Among the first things a visitor to Bradford will notice is the Hole. The remains of a crater created for a Westfield shopping centre, this massive swath of wasteland sat unused for about four years before becoming a “temporary urban garden”. It is not a cheerful place – a trimming of lawn around a fence that encloses some unsafe building foundations, and which has been decorated with that most irritating of artistic forms, commissioned graffiti. But the second thing that a visitor will notice is the views of the city that the Hole throws open. In one direction you can see an enfilade of Italianate warehouses; from the other, dense streets of neo-Gothic commercial buildings, and Victorian palaces from the Penny Bank to the Wool Exchange.
Ask some Bradfordians about the Hole, and after the rant about Westfield and inept and/or corrupt councillors, they’ll tell you about how it reoriented views in the city, removing a layer of mediocre buildings and revealing a sandstone metropolis once famed worldwide. The Bradford Hole is a sign of failure and a source of anger, but also a place of possibility and potential. After the bankruptcy of cities based on retail and speculation, what now could fill the empty spaces of British towns?
One of the greater disappointments since the bubble burst in 2008 has been in the way these holes haven’t been filled with new ideas – at least not yet. Councils, usually – and now especially – Labour-controlled, have faced derelict spaces, developers pulling out and regeneration schemes caving in, and have generally responded by desperately hoping that it’ll be 2007 again sometime soon.
In Southampton, for instance, a “master plan for renaissance” advocates demolishing the city’s post-war retail street, Above Bar, and building bigger shops in its place, then building another shopping mall in a disused post-crash site. Other proposals entail building apartment blocks on what is now light industrial space near the port. Somehow, in a prolonged economic crisis, planners and councillors have looked at the wastes and thought: “What we need here is a better retail offer and some buy-to-let flats.”
The failure of imagination is mind-boggling. Are there alternatives to this, and if so, where could they come from?
Everywhere you look in the UK’s built environment there’s a collective refusal to admit that the game is up. Aside from commissioning instantly dated Blairite master plans, an easier way is to attempt to paper over the cracks. In Redcar, North Tyneside, and much of north Kent, virtual shop fronts hide the dereliction with photographs of shoe shops, sports shops and record shops where they might once have been.
Photos of what will eventually be there can still be seen on buildings left derelict in Sheffield, where Sevenstone, a Liverpool One-style “outdoor” mall, is still being desperately awaited by councillors, despite the lack of desire for it from either residents or retailers. Meanwhile, Castle Market, the city’s down-at-heel but unique multilevel indoor palace of small retailers, exactly the sort of place that people always say they want in their city, non-corporate, small-scale, individual, is to be replaced with a flat box next to the someday-to-arrive Sevenstone, with rents that will price out many of the old market traders. The site is to be replaced with a “mixed-use office development”, this being the home of inept outsourcing vulture A4e. Nearby, the old National Union of Mineworkers building is scheduled to be replaced by a casino. In British cities today, derelict sites are being given the most depressing uses by councils – or they’re being occupied.
In some places councils are being shaken from their fixation with cramming as many identical chain stores into the city as possible, but entirely by accident. In Preston, for instance, the cancellation of Tithebarn, another “mall without walls”, might mean the retention of what a newspaper poll found to be the city’s most loved building, the sublime 1960s bus station. Local groups, needless to say outside of the council, are trying to come up with proposals for what could follow it.
Developments like this need to be watched, as it’s from the cities that new ideas can, and should, come. It’s here that the “civic gospel” was preached, where publicly owned transport and publicly owned utilities were first created, and where civic planning led to public libraries and public housing. During the last crisis of this size, in the 1930s, architects and planners put out proposals for what cities could look like if they weren’t dominated by rentiers. Today, architects and thinktanks give us “pop-ups”, boutique shopping, happenings and art “follies” to hide the holes. The contrast with the instant universities, health centres and libraries of the Occupy movements is telling.
The vacuum of ideas for local government is glaring. Rather than A Room for London, will we ever see the architecture foundations and civic trusts commission an architectural competition for, say, a new generation of council houses? As it is, the spaces vacated by a bankrupt neoliberalism are sometimes forcibly taken anyway, like the occupied Bank of Ireland building in central Belfast, which squatters plan to turn into a homeless shelter.
Hundreds of new councillors can now look afresh at these empty spaces. They should be looking to the occupiers, rather than the developers.
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