Crossing town on my way into work this morning I passed a couple of large office buildings swathed in scaffolding; went by a car park and a restaurant that will both soon be demolished for a ten-storey boutique hotel; crossed a newly refurbished plaza; and then walked beside several old buildings that might be bulldozed to make way for additional car parking spaces as part of the £130m Victoria Gate development. Leeds is certainly changing.
I can’t say I’m sure what any of these developments have to do with me or how I live my city. I feel about as remote from those decision making processes as if someone had asked my opinion about the size of Saturn’s rings or if I thought the Sahara had too much sand. To most of us who live in cities planning and development appear much like natural phenomena – sometimes more like natural disasters – they just happen. Like an avalanche or an iceberg, best keeping out of the way.
This idea can breeds cynicism. And I admit I have indulged in more than enough council bashing on this website, grumbling and griping about things that I’ve thought haven’t been good for the city long after they’d literally been set in stone – Bond Court most recently. Wagging my finger from the height of a virtual soap-box might get me some temporary relief – self-righteousness from a safe distance is a hell of a lot of fun too – but it doesn’t do any good in the long term. Maybe my cynical shrug off was part of the problem. Maybe there are things we can do.
I started to reconsider my own involvement in the city a few months ago after watching The Human Scale at The Leeds International Film Festival. The film is an urban planning documentary about the work of Danish architect Jan Gehl and his small team who have worked a bit of magic in many of the world’s best and most livable cities. They seem to manage this by sitting in coffee shops and bars, hanging around the streets, talking to everyone, mucking about with Lego and generally being nice to people. As a methodology this has obvious appeal to me.
The bit of the film that struck home most was about Christchurch, New Zealand, which had a devastating earthquake only three years ago. The whole city centre has to be rebuilt. Gehl’s team, headed by David Sim, was invited there by the mayor to find out what the ordinary Christchurch citizen wanted, and David was filmed reading some heart-shaped scribbled messages tied to a wire fence that kept people away from the dangerous city core: “It’s about love …” he said. “ People love their city. They want their city back.” Exactly, I thought. A city, it’s about love for a place. You are involved in a relationship. You can’t just turn a cold shoulder and hope the problems disappear.
In the film David is shown at several “engagement” events playing with Lego. Talking to kids. Giving presentations. Then comes an interesting statistic. 106,000 ideas were recorded from ordinary citizens about how they wanted their city rebuilt.
Christchurch is roughly half the size of Leeds.
Think about that for a moment. Imagine getting 200,000 people in Leeds engaging in a conversation about the future of our city … we had to get these guys over to Yorkshire.
So, to snip an elastic story snappier, we teamed up with Leeds Society of Architects and Hyde Park Picture House to put on a series of films and talks based on the theme of the city and invited David Sim over to introduce the first one – obviously, The Human Scale. And David was cajoled into doing a masterclass the day after.
On a very rainy February evening we managed to pack the Hyde Park Picture House. And the day after a room in the art gallery was packed with a very different crowd for a masterclass on placemaking. The masterclass was introduced by Tom Riordan, Chief Exec of the council. Both well attended by council bigwigs, developers, planners and interested scruffs like me who just happen to live here and love the place.
And the official message of the event was that Leeds wanted to be the best city in the UK, the Copenhagen of the North – or, as one senior council chap had it, we wanted Copenhagen to be the Leeds of Scandinavia. The citizens of Leeds are invited to play an active role in making Leeds the best city. David was very complimentary about the city centre too – he’d been taken for a wander by some council planners and said what he was telling us was “like taking coals to Newcastle”. He gave an hour’s talk and then we got into groups and unrolled a huge plan of the area around the old Thomas Danby College at the bottom of Roundhay Road. What were the opportunities, what were the problems? Half an hour; discuss, report back.
I’m really hopeless at workshopping. And two-dimensional plans may as well be in ancient Sumerian for all I understand what’s going on so I did drift into a bit of a reverie – mainly about what got demolished to build the nightmare that is Sheepscar Junction, a pub called The Roscoe, possibly the best pub in the world, ever (and I still haven’t quite forgiven the council for that.) And then I started scrutinising the series of posters lining the walls.
The posters were a kind of triumphalist pictorial narrative of recent city centre developments. Arena, Trinity, street art, proposed Victoria Quarter etc. all very nice, but obviously narrated from on high, from an architect/developer/planner point of view. That’s not how Leeds is lived for most of us.
As a building Trinity is superb, of course. Especially at night with that “iconic” roof. But don’t try dashing for a bus on a morning half asleep past the goods entrance on Boar Lane – the “East entrance”, which is actually on the South side. you might think you’re on the pavement, but the thirty-ton delivery lorries roaring headlong at you may have different ideas. And forget any notion that this is public space. Look at the restrictions posted at the entrance of Trinity and the Arena. Basically if you are a “youth”, forget it – sadly I’ve witnessed a couple of occasions when kids have been turfed out of Trinity merely for being cheeky to a security guard. It’s not just kids either – I’ve been booted out of the St John’s centre and City Square (Oh, and remember when our city square was public space, not just for paying customers of fancy fish restaurants!) for having the nerve to try eating my packed lunch sat down, bothering nobody. Leeds is famously a compact, walkable city. How much of it is genuinely “public space” though? The city might be getting prettier and wealthier but is it becoming more “social” as the council want to suggest?
