Leeds was recently identified as the 7th greenest city in the UK by population. However, the report is a little misleading when you look at the core City Centre as opposed the City as a whole. At this point, Leeds, unfortunately, is one of the worst. You can check this quite easily for yourself: go to Google maps, switch to the satellite view and then search for Leeds. Zoom in on the train station and move out in every direction from there. Take note of how much greenery you see before you leave the City Centre. Now, do something similar for Bristol, Edinburgh or Manchester even. You’ll start to see the problem. Even the places that we haven’t built on are more often paved than planted. There is also the issue of undeveloped land, often brownfield sites which are ‘banked’ by developers and left untouched for many years.
I’m not saying that all public space has to be green, although a few living things do help. This isn’t about lawns and bedding plants. Public spaces should be spaces for people to use, to enjoy and to interact with. If used properly these spaces can be a real benefit to those who live and work around them. Leeds, however, rarely considers these spaces as anything other than purely aesthetic assets. We all enjoy the colour that flowers bring to an otherwise grey environment but there are many ways to make a City Less Grey.
That’s the real issue in Leeds – usability. The City planners don’t appear to rate this as a priority and we are more often than not left with space which offers limited appeal to the visitor. There is no reason to linger, so most become little more than a more pleasant way to get from A to B. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I spend much of my waking week walking the streets of the City Centre and over time I’ve learned the routes which offer the most pleasant ways to get around, which inevitably include our so-called public spaces.
However, if we don’t encourage people to stop, to take a moment to appreciate what surrounds them, then these places aren’t really fit for purpose. If walking through is all we want people to do then we could have spent the money on improving the main pedestrian routes in the City and made the whole place more pleasant to stroll around.
Last summer Leeds BID started putting deck chairs out in a variety of places. It wasn’t long before they were occupied, then people moved them around, they put them into groups and started to hang out in the areas they would normally have just passed through. It’s a little thing, it didn’t cost much, but it worked. In New York they did something similar but they took it one step further and put out tables. They started doing this on roads and stopping the cars; they even did it in Time Square. Now you see people everywhere just chilling, reading a book, playing chess, drinking coffee, and doing whatever they please actually.
Leeds has experimented with this on Greek Street and Merrion Street but what is different here is they are attached to businesses; they are not public space in the truest sense. Try sitting at a table in any one of these places or outside the Restaurant Bar and Grill on City Square (arguably the most public space we have) and see how comfortable you are made to feel and how long you can get away with before they are basically moving you on. I’ve tried this; it’s not long, especially when the sun is out.
That’s the issue I have when we start comparing ourselves with other great Cities. New York especially comes up a lot. From the Highline to the renaming of Quarry Hill people keep referring back to that place but unfortunately, we don’t even imitate that well. In one of the most capitalist places on earth you can sit at a table in a park or on one of the most expensive pavements (per sq ft) in the world for hours, all day actually and never once feel like you need to buy anything as you watch the world go by. If we are going to keeping looking over the Atlantic for inspiration, and I’m not saying we should, then we could at least copy them properly. There are many lessons we could learn from New York but perhaps it’s preferable that we make our own path. Look at what others do, by all means; take some of the best bits even, but then ultimately do what works for Leeds, its people and culture.
This is the first in a series of pieces to be published that will document a project we are undertaking in Leeds. This 2-year project aims to improve our open spaces and make use of land long neglected our underutilised, both public and private, throughout the City Centre. The first stage involves in-depth research of the current offering to understand fully what we have already achieved and what opportunities exist. We’ll map and document, in detail, the current state of play in our core postcodes. In 2018, we’ll look to partner with other organisations on a number of trials in the areas we’ve identified and we’ll be publishing our findings as we go. We’ll also be inviting the public to get involved as we know collaboration is the key to success here. You’ll be able to read more about that later but for now, if you have any ideas or would like to contribute in any way then we would love to hear from you. You can email your thoughts at any time to firstname.lastname@example.org