Urbana’s Love Letter to Sheffield’s East End

Recently we hosted our event, “Urbana’s Love Letter to Sheffield’s East End”, which saw Associate Chloe Parmenter take to the floor of the brilliant Library by Lounge in Attercliffe to discuss the past, present and future of what was once the beating heart of Sheffield’s industrial heritage.

Joining Chloe were guest speakers Dr Chris Low, Chief Executive of Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park and Transport Planning and Infrastructure Manager at Sheffield City Council, Matthew Reynolds. 

The event was an opportunity to celebrate the fantastic things happening in the East End of Sheffield right now, and to explore what we can do to unlock the potential of an area that holds vast and exciting potential for regeneration whilst stitching back together a fragmented urban grain. 

Urbana called key industry figureheads together to discuss the impetus for wider regeneration and the vision for the future of the East End, which followed the announcement of the £17 million from the Levelling-up Fund that will be spent in Attercliffe.

Chloe highlighted that the East End is currently bookended, with the city centre at one end and Meadowhall at the other, and with some excellent assets in between. The East End is a hub of sporting activity with the English Institute for Sport, Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, Sheffield Hallam University’s Woodbourn Road Stadium and the Advanced Wellbeing and Research Centre. There are also retail giants, IKEA and those at Meadowhall, together with the city’s main indoor arena bringing huge numbers of people to the area every week. However, Chloe made clear that whilst the presence of retail giants in this location can be seen to detract from Sheffield City Centre itself, they do reflect the degree of investment present in the area. She reasoned that it’s about making sure these aren’t just used as standalone destinations and that people who use the East End are enticed people into the centre. 

Chloe stated that in order to reach the desired result of a vibrant high street full of food, drink and shops set amongst the area’s industrial heritage and riverside location, first, we need people. And for people, we need to encourage quality, sustainable and attractive residential developments.  But she argued that the phrase “build it and they will come” doesn’t work in the East End and that before all this can happen, infrastructure is required to entice further investment. 

Hand in hand with this, Sheffield City Council’s Transport Planning and Infrastructure Manager Matthew Reynolds talked us through the exciting developments within the Connecting Sheffield scheme, including new segregated cycle routes including along Attercliffe Road, with them continuing across junctions in an approach seen successfully in the Netherlands giving priority to cyclists. As well as this there will be new bus lanes, and bus priority measures to improve reliability and journey times. 

The physical infrastructure in the area is already well-equipped, especially with transport. The Supertram network runs right through the East End, much to the envy of other parts of the city and there are excellent road links to the city centre and the M1 motorway. The East End is also the main thoroughfare for those travelling to and from the north via the M1 and represents a real opportunity for investment in this respect. 

As mentioned previously, the key here is getting people to live in the East End. There are already opportunities in the pipeline, with Citu proposing 900 homes at Attercliffe Waterside, unlocking the value of the East End’s key waterside sites. 

When Dr Chris Low took the mic, he spoke of there being overwhelming interest in existing assets within the Attercliffe area, as well as in upcoming developments with biotech firms and manufacturers just some of the industries wanting to set up shop in the East End. Excitingly, Dr Low made it clear that all of this interest will mean nothing if we don’t develop jobs, opportunities, and start-ups locally. 

Everyone at Urbana can feel the excitement at the future of Sheffield’s East End, and we can’t wait to be involved to deliver this further with our partners in the industry.