The other posters that caught my eye were the ones congratulating the street furniture and the public art, for bringing “beauty into the city”. The street furniture photo was of a guy going at a massive lump of granite with a mallet and a chisel. I’m not sure who in the planning office had the bright idea to grab some dynamite, yelling to his colleagues let’s go to the quarry and blast us some seating, but whoever it was has a very odd sense of what the human body requires. I’m not sure if David Sim sat on any of these objects. Not many people in Leeds do. I wish I could get the planning department to read the chapter The Design of Spaces in William H Whyte’s great book, City: Rediscovering The Centre. I’ll print a few copies and deliver if that would work?
As for the art; we have cute dogs, a cute mule, cute sheep, and lots of cute owls. Sticking a Latin tag on something does not make it clever. And making a mess of a mythological reference just makes the whole city that bit more stupid. Sorry Leeds architects/planners/designers but the recent public art you’ve lumbered us with is just not very good (some of it isn’t even public! And you’d be laughed out of Manchester or Liverpool if you even suggested this stuff.)
At the end of the session I was genuinely enthused by David’s vision of how citizen led city planning could work but just a bit confused by the rhetoric coming from the council. I want to get more involved but I’m not sure when I look around me at the city where to start or what can be done.
One of the mantras that was repeated throughout the two days was Churchill’s soundbite, “First you shape your city, then your city shapes you.” I worry what sort of people our present city is shaping.
I walk over to my mum’s a couple of days a week. She lives in a small village, Thorpe, on the Wakefield border, just short of 8 miles from the city centre. The walk takes me across a section of the proposed City Connect route, along what will eventually become the Hunslet Stray, and then out into the nowhere land of Hunslet before hitting the old council estate of Belle Isle. This is a place designed and built by the council when they cleared the slums early last century. It’s still one of the most deprived areas of Leeds. Less than half the local population has a car. Almost everyone uses the bus (apparently the Number 12/13 is the most lucrative bus line in the country.) But the place is alive. The houses are substantial, the streets are generous and there’s plenty of green social spaces with trees every ten yards or so surrounded by daffodils and crocuses. There are numerous small parades of shops dotted around no more than five minutes walk from anywhere on the estate (one shop had a bucket full of sweeping brushes outside the other day, and a bunch of youths were using them for a mock sword fight – I don’t know why but that made me smile) each with a thriving fish and chip shop, and though there aren’t as many pubs as there were in the heyday there’s still a lively Working Men’s Club in the centre. It also has one of the biggest and most gloriously pointless roundabouts I know of – it used to be the tram terminus, now is just a monstrous lawn with a perpetual Christmas tree that you can see for miles. The surrounding streets are traffic calming zones (though if anyone from the Highways Department is reading this the signs are placed so that only pedestrians can see them properly; you might want to look into that.) Belle Isle Circus has an amazing view of the city centre. It feels connected, part of the city. It’s not ideal by any means, but you who you are and where you belong.
On the edge of Belle Isle is the beginning of a new-build private estate. There’s an almighty Asda being built at the boundary and then for three quarters of a mile not a single shop, pub, club, takeaway or social area to speak of. Unlike the social housing on the council estate where the streets link the houses in a kind of cheerful solidarity, here there are compounds of independent dwellings behind large fences linked only by tarmacced vehicular access. None of the houses face each other or seem to acknowledge the existence of anything but their own pinched little private plot. In fact they seem to arrange themselves the way a crowd of people do in a lift after someone has made a fragrant breach of etiquette – anxious, avoidant, miserable. The road that passes through has a tarmac pavement, smooth and sleek as a seal’s back, sloped towards the kerb. When there’s a slight mizzle and an early evening flash frost the surface becomes a perfect sheet of black ice. The other evening I had to walk the whole way on the road. Not a single bus has ever passed – I don’t think they bother on an evening. I’ve never seen a single person out walking. Whoever designed the path did not think anyone would actually use it.
The people who live here have a Leeds post-code and pay Leeds council tax. If the city is shaping them I wonder if it’s in a good way? Do they even feel part of Leeds?
After the first of our #cityseriesLeeds I suppose I am left with a question. If we are serious about changing Leeds for the better, and if the council want to get more of us involved (they call it civic enterprise, and I think it’s a grand idea) how do we go about this practically? I’m quite happy to put aside my cynicism and I’m willing to lend a hand – it’s my city after all, and I love the place – I just don’t know how yet. And if the council want us to believe that they actually agree with what David was saying how do they reconcile that with the new estate in Middleton that they are allowing to be built? It does seem a contradiction.
Perhaps one way would be to get David back to run one of his summer schools in Leeds?