Wednesday, 12 June 2013

It has now been three days since I arrived in Sheffield, and I am now beginning to form some impressions of the city, its society, history and its place in the world. From my time spent here so far, the one word which keeps appearing in my mind is legacy. A legacy of industry, a legacy of social disadvantage and now a city trying to grapple with this legacy and create a city that is once again globally connected. Once globally renowned for its products and ability to  innovate, to economic decline and a legacy of the social issues that undermined the city’s image and perhaps even pride. Today, as Sheffield plays ‘catchup’ to the other great British cities such as Manchester and Birmingham which have successfully integrated into the new flows of world trade and money, Sheffield is aiming to create a new legacy for itself. This is a legacy and a narrative of a city that was once stigmatised as poor, blighted and unfortunate, to a new city seeking to retaining its industrial character but seeking new pathways into the world.

Indeed, like any major city in England and Europe, Sheffield is steeped in history; in this instance a history of steel and industrial innovation unparalleled globally in the industrial age. In fact, steel is a theme and element reflected in the design and sense of place throughout the city. The street art features steel and its manufacture, whole museums and a tourism industry thrives around steel and its associated sectors. Indeed, one even contemplates the fact that throughout the rejuvenating areas of the city, the new steel and glass are imported from Asia, materials that would of once been made in the very buildings of which reused as apartments and offices. Further, people have reminisced in class about their grandparent’s finest cutlery being from Sheffield, and that the quality of it was of such a high standard that they hardly, if ever, used it. As a group, we witnessed this history first-hand by visiting the Abbeyfield and Kelham Island museum. Abbeyfield being an example of a place of industrial innovation and pride, whilst the Kelham Island museum focused in on the enormity and dominance of the steel industry in the city. However, this dominance later crumbled during the modernisation push of the 1980s and has since given way to a new economy and society.

In contrast to the city’s industrial and working-class past, today Sheffield is positioning itself as a reinvigorated city embracing modernity and the new global economy in the information and service age. The obvious examples of this are the two university campus’ that flank the central area, international brands such as H&M and Topshop lining the pedestrianised shopping area, whilst Hilton and Ibis have hotels servicing the visiting business classes. However, the legacy of Sheffield’s industrial might and later decline remains; Kelham Island is dominated by the shells of warehouses and factories which have laid dormant for decades and are today awaiting to be renovated into the latest cafĂ© or mixed-use office and residential building. As such, reuse and re-envisioning of spaces throughout the city continues apace, re-inventing the social and economic character of the area. A key example of this changing character of Sheffield is the Park Hill estate. Undergoing extensive renovation in stages, this mid-twentieth century estate is a prime example of this regeneration and the painting of a new face for Sheffield. As boarded-up apartments and under-maintained sections of the vast council estate are being gutted and ripped apart and replaced with glossy finishes and ultra-modern interiors, I was confronted. As an estate with a literally and metaphorically concentrated underprivileged history is being renovated and marketed as being one of the latest and hippest places to live and invest in the city, I felt that a vast history was being forgotten and removed. To add to this, the renovations are occurring around some of the estate’s original residents who still call it home. Notably, I somehow found it uncomfortable that a place such as Park Hill can be physically transformed and re-imagined so quickly without apparent regard to its social legacy; a legacy which endures to this day through its remaining residents and the collective imagination of the Sheffield community. However, this is not to say that because Park Hill has always been a place of disadvantage, it should always be so.

Despite what seems to a form of lament for a changing social and economic character written above, I am impressed with Sheffield. Whilst many (particularly locals and those who know the city well) prefer to question Sheffield as a great British city, I remain to be convinced that it isn’t a great British city. As markers of the great industrial legacy, 60s modernisation and the new twenty-first century economy shape the city physically and socially, Sheffield remains imagined as a place of pride in one’s work, and pride one’s community. Qualities which cannot be ignored, and of which I intend to reflect upon over the remainder of the week.
- James McLean (Bachelor of Urban, Rural and Environmental Planning)

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