Sheffield with a Pennine topography of many hills, valleys and rivers is half in the countryside and one third within the Peak District National Park. No other UK city has part of a national park within its boundary. It is England’s greenest urban area containing 150 woodlands and 50 public parks. It has a population of 582,500 with one hundred languages. The Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council, John Mothersole, characterises the City as ‘Authentic and Independent’, a ‘Disruptor’. An increasingly diverse city, Sheffield was the first to become a ‘City of Sanctuary’ and the first to formally recognise Palestine as a State. The City Council works within a strong Cabinet-led model, alongside a range of other partnership institutions from the business, university, arts and community sectors within the Sheffield City Region which now has an elected mayor. There is a very long tradition of self-organisation and activism ranging from early non-conformism and trades unionism to the co-operative and mass trespass movement and the ‘Socialist Republic’ of South Yorkshire. This continues today with a significantly strong culture of civic neighbourhood, environmental awareness, flourishing community and sports organisations and, more recently, with the added strength of new and increasing social enterprises, co-operatives and charities. Many of these are taking a lead in changing the city for the good or for positively resisting harm. There is a tangible culture of active and involved citizenship engaged with both the natural and built environment.
The city has a long history of robust environmental regulation and improvement, from the establishment of the UK’s first Green Belt, one of Europe’s earliest smoke control areas, through the establishment of the UKs largest Combined Heat and Power system and to the recent declaration of a Climate Emergency and adoption of a 2030 target for carbon neutrality by Full Council in 2019. Consultations have just concluded on declaring an Air Quality Zone in the city centre. Preparation for climate change resilience include multi-functional flood defence areas, a unique social enterprise dedicated to managing the river corridors, an extensive SUDS installation programme and a number of schemes to change long term management of the western moors to maximise retention of water and carbon.
Sheffield, like all other UK core cities, has relatively low economic power compared with most European OECD core cities, but the city has increasingly compensated by using the power of a combination of its unique environment, heritage, culture and, above all else, its people. These latent powers tend to be given less credence than the more visible designed and engineered environment enabled by economic power. In Sheffield, it is remarkable that the city, by proactively harnessing these powers, offers the opportunity of an increasingly healthy outdoor city living lifestyle for its citizens. The nature of the ‘physical geography’ of the city is facilitating the development of the urban landscape alongside the ‘human geography’ with an emphasis on community, health and well-being reaping measurable economic benefit for the city.
This mix of intuitive and rational forward thinking has resulted in the city moving its perceived USP away from being a ‘Steel City’ and reinventing itself as an ‘Outdoor City’. Having recognised that its strength lies in its people and not solely in its buildings and infrastructure the city is using this vision of an ‘Outdoor City’ to make sure more people, particularly those in the centre of the city, have both the access and the ability to engage with the unique green spaces around them. This investment has, in particular, become a strong factor in attracting and retaining skilled or educated young people.
One of the city’s strongest designed and engineered catalysts for change is the delivery of the ‘Olympic Legacy Park’, an increasingly tangible legacy from the London 2012 Olympic Games. It is an inspired combination of investment in world-class sports facilities, education, new skills, research and innovation, economic regeneration and environmental improvements bringing significant new opportunities to the Lower Don Valley neighbourhood, formerly the city’s engineering and steel-making heartland. The vision is for the Park to be the world’s leading location for delivering a transformation in understanding sport, health and wellbeing. A significant part of this is Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Well-being Research Centre (AWRC), the most advanced research and development centre for physical activity in the world, providing state-of-the-art, indoor and outdoor laboratories delivering a variety of collaborative projects. The English Institute of Sport, the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering and a new UTC specialising in health, sport and technology for 14-19 year olds are also located in the park. A further innovation developed by Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust is the creation of a Centre for Child Health Technology (CCHT), the most advanced in the world.
