Front Line Focus: Gentrification in the sky?

If you ever travel through Sheffield by train look out of the window and you will see Park Hill flats towering above the station. Based on the architect Le Corbusier’s “streets in the sky” principle, where whole neighbourhoods were rehoused, it was the first large-scale slum clearance scheme in the UK when it was built between 1957-61, and the largest deck access estate in Europe.

Today many see it as a dark looming monstrosity and den of vice. Others see it as home, and recall the brave new world it was born out of, and what a wonder it was to have hot running water, a bathroom and an inside toilet. Most people who remember the slums that Park Hill replaced will tell you they were overcrowded and unsanitary, and they were glad to be rehoused in the new flats where they could keep the same neighbours and the same sense of community.

All would agree that today it is well past its best, largely boarded up, and home to hundreds of poorly looking pigeons. The shops, pubs and school that made it home are gone. Two blocks have already been demolished.

Many estates of this era have not survived demolition. What makes Park Hill different is that it is a listed building, largely because of its historical significance. Also its proximity to the city centre makes it a prime candidate for planners to jump onto the city living bandwagon and turn Park Hill into an eclectic mix of housing, bars, restaurants, shops and leisure facilities. This should go ahead if Labour, who lost overall control of the council at the recent elections, stay in power in alliance with the Greens. If not, the Lib Dems will rule the council and they would like it demolished.

Living just up the road from Park Hill, I’m quite fond of it. I’d like its redevelopment to work, but this depends on the housing being a mixture of properties for sale and social housing. So will investors and owner occupiers pay up for property on what has long been considered a sink estate? Will the smart regeneration eradicate the stigma, and if it does will the people who used to live there be able to afford the rents? If this works financially it might not work socially. It could be gentrification all over again, first the terrace houses, then the “streets in the sky”.

I suspect it will turn itself around. The dilemma is how to keep the best of the community and bring the rest up to 21st century, city living, leisure seeking, café bar culture standards that are affordable to all.

Jennifer Harvey is a day services co-ordinator working with people with learning disabilities

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