Better models of provision: The housing crisis and new housing delivery in the UK

Predominantly in London and the south east, but with similar patterns emerging in cities like Manchester and Birmingham, rising house prices and a limited injection of suitably located new homes into the supply chain unwaveringly prevents access to the housing market to all but the very wealthiest of first-time buyers. For renters, too, the situation is increasingly precarious. It has become the norm to pay up to half of an average salary on accommodation in London with rents rising (at an admittedly slower rate) nationally too. Politicisation of the discourse on housing has meant that ‘affordable housing’ has become a much-manipulated term. However, to distil what is an emotionally charged term with many social meanings into a useful and workable definition is to understand affordable housing as the provision of housing at below‐market prices. Defined by the Government as ‘social rented, affordable rented and intermediate housing, provided to eligible households whose needs are not met by the market’ (MHCLG, 2020), a reliable and consistent model for the provision of this type of housing consistently fails to be realised. The level of deficiency varies for a myriad of reasons, from city-to-city and region-to-region. Still, one consistent feature is that too often, a lack of affordable housing forces people to move away from the economic centres of our biggest cities dispersing precious ecosystems of community and culture in the process. An ill-defined patchwork provision between state and private capital has created systemic issues for housing provision which has manifested in a growing concern over the design and locational sustainability of large new build projects encouraging an increased reliance on the car and creating isolated new developments which fragment our urban areas.

For the rental market in high demand cities, a deficiency of a reliable and sufficient supply of new dwellings places an ever-increasing burden of strain on the existing supply, resulting in as many box rooms as possible being squeezed into the existing rental stock to try and meet demand resulting in many rooms and homes being well below the prescribed minimum space standards applied to new developments. The National Housing Federation has estimated the need for 145,000 newly built affordable rental units per year until 2031 to address the shortfall and accommodate the need. It admits there would need to be a significant increase in Government grant funding to achieve this and claims that investment on this scale would represent a return to previous high points in social housing spending. To contextualise this, in today’s prices, the investment called for here is only slightly above the £11.35bn spent in 1953, which delivered a record output of more than 200,000 council homes. As well as stretching budgets in high demand cities, a lack of affordably supply also catalyses gentrification processes as more and more areas are engulfed by an ever increasingly expensive rental market causing the values of previously affordable homes to skyrocket, pricing younger generations of existing communities out of the area and dislocating communities in the process. Despite this, most of our cities have relatively abundant amounts of highly developable land within close proximity to the city centre. So why aren’t more of these sites being taken advantage of to deliver housing?

Towards a better typology: High-grain, mixed-use, low-rise, inner-city

In 2013, a Government-commissioned report exploring approaches to housing delivery was carried out by think-tank Policy Exchange. The report established the direction of travel that the Government wanted to establish in terms of exploring and encouraging particular forms of housing development through which to tackle the housing crisis and engender a model of house building which can better address our environmental priorities in the face of the climate crisis. Not only that, a tangible appetite towards improving the aesthetics and experience of our cities was introduced as being a key Government priority. As such, recent critical shifts in policy aspiration have been targeted at proposing specific typologies and locations for new housing to create better cities. In work produced by Policy Exchange, it was argued that replacing all of the mid-century council estates in London with traditional, mid-density terracing of a similar scale and form to Georgian and Edwardian terraces would result in an improved quality of life for residents and create a much more enjoyable city to inhabit. Of course, this notion was entirely hypothetical and aimed at encouraging new ways of conceptualising housing development. Nevertheless, the urban principles behind it forms the basis of a large part of Policy Exchange’s more recent work on the Build Better Build Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) which recommends the delivery of traditional streetscapes on large scales to deliver high-quality, high-density, ‘beautiful’ urban spaces. The recommendations from Policy Exchange have been rightly criticised for being light on delivery detail and overly prescriptive in relation to architectural style. Certainly, many of the mid-century housing estates it condemns were thoughtfully designed with the very kind of community enabling, distinctive and dignified architecture that the BBBBC advocates for so strongly, and continue to represent great places to live today. Nevertheless, the proposals outlined in BBBBC reports generally chime with a consensus amongst planning and urban professionals: that a focus on well designed, mid and high density, community orientated and increasingly car-free housing, delivered on centrally located brownfield land, is undoubtedly the correct aspirations to set for new housing.

