Rethinking Leeds City Centre

south bank

Guest post by Rachael Unsworth

The city centre workshop on Friday came exactly seven years after a major event that aimed to galvanise enthusiasm and draw out ideas for improving Leeds City Centre. Some substantial progress has been made since then, though, as LCC (Leeds City Council) development director Martin Farrington showed, there are some important enhancements that have yet to be realised, including the park, waterfront, the station and its setting, the rescuing of the White Cloth Hall and connectivity to the adjacent neighbourhoods. The Business Improvement District, hopefully about to be put in place, will give extra impetus for many elements of upgrading.

Half a dozen speakers were invited to give their thoughts on city centre actions that will enable us to work towards our adopted aim of being ‘best city’. This is an ambitious goal (if rather vague). To achieve it, we’ll need some pretty radical change. The most striking suggestion came from Chris Thompson of Citu: we should aim to exclude all private cars from the city centre. Obviously this couldn’t be achieved rapidly but it is the kind of thinking that is needed to achieve dramatic improvement in livability, family friendliness and public health and would give Leeds much higher profile. It would also yield substantial benefits in terms of climate change and resource usage. Many additional changes in infrastructure and behaviour would have to accompany the exclusion of private cars from the core of the city so this one ambition would act as a massive stimulus to positive change.

However, there is still too little serious ambition and too many folk are only able to imagine incremental rather than really radical change. We have to get over our discomfort at the thought of the short-term personal inconvenience that might ensue and take a leap of imagination into the kind of city in which we would then live, work and spend our leisure time. It won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, but no ‘best city’ tag could justifiably be claimed by a place that was still dominated by roads and car parks.

The current senior officers (at Leeds City Council) seem relatively amenable to such step change and to open dialogue. We certainly need proper partnership working with transparent decision-making if we are to move forward boldly and effectively.

I was quite surprised that there was no specific attention to the impact of HS2 or to the matter of very tall buildings (about both of which I’m critical). There was passing mention of actively considering future changes of land use across the whole South Bank area, right down to the motorway, but I’d be delighted to see thorough acceptance of the potential for a ‘sustainable neighbourhood for the long term’, as promoted over the last five years by so many of the passionately committed people in that room in our magnificent Town Hall.

For another perspective on the same event read this by Emma Bearman

Rachael Unsworth MA PhDFuture Directions

Futures thinking: sustainable cities
Planning, development, communities, environment
City Journeys: urban tour leader


  1. Rachael

    Whether or not the council officers were “amenable” to the suggestion of half a dozen invited speakers to excluding all private cars from the city centre, I’d argue that for such an enormous change, involving the inconvenience you mention, the Council would really need to win a mandate from the people of Leeds. I can’t find mention in the latest Vision for Leeds, but the previous one emphasised “the need for people to be involved in decision which affect them”, and the council should have learnt the lesson of not consulting them in 2010 when it had to reverse its decision to close seven cheap all-day car parks in the city after commuters complained (


  2. Personally I’m against Business Improvement Districts as they can be seen as just another exercise in privatising city spaces and exerting further social sanitisation and securitisation.

    However given that LCC, Safer Leeds, West Yorkshire Police and various private and third sector partners are quite a long way down this road already I guess it will just be another small step.

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