A Short History
Park Hill, Sheffield, represents one of the most divisive buildings in the country. This brutalist building of utopian design was completed in 1961 by architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, under the supervision of city architect J. Lewis Womersley. Following years of decline, and its Grade II* listing in 1998, the estate is now being redeveloped by regeneration specialists Urban Splash. The estate has been afflicted by notions of success and failure since its inception, with the media and political developments heavily influencing this reputation. It has been regarded by some as an icon of British Brutalism (Cruickshank 1995), and as early as 1967 thought set to soon become a ‘slum’, by renowned architectural historian Nikolas Pevsner.
The primary vision of the original architects was to re-house an existing community from the Victorian slums in the Park area. In the early twentieth century, this area was dubbed ‘Little Chicago’, following its notoriety for crime and gangs. John Rennie (1935), Medical Officer of Health, stated, ‘the dwelling houses in the area are by reason of disrepair or sanitary defects unfit for human habitation.’ In 1954, the Housing Committee investigated multi-storey developments in Western Europe, which included a visit to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille. This would be one of the key influences for the Park Hill estate. Architects Peter and Alison Smithson were also of central inspiration, with their unrealised Golden Lanes project (Figure 2). This was the first scheme to conceptualise the idea of “streets in the sky.”
Figure 1: Design of a street deck for the Golden Lane project, by Peter Smithson, 1953 (as cited in Borges and Marat-Mendes 2019, 4)
Park Hill was constructed between 1957-1961. A key design philosophy for the architects was to foster a sense of community from the previous Victorian slums. This is most evident in the design of the 10′00″ wide street decks, which have been the focus of much attention, and the public facilities, which included a shopping district, laundry, garages, workshops, pubs, playgrounds, a community centre and more (Figures 2 & 3).
Figure 2: The street decks at Park Hill, 1962 (as cited in Picture Sheffield 2020)
Figure 3: The Pavement shopping district, Park Hill, 1985 (Picture Sheffield 2020).
The anticipation of both success and failure is evident from the beginning of the Park Hill development. With 995 dwellings over 32 acres, there was tremendous pressure for the design to succeed in creating a sense of community. Early media coverage of Park Hill was strikingly positive, including the Sheffield Telegraph (1955) article promoting the estate as the ‘City’s “Super” Flats of the Future.’ Social worker Joan Demers was the first person to move onto Park Hill in October 1959, and she was tasked with writing a report on the social cohesion of the residents. This report concluded that Park Hill’s ‘occupants live a life equally as rich as in a long settled area, with amenities which do promote their feelings of being worthwhile and which also help in developing a strong community spirit.’
However, beliefs of Park Hill as a failure, or the inevitability of its failure, had been argued since its inception. The turning point for Park Hill’s reputation appears to come in 1967, with the change in opinion about deck-access housing. This year saw Pevsner (1967, 466) claim with absolute certainty that it would be a ‘slum in half a century or less’, owing to the density of the scheme. Taylor’s arguments in 1967 within the journal Architectural Review, which had previously been an advocate for the design of Park Hill, were particularly negative. He stated:
Only 9 per cent mentioned the value of being able to stand on the decks and look at the view . . . only 4 per cent remembered that the decks made it possible to stand out and talk to people. This discounts a good deal of romantic nonsense about the decks being a hive of activity; as any visitor knows, they are not (as cited in Saint 1996, 37).
Taylor claimed that this information was gathered from the report made by social worker Joan Demers. However, Bacon’s (1985, 155) doctoral thesis revealed that these statistics had been falsified. By the time of its publication, the damage to Park Hill’s reputation, and indeed council housing more generally, had already been done. In 1979, a damning letter was published in the Star entitled, ‘A cry of despair from a prisoner of Park Hill.’ While there were issues, the exaggerated and venomous discourse of negativity surrounding Park Hill was widely believed, and therefore its ‘spiral of decline’ was inevitable (Bacon 1985, 303).
Park Hill was also afflicted by wider political developments in the late twentieth century. The Right to Buy scheme, introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1980, provided council tenants with potential home-ownership at a discounted rate of up to 50%. The scheme was hugely popular and within fifteen years of the its inception 1.6 million homes had been bought from the council (Hanley 2017, 135-142). On the surface this seems hugely beneficial, however, another Conservative policy prohibited local authorities from building new properties to be used as council houses, in the place of those which had been purchased through the Right to Buy scheme. This put pressure on the councils which had lost revenue from the policy, resulting in the raising of rent for council-owned homes (Hanley 2017, 135). This comes from a period which saw a lack of maintenance of neglected estates, at places like Park Hill which were in need of greater support. The Right to Buy scheme resulted in a vicious cycle, in which there was a high demand for council housing, yet fewer and fewer available to those who needed it the most.