Research undertaken by Tim Townshend into the location of new housing in brownfield areas found that enquiries generally fall into three distinct areas: “the city centre and new waterfront; inner-city areas, often stigmatised local authority estates; and suburban development, generally related to speculative new build”. Of these urban areas, Townshend’s research found the repopulation of inner-city brownfield sites has generally been perceived as the most popular and successful. This phenomenon has typically been characterised by a demographic of young, childless professionals. However, more recent evidence from the UK suggests that families are increasingly drawn to more centrally located brownfield schemes. There has been much attention given to the factors behind the attraction of this development location. The benefits of high-density, mid-rise housing in strategic brownfield sites have been found to include less traffic and pollution, more walking and associated health and community benefits, enhanced mental wellbeing for residents and lower crime. In support of this kind of building, research has continued to find that other benefits to finely grained, mixed-use, walkable housing developments represent better long-term investments. This generates higher levels of council tax and allows for an easier integration of affordable and market housing as fine-grain developments blend different tenure types more seamlessly. It is an important consideration at a time when the enabling of mixed communities is a key consideration for LPAs when weighing up the merits of any given proposal.

Certainly, all of these benefits can be read in the original analysis of traditional, street-based urban forms by Jane Jacobs (1961). Her work analysed the enriching complexity of life as it occurred within dense, mixed-use urban neighbourhoods across US cities and the complete lack thereof in modernist, ‘Le Corbusier’ inspired housing projects. The critique was expanded to the growing phenomenon of the sprawling low density and car-dependent suburbs which emerged later in Jacobs’ life. In sprawling suburbs, Jacobs observed a stark lack of the everyday chance interactions between strangers and relative strangers, and the myriad of complex casual relationships and social contracts which occurred so naturally in the human scaled developments of the inner city. She found that housing not orientated around traditional street-based formations led to more crime, community dislocation and an altogether unhappier and more drab existence for residents. Though rooted in a particular time and culture, her work remains a hugely influential critique of the post-war ideas of cities and urbanism that still holds significant influence over the way we recreate our cities today. The outdated ideals of the Garden City and car centric arrangements of cities which arose from the post-war period largely made up the basis of the contemporary planning systems, both in the US and the UK, which frequently frustrates our aspirations for progressive city building today.

The importance of quality aesthetics

It has been assumed that the public has a proclivity for nostalgic and traditional architectural styles and that this is what is preferred in contemporary buildings. However, research garnering these types of results have been consistently criticised for being overly quantitative in approach and failing to sufficiently unpack the issues around the public’s perception of different building styles. Assumptions about the popularity of traditionally styled housing can be understood broadly as a symptom of planning policy that encourages design codes without sufficiently considering what ‘good’ design entails in a necessarily specific and robust way. New waves of research suggest that there is generally a public ambivalence towards faux-traditional architectural styles, which are commonly reproduced in volume in new housing developments. Recent qualitative research has produced findings which challenge the assumptions around a public preference towards historical decorative stylings in new builds, and instead find concurrent predilections for both highly detailed facades and plain facades. With strong preferences for various architectural styles, what matters more than anything else is a commitment to quality.

From this, we can conclude that housing ought to be aesthetically varied. Yet the prevailing default for new homes – characterised by dethatched and semi-detached traditional, pitched-roof, PVC windows subdivided into smaller grid panes, shallow porches and historical decorative motifs – is a direct result of housing policy. It encourages an outdated mode of provision that doesn’t address the priorities of today. The prevalence of a faux-traditional vernacular stands in stark contrast to the variety of styles found to be enjoyed by the public. Compounding the obstacles to achieving a greater density and variety in our cities, the tendency for poor design is also a direct cause of nimbyism. It is thus counterproductive in the drive to tackle housing shortages. Achieving a better quality of design has also been revealed to cause significant resident health benefits. There is a wealth of evidence linking thoughtful design with enhanced wellbeing and pleasing aesthetics with happiness. To engender this kind of change, development controls that can really engender a commitment to place-making should be sought to ensure that developments focused on creating strong public realms and guided by strong design principles become the minimum standard for new housing. Furthermore, encouraging gentle density around built-up areas can repair and revive local high streets and stitch back together our urban hinterlands.