Reflecting its friendliness, humanity and high degree of ‘inter-connectedness’ and ‘self-containedness’, Sheffield is often referred to as the largest village in Europe. The people are self-effacing about their city, sceptical of self-promotion and serial dissenters. They are innovators in manufacturing, business, politics, research and social organisations. All these qualities are as strong as ever today despite the city having changed dramatically over the last four decades, moving towards a more mixed economy in partnership with its major universities and newly established innovative research centres. Until the 1980’s Sheffield had a high wage, high skill steel, coal and engineering economy but the recession of the 80’s and 90’s saw a rapid contraction of employment and land use. Despite this the city has managed to retain a range of strong high value specialist manufacturers and research institutions that continue to work on creating a powerful modern manufacturing sector. Developing, refining and re-focusing their skills and knowledge base to further their global potential numerous companies working in technology and manufacturing have worked with the University of Sheffield taking the lead in the creation of the Advanced Manufacturing and Research Centre (AMRC) working with international companies such as Boeing and Airbus.
The city has become much more diverse, younger and more internationally connected. The population is rising steadily led in part by a high birth-rate in recent immigrant families but also by an ever increasing student population. Just under 20% of the population are from a non-white British background with the largest groups identifying as British Asian (8%), African-Caribbean (7.2%), Pakistani (4%), Arab (1.5%) Chinese (1.2%).
Sheffield was a major and highly innovative provider of social housing particularly in the post-war period and in the last thirty years a series of programmes have sought to diversify range and tenure of the estates and to introduce local economic activity. One of the largest and most effective of these has been the Manor Estate, where partnership with community social enterprise has been critical. Alongside re-commencing council house building, Sheffield has established the Sheffield Housing Company, a unique public-private-housing association partnership, to build 2,300 homes to high space and environmental standards on cleared council housing sites.
Park Hill, probably the most well-known landmark in Sheffield, is of course like no other. Phase 1 of the resurgence of the fabric by developer Urban Splash has been completed, creating 260 homes and 10,000 sq ft of workspace which residents and businesses have now moved into and now, working with architects Mikhail Riches, phase 2 with a choice of 35 apartment types will provide 200 more homes and 20,000 sq ft of workspace by June 2021. The city centre and surrounding inner suburbs are enjoying a renaissance as places to live and work with former industrial quarters like Kelham, St Vincent’s and Porter developing rich mixed-use characteristics.
The city’s and city region’s transport strategies are based on the need to expand the use and quality of trains, trams, buses, cycles and walking with only selective investment in roads such as the Sheffield Inner Ring road. This includes plans for the expansion of the Midland Station to receive both The ‘Heart of the City II’ Project originally intended to improve the retail offer in the city centre has now been revised in partnership with the delivery partner Queensberry. Innovations in leisure, education and housing have now been factored in to encourage new retailers into the city centre, provide Grade A office space, hotels, a range of housing for longer term residents and a high quality public realm.
The scheme retains several key heritage buildings drawing on elements of the city’s unique topography and history, knitting together the different attractions of The Moor, the Devonshire Quarter and Fargate. It was a difficult and bold decision to drop the previous developer-led retail scheme in response to the ever shrinking ‘high street’.
Castlegate Quarter was historically the retail, civic and social centre of the city over 800 years. Following the relocation of the central markets to the Moor in 2010 and the closure of several large department stores and shops the city has been developing an alternative role for Castlegate which combines its rich history (once the location of Sheffield Castle) with a new role as an incubator of tech, creative and music start-ups and a focus of a new ‘Riverside Business and Hotel District’. The quarter’s extensive stock of large vacant former retail and civic space is a major asset allowing repurposing to studio and work spaces such as Kollider, Exchange Place Studios, the Old Town Hall and Canada House.
The city’s chosen strap-line ‘Sheffield makes people and people make Sheffield’ is a recognition of what the city believes is a vital truth, a special two-way reciprocal relationship. Most good things actually end up being partnerships, a collaboration, a co-production or any other description of how multiple people from multiple organisations work together to create or regenerate spaces and places. Generations of the citizens of Sheffield have continuously organised to create an urban landscape on top of a natural landscape to create a new living entity. The soul of any city is always the hidden dimension clouded by the many unhidden dimensions. Sheffield’s soul is revealed in between the layers and overlapping networks, in which businesses and communities continue to work together in a very natural way. There are many challenges but equally there are many opportunities and potential in this city of inventive people, whether original invention or re-invention.
David Lumb AoU
Deputy lead assessors:
Philip Jackson AoU
Victoria Whenray AoU