Placemaking, public realm, regeneration, remodelling and rebranding. These are some of the many buzzwords used in PR campaigns for the new wave of developments you’ll see in the City. Any developer with a few hundred million to spend can commision a few generic looking CGI’s and hand them out to the media along with a vague outline of what the next big thing to happen in Leeds will be, together with an even vaguer notion of how exactly we’ll all benefit from it. One thing is made clear though: we need it and we’ll be damned if we don’t like it.
The likes of the Evening Post or Leeds List will then immediately burst into action. With little in the way of consideration, research or understanding we’ll be told, again all too vaguely, how wonderfully marvellous it’s going to be and then all we need to do is sit back and wait however many years for something, anything, to happen.
The thing is, this would be OK, well it might be worth the wait if what came was actually worth waiting for. Unfortunately, all we are being promised lately is paving, steps and ramps. Leeds City Centre is fast becoming a skateboarder’s dream, but a dream it will no doubt stay, as the very people this environment would benefit the most are the ones least likely to enjoy it. Bans on the use of skateboards will, of course, be in place before the cement is dry, leaving the rest of us to wander around and occasionally sit uncomfortably on a surface that someone mistakenly thought was a sensible design for a seat.
I’m not proposing we turn our City Centre into the UK’s biggest skatepark; I’m merely suggesting that if the planners get their way then we might as well let someone enjoy it.
What I am proposing is that we look at what placemaking really means and that’s not giving places silly names and paving over the past. It’s not adding acres of concrete and stone and calling it a park and it’s certainly not building the country’s largest train station and surrounding it with, you guessed it, more paving, steps and ramps.
Public realm should be for the public use. It’s in the name, after all, and what do those developers expect the public to do in these soulless spaces of discomfort if they can’t ride their skateboards? Most of the designs you see rarely feature satisfactory seating, let alone anything to engage with while you are seated. I guess we can sit on the many new steps that are proposed which The BID will no doubt keep free from chewing gum. We must give thanks for this at least.
There are people out there with imagination and the skills to deliver. I’ve spoken to several of these people recently so there is no excuse for this half-hearted approach. The developers, the planners and our leaders who make the decisions need to start engaging with those who understand what placemaking really means and what high-quality public spaces can offer to a City and its people. What currently counts as the public realm is not satisfactory, it’s not fit for purpose and it shouldn’t be met with approval, let alone praise. Furthermore, we shouldn’t build more of it. Having surely learned from our mistakes of the past we must move forward. I think they call that progress.
It’s bad enough that as a city we are content with building some of the most uninspiring, vapid or downright ugly architecture in Europe; we now think it’s in some way beneficial to encircle it in block paving and call it development. This has to stop before we have paved over any chance we had to make Leeds stand among our greatest cities. Either that or we should stop talking about joining those ranks and be content with average. Otherwise, we’ll make ourselves look a bit silly and I’d rather be an average realist than a delusional fool.
If what you try to disguise is fundamentally flawed then no matter how many times you pave over the cracks, they will only reappear.