You either like or loathe the Park Hill flats. For one thing, they’re hard to ignore – if you arrive by train, you’ll see them immediately, lowering above the steep hill just behind the station. Then there’s their Brutalist look. It’s an ugly term but by strict dictionary definition – a stark style of functionalist architecture characterised by the use of steel and concrete in massive blocks – Park Hill conforms exactly.
For all that, much of the Park Hill story is familiar: desperate need, high ambition, official acclaim, sorry decline – from hero to zero like many of the social housing developments we’ve looked at. But Park Hill’s story deserves a closer look and some revision.
The area of Park Hill was: (1)
a close-packed mass of insanitary back-to-back slums and other unfit housing…mingled with outworn, industrial buildings and begrimed with the smoke of the railway and city centre.
Much of the housing had been condemned as unfit for human habitation before the Second World War and slum clearance attempts had begun. But after the war, the City Council decided a bigger and bolder solution was needed. Their model was to be le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation development in Marseilles, completed in 1952.
Sheffield’s own version of these ‘streets in the sky’ was designed by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith under the guidance of J Lewis Womersley, Sheffield’s City Architect. Construction began in 1957 and was completed in 1961. The estate was officially opened in June that year by Hugh Gaitskell, Labour Leader of the Opposition.
There were 996 flats, housing around 3000 people, (2):
so planned as to give each household privacy and quiet despite the essentially communal nature of the project. . . Each dwelling, irrespective of size, is provided with a large sheltered balcony where small children can play in the open air, where a pram can be put out and on which an occasional meal can be taken.
The flats fronted on to the 3 metre-wide street decks which are one of the best-known features of the estate, wide enough for a milk float and friendly enough to allow easy socialising with neighbours.
Externally, the blocks harnessed the steeply sloping site, maintaining a flat roof line but ranging from four storeys high at the top of Park Hill to 13 at the lower end.
The 32 acre site also contained four pubs, 42 shops (including ‘the best fish and chip shop in Sheffield’ according to many), a community centre, social clubs, a health centre, dentists and nursery and primary schools. Grenville Squires – a caretaker on the estate for 26 years, one of a team of twelve – says it ‘was like a medieval village; you didn’t have to leave.’ (3)
And far more than many other developments, there were strong attempts to maintain and develop a community feel. Those decks were ‘allegedly the product of close study of working-class life by [the architects] who sought to reproduce the safe and sociable streets of yore without the danger and din of traffic’. (4) Old neighbours were housed next to each other, former street names were re-used, even the cobbles of the terraced streets were used to pave the pathways down to the station and city centre.
Municipalism’s vocabulary rarely soars. Alderman DW Gascoigne, Public Works Committee deputy chair and leader of the City Council, stated simply: ‘A squalid area has been transformed into an area where human beings can live in dignity.’ (5)
Less than forty years later, ‘dignity’ was the last word that many would have associated with Park Hill. Concrete fared less well in the colder, wetter climate of Yorkshire than in Marseilles. People complained about the lifts not working and problems with noise. The Garchey refuse disposal system – ‘from sink to incinerator’ – broke down frequently and certainly couldn’t cope with disposable nappies.
More significantly, the estate had acquired an evil reputation – those ‘streets in the sky’ were now said to be the perfect getaway route for local muggers. The estate was seen as ugly and criminal – ‘a cloud of bad breath hanging over Sheffield’ and a terrible symbol of the city for those visitors by rail.
Brutalism never seemed better named and had the flats not been controversially Grade II* listed in 1998 they would perhaps have been demolished.
Park Hill was taken by many to be another nail in the coffin of social housing and its grander architectural ambitions.
Let’s examine this view. Firstly, the simple but too often forgotten point needs to be made that it represented far better housing than any the vast majority of its tenants had ever known (6):
It was luxury. Me, my husband and our baby were living in a back-to-back. My parents were there, too, and my brother. We had no bathroom, just a tin bath on the back of the door. So when we got here it was marvellous. Three bedrooms, hot water, always warm. And the view. It’s lovely, especially at night, when it’s all lit up.
Then there’s the possibly apocryphal remark that is often quoted of one satisfied resident: ‘You think I live in council housing. I’ve got a penthouse.'(7)
Secondly, nearly all speak of a tight-knit and supportive community. Often these views held even as Park Hill was being designated the Sheffield badlands (8):
Everybody seemed to get on with their neighbours and there was a strong bond between families and the friends I made there I regarded as friends for life.
I lived there most of my life. No one who didn’t live there, can say anything bad about it at all. We all stuck together and looked after each other and felt safe.
Such comments are readily dismissed as rosy-hued nostalgia. But shouldn’t the views of actual residents be privileged over the urban myth and moral panic of much of what passes for social commentary in relation to working-class communities – from Victorian times to the present?
