29 Dec 2017

Is Leeds Really up for Jan Gehl?

Whoa, Jan Gehl signs for Leeds ...

Leeds is a great city. I say this since it undoubtedly is, but also because as I am now almost a resident – well I have a Leeds postcode - it would be churlish of me not to. But as we explored in Cities of the North Leeds, despite its rich inheritance of Victorian, Edwardian and Modernist buildings, and its broadly based economy making it one of the most successful cities in Britain, is often complacent about the quality of its new buildings and especially its public realm. The civic psyche still seems stuck in the ‘Motorway City of the 70s’ mind set and outside the pedestrianised central core the highway kit dominates; the car is king. But despite its urban motorways and insanely over-engineered expressways, peak hour in Leeds is always gridlock. As I write First Leeds has tweeted that congestion is delaying buses by up to 1 hour 25 minutes. No wonder they now carry only a fifth of Leeds city centre commuters as against nearly half who drive, an astonishingly high percentage compared to other big cities. Leeds is locked into an extremely vicious circle of worsening congestion making its already poor public transport ever worse.

...  but so far it looks like Cloughie's 44 days; Bridgewater baffles

For a long time Leeds has been timid in tackling car dependency and the dominance of highway infrastructure over the public realm. Yes I know that the city tried to get a tram and was thwarted by central government. But there hasn’t really been the vision or the political will for change seen in other cities like Manchester, Birmingham or Nottingham. Nevertheless there are some moves in the right direction, the catalyst being the anticipated arrival of HS2 in 2033. 

Where HS2 meets a deferred HS3

Of course HS2 is hardly a priority for Leeds, or indeed for the rest of the North. Yes, trains to London will be quicker but the service to King’s Cross is already fast, and will be faster still when planned improvements on the East Coast line are completed. HS2 does nothing to speed up the lethargic Trans-Pennine and Northern services through Leeds. New longer trains and a few extra services are promised giving 40% more seats to relieve today's gross overcrowding, but trains will remain pitifully slow. And whilst Leeds gets HS2 as well as King’s Cross expresses, Bradford, a city with a population of 500,000, will still lack main line services. It all falls far short of the expectations for a Northern Powerhouse and aspirations of a trans-Pennine ‘HS3’. Now electrification is casually deferred by Grayling, who says that the North was getting its fair share of transport investment. Actually train services in the North are a national disgrace and a real problem for both productivity and sustainability. Leeds draws its workforce from a wide area. It cannot hope to kick its culture of car dependency unless it has efficient and attractive public transport and a regional rail network such as you would find in its peer cities, like say Lyon. This is where investment should be going, but a Faustian pact between mendacious Tory Westminster and the braggadocio of Labour’s big city leaders has made vanity grands projects the priority. 

Bauman Lyons introduce some style and fun to City station

However, rather in the same way that non-stick pans were a useful if accidental outcome of the wasteful space race, the HS2 juggernaut gives Leeds an imperative to develop a more sustainable transport policy. Leeds rightly rejected HS2’s initial plan for a separate terminus out in the Southbank styx. It commissioned a plan by Jan Gehl and Arup of how HS2 could be integrated with City station and help deliver the wider regeneration of Southbank. Gehl, the guru of people-friendly cities, is often used as a ‘green-wash’. Glossy masterplans are full of images of his schemes in Copenhagen, New York and other cities, replete with smiling, happy people cycling, strolling or sipping cappuccino. But after the promotion and planning permission developers usually quietly shelve the promised urban goodies because, well, this is England where planning is emasculated, the public sector skint and developers know they can get away with it. 

The future?

But to Leeds’s credit the Gehl/Arup study has been translated into a ‘Supplementary Planning Document’ (SPD) which means it will have the status of being part of the immensely complicated statutory Development Plan. Of course this does not mean that its recommendations will actually be implemented. And a cynic might point out that, whilst the generic design advice is very good, it is only reiterating the sort of things we thought we had adopted ten or twenty years ago in ‘Towards an Urban Renaissance’, ‘By Design’ and the ‘Manual for Streets’. This guidance had little effect on how Leeds dealt with schemes like Bridgewater Place, the Opal Tower or the East Street expressway. Nevertheless the SPD is promising.

