Sunday, 16 June 2013

After a week in Sheffield, my thoughts are that the character of the city is unexpectedly similar (perhaps bizarrely similar – I arrived expecting to be wrong!) to my impressions from reading before I came to the UK.  I thought from the start that Sheffield would no longer be in any real way a city of industry, for many of the same reasons that most Australian cities are no longer preoccupied with heavy industry.  What has surprised me about Sheffield is the continuing evolution that is still underway, with older buildings still being modified and construction sites being quite prominent in the area around where we are staying. I expected the city to be much more settled in this regard, perhaps to have sought to move on from its industrial past in a much swifter fashion than it has in reality.  Two things that have particularly struck me are the culture and atmosphere of the city area and the Park Hill Estate.

Culturally, Sheffield is a pleasant surprise.  Having visited London previously my experiences of 'English hospitality' are generally not positive.  Once on a London train journey, I had to ask three times to get directions on a train before the person opposite me would look up from their newspaper.  Sheffield is different.  People are approachable and do their best to be helpful and friendly.  In many ways Sheffield reminds me of Portland in the US, which I visited on another study tour.  Both cities sit to the left of the mainstream politics of their countries.  Both cities are culturally different to their peers, are known for this, and both cities are aware of it.  I get the sense that, to some extent, Sheffield enjoys this notoriety and has a determination to remain stubbornly different to other places in Britain.

My impressions of the Park Hill Estate are mixed.  I think it is ideally positioned within the context of the broader city to fulfil the role of high-density living.  My issue is with the design that has been built there. I gather this is a fairly uncontroversial position to take.  Park Hill faces inwards.  Having walked around Park Hill a couple of times, it seems fairly apparent that the layout has been designed to draw activity into the middle of the complex where the meeting places, playgrounds, 'park' areas and remnants of other ground floor uses are.  In this way the complex is itself effectively a barrier to its connectivity to other areas.  The estate looks unintuitive and unapproachable from the outside, and doesn't make sense until you are within its bounds. I think this  is a poor basis for a neighbourhood design.  Good design should act as a facilitator.  This includes enabling or even encouraging people to connect to other parts of the city as they see fit.  This is the benefit of living in a city in the first place: access to diversity (of potential employment, acquaintances, et al).  Trying to invent a self-contained environment which looks after 'all' needs doesn't seem wise to my thinking.  Secondly, I think the physical form of a place reflects something of the human thinking around it.  Building a complex that faces inwards and turns away from the rest of the city will, in my opinion, set that place up for having resentment returned in kind. I think this is reflected in the way Park Hill has been regarded by other Sheffield residents over time.  I am interested to see how the redevelopment addresses these two issues.

I am looking forward to travelling to other towns and cities in the next week to gain a greater understanding of England generally and to compare and contrast those places to Sheffield as well.
- Adam Wood (Bachelor of Urban, Rural and Environmental Planning)


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