Several years back I was listening to Radio 4 and by chance there was something on about Park Hill, an estate I had then recently visited because I was in Yorkshire. A man had called in to the radio show saying that is was he who had sprayed the “I love you will u marry me” graffiti onto one of the ‘streets in the sky’ in this Sheffield council housing estate. I have no idea whether or not it was in fact him, but if memory serves me correctly as I recall he talked about his housing situation, drugs and crime. Park Hill had become a hard to let estate, suffering from lack of investment over years, and problems with it brutalist concrete construction.
Estates like this were built as a brave and positive contribution to housing as part of a wider vision of how we might live in the urban environment. The council architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith (who died very recently) had drawn inspiration from Le Corbusier’s post war Unité d’Habitation and this was to be the UK’s first and largest attempt to house local people. Construction started in 1957 and the estate opened in 1961. Municipal Dreams provides more detail.
The early hopes around this then visionary estate – and its subsequent decline – are illustrated in this English Heritage film available via YouTube. It shows how the concrete was deteriorating, how this was tackled and the excitement of regeneration. Sheffield Council worked with Urban Splash to create something new for this Grade II* listed building. The irony is that although listed, not much of its aesthetic has been preserved, the construction has been pared back to bare bones and something visually different all together has been created here.
My last visit here was in 2012 and I was lucky enough to visit again this week because of the Housing Studies Association Conference being held at Sheffield.
I must say that I was expecting far more of the estate to have been refurbished by now. Apparently this is due by 2022, but much of the estate currently remains empty and I am not sure what happened to all the previous residents or what housing need currently is in Sheffield. Owen Hatherley gives us some indication of the numbers involved in his article. I wonder of the 990 or so flats originally provided, how many will be available for social letting to provide what was originally intended as secure and affordable housing and community for the people of Sheffield.
The private rented sector has now taken over social housing as the main rental provider with short term tenancies and at enormous financial cost to the housing benefit system.
Would it not be wiser to invest this money in bricks, mortar and communities once again? No one is suggesting that social housing is problem free, but should housing’s priority be about creating much more affordable, secure homes and community with a contemporary architecture and housing vision?
Since writing this a few people have kindly got in touch and sent some additional resources I am now adding here. First is from @MunicipalDreams and the tragic story of Sheffield Park Hill bridge (the so-called “I love you will u marry me” bridge). The story of what happened to those involved is really sad and I am very sorry to read what happened. This is probably what I had at partly heard on the radio all those years ago. @Otaneimi offered this broadcast and @BeciOldfield this, about the history of Park Hill flats.
Whatever we think about Park Hill, it had a significant influence on subsequent developments. Many areas and their communities were cleared away to make way for complete redevelopment and some communities never recovered from this process. Several people have emailed me about my previous blog about Stonebridge Park and the feelings they had about their street before it was demolished and the concrete ‘space age’ towers built in its place. They still have fond memories of their once community and remember names of their neighbours. I have also now seen a couple of photos of this long demolished road. Ironically the tower blocks replacing their Victorian terraces have now also themselves been demolished.
At the time of writing, another estate, Robin Hood, is being demolished. For photos see my gallery and the banner at the top of my webpage, taken one very sunny morning in July 2013. There is course another excellent Municipal Dreams post on Robin Hood. This estate was never listed, to divided opinion. As Municipal Dreams says, you like or loathe the Park Hill flats: the same can be said for the Robin Hood flats and other similar developments.
I took this picture (right) back in 2012, and the prices have increased since, now starting at £100,000.
….And after all this talk of concrete, next month my blog post will be entirely about nature. I have the photo ready and the text coming together in my head.