The former entrance to the Tetley Brewery and Southbank vernacular

The ‘Southbank Leeds Regeneration Framework’ SPD covers that vast no-man’s land southward of City Station to the M621. The area is billed by regeneration boosters as ‘doubling the size of the city centre, a development area ten times bigger than King’s Cross’. But with the important exception of Holbeck Urban Village, Southbank has thus far singularly failed to produce good architecture, coherent urban form or any sense of place. Separated from the city centre by the huge physical and psychological barriers of railway viaducts and the river Southbank comprises a miscellany of low grade offices, vast open car parks, sheds, depots and dereliction all cut up by motorway slip roads, dual carriageways and racetrack one-way systems. Heseltine set up a UDC for the area which left a pitiful legacy, notably the dreadful ASDA HQ sitting on a prime waterfront site surrounded by an ocean of car parking. The Royal Armouries museum and The Tetley gallery are important assets for Leeds, as are Leeds City College and the College of Building, but they are not part of a coherent city centre. Towering over all this is the execrable Bridgewater Place, a testament to and standing reproach of what went so badly wrong with Leeds’s laissez-faire planning in the noughties. Note the strange new baffles and screens to try and mitigate the tower’s lethal wind tunnel effects. Meanwhile the historic fabric around Bridge End and Crown Point, which should be the starting point for the regeneration of Southbank and its integration with the city centre, remain sadly neglected.

Welcome to Leeds; watch this become a space

The proposals for an integrated station in the Gehl/Arup study, developed further by Atkins as a masterplan, are imaginative. The HS2 terminus is to be grafted onto the existing station at right angles, like the long stem of a T. Given that City Station is built on a labyrinth of arches above the rushing waters of the Aire this is going to be one hell of a difficult engineering project. The integrated station will have a new concourse over the existing platforms and the new HS2 terminus, providing much more space for passengers and hugely improving circulation. An overall glass roof is planned to flood the station with light, replacing the existing Stygian gloom. From the new concourse a new piazza will be created stepping down to Bishopsgate Street, removing the clutter of dismal New Station Street. Traffic is removed from City Square. Neville Street under the arches will be pedestrianised and can be re-imagined as a Leeds arcade leading to shops and restaurants in the underused ‘dark arches’ beneath the station.

Potential in the 'dark arches'

All this is very good, but there are big problems too. The masterplan has to accept the alignment of HS2, which slashes across Southbank on a viaduct. The HS2 platforms will be at a high level and immensely long. The masterplan proposals to mitigate its impact with ‘active’ streets and open spaces beneath the station structure seem optimistic, even fanciful. Look at the impact of St Pancras International on Pancras Road for a more realistic impression than the masterplan sketches. And whilst City station would undoubtedly be massively improved for passengers, the plans do very little to increase the track and platform capacity required for an effective ‘HS3’ and expansion of other services; a couple of additional bay platforms hardly does the business. A further problem is that the plans are predicated on building two new multi-storey car parks, including a giant 1500 space long stay for HS2. This will obviously just worsen the existing traffic congestion. Meanwhile there are no real plans for public transport improvements; the ‘interchanges’ turn out to be bus stops dotted around the periphery and there is ‘passive provision’ for a future tram through Neville Street.

Jan Gehl has got his work cut out

It is the job of consultants to illustrate exciting opportunities but the reality often turns out very differently. The entrances to the new London Bridge station, for example, are based on a similar grand concept to the Leeds plan but are a value-engineered disappointment. The designs for Birmingham New Street too were dumbed down and the station ends up as an adjunct of a shopping mall and food court. Talk in the masterplan of City station becoming not just a station but a ‘destination’ with large scale retail and leisure opportunities fuel fears that the new Leeds will go the same way as Birmingham New Street, sorry Grand Central. And look at the ranks of ticket barriers at London Bridge and New Street which will rather restrict the promised permeability of the new City station too.

Birmingham New Street Station, full of tat ... 

... and tacky details

Notwithstanding these reservations, the imperative of HS2 and the new station gives the potential for radical changes to the highway network and public realm, changes which hitherto Leeds has been too timid to implement. The existing highway network in Southside has to be fundamentally rethought, both to enable construction of HS2, and also to create the major developments that justify building it at all. 

Good ideas

There is much to like in the new SPD based on the Gehl/Arup precepts of ‘Life First … Then Space … Then Buildings’. This is certainly the right philosophy and the preamble uses warm phrases like ‘create streets and public spaces that are attractive for all people’, ‘use heritage as a catalyst’ and ‘stitch disparate parts of the city together’. It says that Leeds needs to position itself as a ‘walkable city’ and proposes the transformation of the existing streets with ‘pedestrian and cycle friendly high quality people-focused design’. 

