‘The first of the new?’ Guest post on the new proposals for Sheffield’s Retail Quarter

Guest post by Julian Dobson, first published on Julian’s website Living With Rats

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The latest consultation on the future of Sheffield’s city centre closed last month. By the turn of the decade, it’s hoped, the city will have a brand new shopping quarter optimistically described by some of its proponents as the ‘first of the new’.

Sheffield Retail Quarter, as it’s currently known, is the latest in a saga of plans and projects that can be traced back at least 20 years. It was once known as the ‘New Retail Quarter’, but ‘new’ rapidly became a hostage to fortune.

Over the last decade the area adjoining the landmarks of City Hall at Barker’s Pool and the impressive Victorian town hall has been the focus of a £600m redevelopment plan led by developer Hammerson and anchored by John Lewis, the department store of choice for cities worried about their retail rankings. The scheme, branded as Sevenstone, floundered and was aborted in 2013.

So what will we end up with after nearly a quarter of a century of consultancy, masterplanning, public consultation and political lobbying? There are some signs that concerns have been taken on board: the latest consultation emphasises the quality of urban design and materials, a mixture of uses, walkability and the protection and restoration of neglected historic buildings.

Other signs might suggest that not much has changed. The aspiration for Sheffield to be a ‘top shopping destination’ is still foregrounded; at bottom, this may still be an old-style ‘build it and they will come’ big-box mall, though in a city centre rather than on the edges. A shed with frills is still a shed.

What should or could the ‘first of the new’ look like? One response might be to examine who shapes the development, and who owns and benefits from it. Is Sheffield’s retail quarter just another tradable asset for the property industry? In which directions does the value flow?

What was really radical about Ebenezer Howard’s garden city proposals was not just the green space and urban planning, but the insistence that assets should be held in trust for the benefit of the community. It’s an insistence that contemporary practice tends to forget.

Questions of ownership lead on to issues of access. If Sheffield’s retail quarter is to be the first of the new, you might expect to see a very different range of uses and occupants to those found in most urban shopping centres. Will we see the innovative and experimental businesses that are normally squeezed out of so-called high value locations? To achieve that, space needs to be available at low rents and on flexible terms.

The ‘first of the new’ should surprise and delight in ways other retail areas don’t. You can’t plan in serendipity, but you can plan for it. One way to do that is to ensure that enterprising uses that seem to have little commercial value can exist cheek-by-jowl with hard-headed profit-making. Community and civic uses, places for sociability and idling, spaces for growing and performance should all be part of the mix.

That demands an approach to planning that prioritises animating and curating space, moving beyond the regulation-and-enforcement protocols of use classes and paper trails. Regulation needs to be in there, but it’s neither the start nor the end of the process.

That necessitates planners being closer to the streets, not more distant. It will take a brave local authority to invest in engaged and positive planning in the current climate, but the benefits are there to be grasped. When planners know their patches as intimately as the people who use them every day, we might all end up with better city centres.

Follow Julian on Twitter @juliandobson

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