These issues are amplified by the decline of Sheffield’s steel industry, and the ensuing unemployment levels. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were significant cuts to the steel industry, as Sheffield began to face substantial competition from overseas competitors. This resulted in the need for firms to provide a higher quality product, and reduce their labour costs. These cuts were met with a national steel worker strike in 1981. However, the strikes were unsuccessful, and the 1980s saw substantial job losses in the steel industry. According to Hanley (2017, 117), between 1979 and 1989, 40,000 jobs were lost from a city population of 200,000.
Park Hill was saved from demolition in its Grade II* listing by English Heritage in 1998. The listing description argues of the ‘international importance’ of ‘Sheffield’s flagship’ in public housing, with particular emphasis placed on the street decks. In 2004, when Urban Splash were appointed as developers of Park Hill, it wasn’t just the deteriorated fabric of the estate that they acquired, but also a debilitating legacy. Ameliorating this reputation was of top priority, and this can be seen in the way that Urban Splash marketed the scheme. A particular theme related to the way that Sheffield had fallen out of favour with Park Hill, and ‘needed a level of romance’ (Abrahams 2010, 20). Urban Splash used lyrics such as Human League’s “Don’t you want me baby?”, as a way of linking Sheffield’s cultural music history with the estate.
In total there are four stages in the regeneration strategy, and Phase 1 of the Park Hill redevelopment has been completed with 260 homes. Phase Two will see 200 additional homes and 20,000ft2 of workspace completed by June 2021. Phase Three of the estate will be used as student accommodation, offering 350 student bedrooms. The fourth stage will work in collaboration with the S1 Artspace, and feature a 600m2 gallery, with educational facilities and studio space. Above this, there will be additional residential properties (Blackledge 2019). According to Urban Splash (2020), when the regeneration is complete there will be a ‘revitalised community.’ This will feature homes for around 2,000 people, with shops, bars, restaurants and offices. For them, the estate will ‘thrive rather than just survive.’
Sheffield City Archives
CA-MIN/74 – Rennie, J. (1935). Minutes of Monthly Meeting of the Council: December 1935.
CA-HMC/2/1 – Housing Management Committee. (1962). Park Hill Redevelopment: Report on Amenities and Management.
CA655/15 – The Sheffield Telegraph. (1955). City’s Super Flats of Future: 16th March 1955.
Allan, J. (1996). Park Hill Revisited. In Saint. A, (Ed.) Park Hill: What Next? London: Architectural Association.
Bacon, C. (1985). Streets-in-the-sky: The rise and fall of modern architectural urban utopia [Online]. White Rose. Available at: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/3014/ [Accessed 13 Feb 2020].
Blackledge, R. (2019). Park Hill Art Space: Plans lodged for major gallery in next phase of estate’s revamp [Online]. The Star. Available at: https://www.thestar.co.uk/news/park-hill-art-space-plans-lodged-major-gallery-next-phase-estates-revamp-106004 [Accessed 13 Mar 2020].
Borges, J, C. & Marat-Mendes, T. (2019). Walking on streets-in-the-sky: structures for democratic cities. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 11(1). [Online]. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/20004214.2019.1596520?needAccess=true [Accessed 16 Jan 2020].
Cruikshank, D. (1996). Park Hill: Its Future. In Saint. A, (Ed.) Park Hill: What Next? London: Architectural Association.
Hanley, L. (2017). Estates: An Intimate History. 3rd ed. London: Granta Publications.
Historic England. (1998). Park Hill. [Online]. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1246881 [Accessed 30 Jan 2020].
Pevsner, N. (1967). The Buildings of England: Yorkshire the West Riding. 2nd ed. London: Yale University Press.
Picture Sheffield. (2020). Park Hill Photographs. [Online]. Available at: https://www.picturesheffield.com/index.php [Accessed 05 Feb 2020]. Urban Splash. (2020a). Park Hill. [Online]. Available at: https://www.urbansplash.co.uk/regeneration/projects/park-hill [Accessed 05 March 2020].