The seventh circle of hell; Meadow Lane and Dewsbury Road

The SPD envisages a new hierarchy of roads for Southbank. An ‘improved’ M621 and city centre motorway will form an inner ring road. Within this the arterial roads of Southbank will be re-designed as ‘City Boulevards’. Gehl imaged these as people-friendly streets with wide pavements, cycle ways, landscaping and a two-way single carriageway, although illustrations show Meadow Lane and Dewsbury Road still as major highways, not quite the people-friendly places of the design rhetoric. The concept of a ring of ‘City Boulevards’ is also flawed in that it is likely to replicate the problems of the City Centre Loop in attracting through traffic, causing gridlock and delays to public transport. What is required is a system of access only loops from the ring road, something that Nottingham pioneered in the 1970s. 

Ok, get this: Leeds is planning green routes

The SPD also includes plans for a network of ‘green’ pedestrian and cycle routes through Southbank and linking across the barrier of the M621 to inner city Holbeck and Hunslet. This ‘green network’ will be complemented by a ‘blue’ network of waterways, the Aire obviously but also other watercourses which are largely hidden at present. There are plans for new squares and green spaces including ‘Yorkshire Square’ by the river at Neville Street bridge. The proposed City Park looks rather smaller than its star billing implies and has Meadow Lane running through it but there is also an interesting concept for a ‘Southbank Arbour’ on an axis from Temple Works to the Royal Armouries. However talk of a ‘world class’ waterside along the Aire sounds like typical consultants’ hype given the abject failure to deliver in previous regeneration schemes. 

A vision of Leeds from Northern Europe (hiding Bridgewater Place)

Beyond generic design aspirations the SPD is coy about the sort of development to be expected for an area which, as the plan boasts, is ten times bigger than King’s Cross. Within this vast and formless area the key focus must surely be that around the HS2 terminus. Neville Street largely disappears under this new station which will make it very difficult to create the promised attractive new streets. Relatively recent buildings, including presumably the ASDA HQ, will have to be demolished but what will replace them is unclear. Form, massing and uses are all left opaque; the SPD does not want to be prescriptive. This is understandable given the realpolitik of Britain today where developers are (literally) in the driving seat and public agencies have to work ‘in partnership’ with the owners of the land. But given the huge investment of public money here – £500 million for the new City station alone – surely the public sector should have a much bigger role in determining the built environment outcomes.

Good things: Holbeck Urban Village

Attention to detail

However, in design terms things seem to be looking up in Leeds. Holbeck Urban Village is an outstanding example of small scale conservation-based renewal with a real sense of place. Now plans have been submitted for the development on 3.5ha of adjacent land, mostly open car parks and derelict land, to a masterplan by Feilden Clegg Bradley, the architects of Broadcasting Place. This certainly talks a good game with its concepts of modern reinterpretation of mill style buildings using brick, terracotta and industrial metalwork. It promises landscaping to tie together the impressive railway viaducts and watercourses and evokes a network of real streets and squares linking to City Station and the city centre. The architects have an excellent track record and the images are seductive. However whilst the two tall towers proposed, described as ‘modern chimneys’, are infinitely better than Bridgewater Place they don’t so much ‘echo’ the sublime campanile of Tower Works, but eclipse them.

Temple Works, big love

Not far away is Temple Works, a stupendous factory which looks like a Pharaoh’s country house and is one of the greatest structures of the C19th. After decades of neglect by the owners, the infamous Barclay brothers, and Burberry backing out of the hoped for renovation as a factory, Temple Works has now been sold to CEG, the developers of Holbeck. Leeds really needs to be proactive now to avoid a tragedy like Glasgow’s Egyptian Halls. 

Tetley Brewey car park, bigger than the Vatican City

The other big development scheme currently for Southbank is on the vast Tetley Brewey car park site. This is being promoted by the property arm of Ikea and includes 850 residential units, hotels, offices, vibrant everything. The masterplan illustrations suggest a brickier version of the shiny blocks  Leeds already has in profusion, but importantly the plan does deliver two hectares of land for the new City Park.


City Square, currently isolated by traffic

There are wider spin-offs from the Southbank SPD too. The remodelling of City Station demands the severing of the crazy one-way ‘City Centre Loop’ traffic system which is either a roaring race track or completely gridlocked. This enables City Square, already partially reinstated to its Edwardian concept, to be redesigned as a handsome and dignified arrival space for the city. 


Same with the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Replacing the City Centre Loop with a City Boulevard requires streets to be redesigned as places for people, walking and cycling, not just traffic. This gives the opportunity for much improved settings for many important buildings. Simplifying the ridiculous tangle of highways and slip roads around Quarry Hill along St Peters St, Duke St and Crown Point Road will help connect Leeds’s de-facto cultural quarter with the city centre and complement current plans for a new entrance and public space at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 


The environs of Leeds Minster should be so much better ...

... start here!

