty and crime. Sid said that as cutbacks in funding started to kick in from the ‘70’s onwards, Park Hill fell into neglect.
"They simply put people together in the blocks at random at that time. All it takes is for one or two anti-social residents to move in to a block and life becomes hell there."
Walking along we came across an old sign for one of the pubs. Sid told me it used to be called 'The Link'.
“As you can see, the sign’s completely fallen to bits now.”
I asked Sid if he has any memories of it here during its decline in the 80’s.
“By then the pubs here were rough. I didn’t go round them. That doesn’t normally put me off, but they were rough.”
Nearby there was one of the concrete balconies cracking with age.
"The steel on the inside is expanding and literally blowing apart the concrete," Sid said.
He added: “A lot of concrete buildings like this were built in the Mediterranean and they age a lot better in those kinds of climates.”
Back from the brink
Park Hill's forward-thinking design was not forgotten and in 1997 the complex was granted Grade II listed status, making it the largest listed building in Europe. Developers Urban Splash won a competition to take on its redevelopment in November 2004 and in 2007 work began to restore Park Hill.
The redevelopment hasn’t been without controversy. The move from an estate built to house the city’s workers and those less well-off to a complex made up of predominately private flats has angered many. Owen Hatherley, an architecture critic, penned an opinion piece in the Guardian which branded the project as "class cleansing" in 2011, shortly after building got underway.
The estate sits in one of the city's more deprived wards, according to date from Sheffield City Council. Just a few minutes’ walk away is Harold Lambert Court, visible from Park Hill. Harold Lambert Court was one of 21 blocks of council flats whose cladding was sent for fire safety testing in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in London in June. Its cladding was later found to be safe.
One council-run tower block, Hanover Tower, is now being stripped of cladding deemed unsafe in the event of a fire.
Professor Rowland Atkinson is a member of the Urban Studies Faculty at the University of Sheffield and a specialist in gentrification, cities, settlement and urban decay. He said the current regeneration was the result of years of little investment into the building when it was council-run.
"People agonise over the politics with places like Park Hill and I can see why people would be critical of the redevelopment," he said.
He added the redevelopment was not necessarily gentrification and critics should bear in mind the city's broader housing needs.
“There’s a need for quality, affordable housing in the city and Park Hill is a mixed tenancy development. It has private as well as social housing. If as a city you want to develop and regenerate then you want to attract management-level residents. They need somewhere to live.”
“So the main thing is that it adds to the city’s housing stock.”
Urban Splash has declared 'Phase One’ of development complete. The estate now has 260 two-storey apartments, ten work spaces and a nursery. Around 600 people live and work there. The developer is now set to begin work on ‘Phase Two’ which they anticipate will take around four years.
Living the high-rise life
Urban Splash offer a range of different rent options at Park Hill. The private flats are eligible for support from the government's 'Help to Buy’ scheme. Social housing makes up around 30 per cent of the finished flats.
Declan Kenny is a 23 year old politics masters student and lives in one of the 260 renovated flats with his girlfriend. The walls of their flat are a mixture of bare concrete and white paint. Wood covers the floors and stairs that lead up to the second floor of the two-storey duplex. The balcony juts out from their open-plan kitchen and living room and beyond the concrete railings Sheffield’s skyline provides the backdrop.
Declan said they would not have been able to buy the flat without Help to Buy. He added he and his girlfriend have had a good experience living there.
"I really like the mix of people here. There’s some social housing tenants, others who’ve bought their flats outright. We live close to a lecturer on our floor. I think that’s a good way to live amongst each other."
“It’s quite weird to be living in the only block joined onto the derelict bit. But it’s just not there yet.”
He said one of the appeals of moving there was the fact his neighbours would be a mix of different people. He added Urban Splash had promoted the flats on the back of their history as an innovative social housing development, streets in the sky and all.
“I think it’s definitely got a community spirit. You know who’s around you. I think people try to bond.”
"Urban Splash try their best to give it that feeling. The social housing element was pushed quite heavily when we were shown round. "
The developer has plans for less social housing in their upcoming phases for Park Hill's regeneration. Declan said he felt let down by that.
“I like the idea of it being a microcosm of society at large,” he said. “There’s people in Sheffield who need social housing so I think it needs to be a mixed project. I’m a bit disappointed there won’t be more social housing here.”
When asked about whether Park Hill was a case of gentrification, he said it made sense to redevelop it given what it was like before.
“I don’t think improving somewhere is necessarily gentrification. You just have to make it somewhere for people to live.”
“But again it would be good to see more social housing and more affordable housing.”
“Here it does seem people are buying the flats to live in and use. That’s better than in London say where they get bought as investments and just left empty.”
He added he feels the word gentrification is misused.
“I think the word gets thrown around a lot. Ideally I would have liked somewhere like this to stay as social housing. But given it was run down by the time it was refurbished it makes sense to redevelop it.”
Declan said he saw himself and his girlfriend staying in Park Hill for a long time. He hopes to see more cafes, bars and other amenities built on the estate that residents and the wider community could use, as they did in its heyday.
“Just a shop would be helpful!”
Making our way over to the grassed area behind Park Hill, Sid and I found ourselves in and around where the estate’s shops originally stood.
“People I know who live here tell me they’re crying out for somewhere just to have a drink! Some cafes and bars would work really well.”
He pointed out some white stone circles in the ground. “I think they want to put some sculptures on the plinths there.”
“That’s what this place still needs: little touches like that,” he said.
Making a splash
Urban Splash plan to build around a further 260 homes, as well as cafes, offices and shops as part of Phase Two of the Park Hill project. Another three phases are planned for the site which includes creating student housing there and green spaces. This is all according to plans Urban Splash have made publicly available on their website.
People are now taking stock of the redevelopment and with its next phase on the horizon feelings about where Park Hill stands now are mixed.
Tim Bottril works for Urban Splash letting out the commercial spaces at Park Hill. He's let the spaces primarily to digital and creative businesses. He said he thinks the developers have done a "great job."
“I think Urban Splash are one of the only ones who could’ve done it really. The council doesn’t have the skills to do that kind of project but Urban Splash do. It’s a commercial success.”
Reflecting on Park Hill’s past, he said the estate had changed several times since it was built, for better and for worse.
“When places like Park Hill were built they were the best thing since sliced bread to the people who moved in,” he said.
“For them it was the first time they had toilets in their homes. But over time that’s not new or exciting anymore.”
He added that he felt younger people in Sheffield did not have the benefit of knowing what Park Hill was like before the regeneration began.
“Big estates in big cities go through periods of decay. You need to spend significant amounts of money on them to address that.”
“The 'This is England’ Park Hill is now a generation away. At that time you had lots of problems there. People throwing TVs off of roofs, that sort of thing. You name it, it happened at Park Hill.”
He said he also felt it was wrong to talk of the redevelopment as gentrification. He added most people who had come to view Park Hill and saw its new look had left impressed.
“The trouble is there’s some people who sit at home and complain about the way a place has gone, or what’s been done to it. They don’t actually come and look at the place for themselves.”
“Five years ago nobody wanted to live in Park Hill. It’s changed massively, and you need private investment to make it work.”
“It’s not gentrification. This is just what’s happening in cities all over the world. But I think if the Park Hill project had gone up in Leeds or Manchester, it would have been done ten years ago,” he added.