Appropriate typologies for location: Streets versus high rise

Of all built forms and features that make up the UK’s urban character, terraced housing is perhaps the most enduring and synonymous with national identity. The longevity and success of the terrace can be attributed to its versatility and reassuringly human scale. Of particular importance when considering appropriate typologies for brownfield development is its ability as infill development to comfortably slot into existing street patterns. All of which can provide new terraced developments with a level of authenticity and grounding that’s hard to recreate in the type of urban fringe housing estates commonly associated with new housing developments.

One of the biggest appeals of terracing is its ability to offer a specific density and layout which encourages street-focused, community-oriented living. Increasing the ease and frequency with which terraced schemes are built will be crucial in being able to meet the significant housing targets set by the Government, all whilst being able to efficiently utilise land within central urban areas, minimising urban sprawl. Many exemplary and award-winning new developments have employed the terrace form to create public-facing developments. A mixture of both private and shared public space and satisfying enclosure ratios help create a safe (and often car-free) space to encourage the type of spontaneous interaction that a new community needs to develop and grow. These benefits have been consistently reproduced in terraces for generations which is a strong factor in their continued popularity – people consistently show a preference for the terraced house, and areas of terracing make up some of the highest demand areas in cities across the UK.

Encouragingly, these types of developments are growing in prevalence and show glimpses of what could be achieved on a scale large enough to address housing needs seriously but planning policy can often frustrate such developments preventing them from coming to fruition in many circumstances. From rules that encourage suburban-style requirements in inner-city locations, such as minimum distance requirements between new homes – rules that our older ‘coveted’ urban places routinely break – to restrictions on overlooking, overbearing and minimum car parking spaces, the policy is often at odds with the very places we want to live in. Thankfully, these attitudes are beginning to change amongst decision-makers. The Government has expressed an intention and commitment to review planning regulations in this way and have already enacted significant reforms to planning policy. All of this makes the implementation of new terracing worthy of renewed attention and optimism.

Of course, mid-density forms of house building can only represent a part of the solution in the challenge to meet the housing backlog. The most efficient building form through which to house the most people whilst occupying a small footprint is of course the high rise. Too often considered undesirable and inappropriate, building more high-rise simply cannot be overlooked as a model for providing large quantities of good homes – high-rise has to be a fundamental component to achieving good quality housing in sustainable locations, creating better cities in the process. The aspiration for density in our cities, where appropriate, should be facilitated where proposals look to bring forward a scheme of genuine quality. There are countless examples of high-rise developments that function fantastically at ground level with thoughtful and well-used urban realms connecting the space between towers creating new public realms for the city. High-rises are a crucial part of any modern city and play a particularly important role in effectively repopulating the inner-city areas that are often home to large brownfield sites.

Their ability to revitalise previously empty and underused parts of the city whilst providing large numbers of homes means that the high-rise offers unrivalled opportunities in revitalising ex-industrial or otherwise in decline areas of our city centres and city centre fringe areas. Crucially, their sheer land efficiency means that they will also be important to minimise building on Green Belt which will become inevitable as the housing need grows ever higher if we don’t reassess the way in which we look to build homes. Traditionally, people’s aspirations in the UK have been to live in a detached house in the suburbs. However, this specific prescription of the suburban idyll is simply not compatible with either our desperate housing demand or the climate crisis. Whilst high-rise living may not always be the most suitable response in every context, the experiences of many countries around the world show that it is more than possible to strike sustainable and comfortable balance between community, density and height. If we’re to seriously address our battle against housing shortage and infill disused parts of our inner cities to create new landmarks in the process, building upwards with greater frequency should be greeted with eager excitement and optimism.