Compact City Myth – Where is Leeds City Centre?
Guest polemicist, James Blythman, has a bit of a go at transport and planning and transport planning …
“Leeds city centre is so compact. It has everything you want in such a short walking distance.”
“Clarence (or now New again) Dock is ill thought out. What were they thinking building an out of town retail led mixed use development with no free car parking?”
Two statements which are both wrong but intrinsically linked.
I’m lucky enough to have visited a few great cities and unfortunately Sydney. What marks a great city out from the rest? Well quite a lot and probably more than what you can cobble together in 750 words. Personally one of the hallmarks is being able to wander about a city’s centre finding new things, angles and buildings that are not in the guide book and carelessly finding yourself in the suburbs.
So does Leeds have a centre you can wander about in? I think Hemingway (the Wayne one) put it in perspective a couple of years ago when he said Leeds was a place where you always seem to arrive at a dead end or a physical obstacle. These obstacles usually take the form of city centre motorways, viaducts, industrial estates or derelict land. This is perhaps what reinforces the general view the city centre is rather compact. But how compact is it really? Well, very, considering New Dock is in the heart of Leeds city centre and it struggles for footfall.
“Pardon? Have you just said New Dock is in the heart of Leeds city centre?”
“Yes, I’m a council planning document and I tell you it is. Do you not know Leeds city centre pretty much covers the whole area between the M621 to the universities?”
“The M621! It doesn’t go further than the river, you muppet.”
“I’m not a muppet, I’m a real, live
boy planning document.”
“My god you must be right. You don’t have donkey ears, I see no cigar and your nose hasn’t changed. I’m confused though. Why are there so many big roads, no buildings, out of town shopping centres and little public transport?”
“You missed out the biggest room in world circa 1840. You really don’t get it do you?”
Well not many people do. And why would they? Many of the points above are valid. South of the river is the car-frenzied evil sibling of the North’s pedestrianisation. It has more stalled regeneration projects than you can shake a stick at. So where am I going with this?
If Leeds’ planning frameworks designates pretty much the whole of south central as the city centre why do we have such little strategic planning to support this. I’ll give you one such document. The emerging city centre transport policy up to 2030. Yes that’s right, 2030. The year Leeds will become the best city in the UK. Actually policy is a bit OTT. At present It’s simply a series of maps with pretty colours.
Just to rewind slightly. In the early 90’s Leeds, for its time, had a forward thinking transport policy which if you’ve been around since then have probably reaped the benefits of. This included the establishment of the public transport box (Headrow – Vicar Lane – Duncan Street & Boar Lane – Park Row) and within it the pedestrianised zone. Apparently people thought the council had gone mad pedestrianising Briggate – I can’t believe it once had 4 lanes of traffic. Other elements included the rather pedestrian unfriendly city loop and the East Leeds Link road. Still to materialise is the super tram that will now be a trolleybus.
Well the emerging transport policy looks to break new ground. This includes expanding the pedestrianised area north of the river and expanding the public transport box.
“Oh no what are they doing now? Doing something daft like send it south of the river?”
“No. I’m a muppet and no one takes any notice of me.”
“But they do. They want to build that city centre park full of office blocks south of the river.”
“Ah you’ve been reading up on stuff. But alas they won’t give it any transport except the trolleybus. The new transport box won’t even go south of the river. Apparently, the new south will be The Calls!”
Twenty years on, the city centre has reaped the benefits of a transformational transport policy. Okay, that and a credit bonanza. But it’s almost become a victim of its own success. While the pedestrianised zone attracts a mass of footfall if you take a walk outside the box it is a different story. Wander behind the Corn Exchange on a saturday afternoon and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a ghost town. Lower Kirkgate couldn’t even secure private investment during the boom. The edges of the pedestrianised zone, marked by a fence of double deckers has arguably become a new mental barrier.
Last year the Lord Mayor (not the Mayor of) the City of London encouraged Northern counterparts to focus on speculative infrastructure projects to secure private investment. Cue derision … and rightly so, probably. Leaving the politics behind that statement to one side it is definitely what is needed in the city centre transport strategy.
Pedestrianisation attracts footfall which is perhaps why a city centre park is planned on the South Bank. Is that enough? Why not match the level of pedestrianisation north of the river in the south and build a public transport loop around its circumference? This could be complemented by a Leeds City Centre shuttle that enables the less mobile to traverse the centre.
Perhaps in 20 years when we live in the UK’s best city we may look back in disbelief that the city’s grandest streets – Vicar Lane, Boar Lane and the Headrow – were once upon a time chokka full of buses. Then again we may have new 21st Century spaces and streets south of the river that are even grander.