And the setting of Leeds Minster can also be radically re-thought. Kirkgate will no longer be part of the City Centre Loop racetrack and this opens up the opportunity to remodel the existing run down park north of the Minster. The park could be greatly enlarged by incorporating redundant carriageways including the north bound branch of Duke St, concentrating two way traffic on the present southbound route. 'Minster Park' would provide a new focus for an area pretty much destroyed by highway and high-rise mania, but one which still retains key elements of Leeds’s townscape, heritage and attractions for visitors. It must be as important a priority as Southbank Park. 


Woodhouse Lane crossing the inner motorway

But the biggest priority is to redesign Woodhouse Lane, between those two great icons of Leeds’ municipal pride - the Town Hall and the Leeds University. The universities are of course one of Leeds’s greatest assets. The tower of the Parkinson Building at the top of Woodhouse Lane is a hugely powerful landmark and symbol whilst the Chamberlin, Powell and Bon campus is one of the finest ensembles of post war architecture in Britain. Add to this Broadcasting Place – far and away the best modern building in Leeds. Upper Woodhouse Lane provides an attractive approach to Leeds University, reinforced by some decent new infill in the Laidlaw Library. However Lower Woodhouse Lane is ground zero. The disconnect created by the inner ring motorways is horrendous even though here in a cutting; the noise, the dislocating spaghetti of slip roads, the lack of enclosure and streetscape. In a sense you have to admire the motorway's design; it is such an extravagant, full blooded example of its genre and its time. Maybe it should be listed, but major urban repair is required to re-establish a connected ‘walkable city’.


Where success is uglier than failure

Out of this urban chaos Leeds could conjure a new environment to be proud of. By decking over the motorway, new streets and development sites could be created around a major square that would provide a focus for Beckett University. Woodhouse Lane could be transformed into a new green spine between the city and the university for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. The convoluted motorway slip roads and complex one way systems would need to be simplified and the vast Woodhouse Lane multi-storey car park demolished, an important symbolic act for a new sustainable transport policy. A similar approach of building over the motorway void at the apex of New Briggate and Vicar Lane could give the Grand Theatre the dignified setting it sadly lacks today, creating a new public square as well as development opportunities. Cities like Hamburg are doing this sort of thing already.

Deserves a better street setting

The key thing about these suggestions is that they can all be achieved by re-allocating existing road space. Although developers call nearly all the shots with new buildings, the City controls highway land. Gehl noted that this comprises 80% of public space in the Southbank area and similarly in other fringe areas of the city centre. Transforming highway space into public space - people space - civic space does not really depend on HS2 at all; that just provides the impetus for change. What it does depend on is civic vision and will – and funding of course, but the vision and the will come first. You don’t have to go abroad for examples of how to do it - look at what Sheffield has achieved with the Heart of the City project. 


Is Leeds too proud to learn from Sheffield?

Leeds desperately needs a city-wide strategy for sustainable transport and within this a serious plan to reduce car use and car parking. But the City is still supporting more road building like the East Leeds Orbital, a 7.5km dual carriageway scheme to 'provide the capacity to support increased traffic’ generated by an urban extension. It will cost £165 million. Leeds and the Highways Agency also want to spend £55 million on constructing extra traffic capacity for the M621. The argument, which sounds reasonable, is that this will allow through traffic to be removed from the city centre but actually it is encouraging more traffic overall in a city which is already far too car dependent. Nearly all the funding in the West Yorkshire ‘Transport Plus’ investment plan is for highway schemes, or dressed up highway schemes. This money needs to be focused on public transport. 

or Nottingham?

Leeds does now have a Public Transport Investment Programme (PTIP) as Whitehall, which turned down the tram and even the proposed trolleybus, has been shamed into giving funding to improve Leeds’s abysmal bus services. Many cities think they have the worst bus service in Britain, but Leeds has to be a serious contender. The problem however is that Leeds is way behind the curve even for British cities in its public transport planning. First Leeds announces that it is trialing an electric bus; big deal. Nottingham already has the biggest fleet of electric buses in Europe as well as lots of new biogas buses and of course a tram network. With smart card ticketing, an ‘Oyster’ card, contactless payment, ubiquitous real time information, Nottingham is a public transport success story achieved in spite of deregulation. But it is the result of more than 20 years of planning and a political focus on public transport that required brave decisions like introducing a Workplace Parking Levy. Leeds with its much bigger commercial base would raise serious money for public transport investment with a WPL. But in Leeds responsibility is divided between the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (Metro) and the City so that public transport just hasn’t been a priority. And with de-regulation the bus companies hold most of the cards – they decide what services to run and the fares and the terms of ‘partnership working’.  Given First Leeds’s previous record you can’t have much confidence that it will deliver the quality of public transport to which the PTIP now aspires. Leeds needs to follow the example of Greater Manchester in going for a London-style franchise system – a big decision but one Leeds needs to take.