More objectively, the estate’s resident sociologist – there really was one – reported outstanding success and ‘an exceptionally vigorous tenants’ association’ in the estate’s early years.
But the fact of later decline is undeniable. What changed?
We can blame the council (or, more sympathetically, the tightness of local authority budgets) for poor maintenance.
Some tenants also blame the council for its allocations policy: ‘They gave anyone who wanted one a flat’; ‘problem people’ were concentrated in the estate rather than being ‘spread around the council housing stock’.
With greater distance, maybe we see here the impact of the political and economic whirlwind that ravaged Sheffield in the 1980s – and the reasons why Mrs Thatcher’s demise may be less lamented in Sheffield than elsewhere.
Labour’s well-meaning 1977 Homeless Persons Act placed strict duties on local councils to house some of society’s most vulnerable people. But it was followed by Mrs Thatcher’s Right to Buy and virtual ban on the building of new council housing.
Then came the decimation of the local economy. A sixth of the local workforce – some 40,000 people – lost their jobs as the local steel industry collapsed. Unemployment in the city as a whole reached 15 per cent in 1984.
One resident recalls Park Hill as ‘a marvellous place to live’ into the late 70s, a time when ‘everybody seemed to work…a thriving community’. The contrast is obvious.
So let’s not blame the design. Ivor Smith, one of the original architects, rejects the label ‘Brutalist’ (or, at least, its connotations): ‘We didn’t think we were Brutalists. We thought we were quite nice guys’. Asked if he would have done anything differently, he said the flats should have had windows onto the decks – ‘a street has windows at street level’ – but cost-saving at the time had ruled this out. (9)
And let’s not condemn those practical dreamers who believed in society’s duty to house all its people well and built housing on a massive scale to do it.
The Park Hill story is not finished. In 2003, the Council outlined a new vision for the estate as a ‘vibrant, mixed tenure estate with owner occupation, rented and affordable for sale properties with high quality retail and commercial premises’. Park Hill, they hoped, would become ‘a fashionable city centre address’.(10) Urban Splash were appointed developers in the following year.
At this point, alarm bells may be ringing. A process of gentrification, involving the further marginalisation of social housing, is plain. The Council has stipulated that one third of the 900 new flats will be ‘affordable’ but, of these, two-thirds – just 200 – will be for social rent. The price of the flats for sale is generally higher than former residents can afford.
Could things have been done differently? I’m not close enough to know and it’s obvious that we live in a very different world – for good and ill – than the one inhabited and imagined by those earlier municipal reformers. It is private money and privatised aspirations that are creating the new Park Hill.
Urban Splash are good self-publicists and there is certainly a buzz around Park Hill and a flair in its refurbishment that will provide the estate with a new lease of life.
But I’ll leave the final word to someone who loved the estate in its former heyday, Grenville Squires (11):
She’s lovely. She’s my mistress, the only lady who’s fetched me from the marital bed at two in the morning and made demands. She has come on hard times, but all she’s got to do is wash her face and put on a new dress and she will be fine.
(1) ‘Sheffield Replanned’, 1945, quoted in The Open University, Park Hill, Sheffield: continuity and change.
(2) JL Womersley, City Architect, 1955, quoted in The Open University, Park Hill, Sheffield: continuity and change.
(3) Quoted in Rachel Cooke, ‘How I leant to love the streets in the sky‘, The Observer, 23 November 2008.
(4) Alison Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture. The History of a Social Experiment (2001)
(6) Quoted in Rachel Cooke, ‘How I leant to love the streets in the sky‘, The Observer, 23 November 2008.
(7) Quoted in BBC South Yorkshire, Park Hill, 2007, as are most of the following quotes from tenants.
(8) Quoted in Rowan Moore, ‘Park Hill estate, Sheffield – review‘, The Observer, 21 August 2011.
(9) Quoted in Rachel Cooke, ‘How I leant to love the streets in the sky‘, The Observer, 23 November 2008.
(10) Sheffield City Council, Park Hill, 2003.
(11) Quoted in The Open University, Park Hill, Sheffield: continuity and change.
Owen Hatherley provides a very critical perspective on Park Hill’s renovation in ‘Regeneration?: what’s happening in Park Hill is class cleansing‘, The Guardian, 28 September 2011.
Edward Platt, ‘Multi-million-pound make-over for Sheffield’s notorious Park Hill Estate‘, The Daily Telegraph, 21 September 2012, is more positive.
There are good blog postings on Park Hill. Single Aspect‘s blog on social housing is well worth following and has an entry on Urban Splash’s renovation. Sid Fletcher writes with passion on Park Hill in a guest post on Wondrous Places. The Wookie has images of Park Hill shortly before the renovation.
Urban Splash have a large site on their Park Hill project with some background information – and full details of properties for sale if you’re interested.