Coming Soon, a new HBO Box Set 'Leeds', a dystopian drama set in the 1970s

Indeed, Leeds should be going further. It should be planning for real metro lines like Newcastle. Rotterdam, a smaller city than Leeds,  has 5 metro lines and innumerable tram lines. A great city like Leeds needs to have a big vision for sustainable transport. It needs an ambitious and holistic plan for  public transport in the short and longer term. But is Leeds really up for this, or is it still Motorway City?


Ben Philliskirk said...

Until the political issues surrounding traffic and transport are dealt with at national (and international) level, then any local action can only be palliative.

It is true that Leeds could do better with its urban design and transport strategy. Unfortunately, much of your critique is obsessed with grand aesthetic gestures and would do little to enable faster public transport or more efficient traffic flow.

Take your obsession with the Woodhouse Lane area and desire to demolish the multi-storey car park (recently refurbished after the building of the Arena). This car park is one of the more coherent remnants of Leeds' 1960s transport planning, accessed directly from the inner ring road. Surely that is precisely the kind of facility that protects the city centre from excessive car use???!!!

As someone who regularly walked up Woodhouse Lane towards the university, I can honestly say that it is one of the places where the urban motorway impacts the least on the general environment. The real carbuncle of that area is the half-finished was-to-be Hilton Hotel, which has seen no construction work for years. Other than this problem, throwing money at this particular district would be highly wasteful.

Your 'plans' for this area demonstrate a general fixation with huge plazas to provide vistas and focus for your favourite buildings, along with extending pedestrianisation in all directions. As a non-driver I'm generally sympathetic to this, but Leeds was a pioneer of pedestrianisation and possesses a very walkable central core. In the immediate term, making more areas inaccessible to buses and less able-bodied drivers would hit many pedestrians hard and make Leeds' traffic flow even more slowly.

The City Beautiful is all well and good, but it shouldn't be confused with or hinder the city functional.

Alex said...

Ironically, Jonesy's advice is in some sense to follow through and complete the Motorway City of the 70s vision, stuff the cars underground, and create spaces for people over the top. This isn't necessarily wrong, either. Cars are better off on the motorway than the idiotic City Centre Loop - I kind of think of everything west of City Square as "the bit with the traffic" - and I'd be kind of interested in reclaiming the legacy. It's one of the biggest physical survivals of the postwar rebuilding era, and I do remember it as a kid as a startling experience of the big city - cars zooming through huge sci-fi tunnels with ramps swooping off at angles roads aren't meant to do!

Everyone loves to blame Whitehall, but it's telling that Leeds did manage to re-invent itself with the powers at hand, and similarly it managed to speak up effectively against the daft proposal to have a toy station for HS2 miles from interchanging with the rest of the railway. I can't help but think the city council could have done more on transport if they actually wanted to get t'band in't nick, make the effort, and suck up the motorist whining. West Yorkshire has a PTE, after all, and now Transport for the North is a thing although I've no idea what budget or staff it might have.

Also, I think the enormous triumph of economic development in Leeds gets treated as if it was somehow an accident. You just have to compare Bradford or Sheffield to see that one of them got it right. I don't really understand what Leeds is meant to learn from Sheffield; lobby for a shit millenium project involving starchitects?

Anonymous said...

I have four “P” Problems with Jonestheplanner which add up to a certain Paucity in his writing.
P no1 Partiality – see what you want to see and ignore the rest Leeds probably looks great if you are not Poor, live in bad housing or suffer a life expectancy 10 years less than people living 10 lives awy.
Has Jonestheplanner ever visited Pudsey or other suburbs and estates to see interesting architecture which escapes his general classification of Viictorian good modernism generally not so good.
P no 2 The Politics of Policy failure – who is to blame? Jonestheplanner seems confused – sometimes it the fault of central government control and financial constraint – sometimes it is local elected politicians who views on priorities do not match his own. Never are the strategic competences of offices called into question. .
P no 3 Preferences - to resolve this problem of local policy failure I think Joenstheplanner’s ideal solution would be the election of an apolitical technocrat with competences similar to his own. Maybe George Ferguson first elected mayor of Bristol and an architect is his ideal.
P no 4 Prescriptions – Jonestheplanner’s writing is full of prescriptions – some I would agree are in the Common Good; others however seem to me to fall into the category “what I feel is good for me (in urban design terms) must be good for everyone” as if there were something incontestable and universal in the way architecture and “public” space is consumed. In a diverse society this surely the wrong approach.

John Sour -