Tom moved to Sheffield in 2000. Back then, it was a pretty mad place: a post-Blade-Runner-city of soviet-style car parks, motorways through the city centre and pedestrians herded into underpasses. Knackered, empty and full of potential.
Regeneration seemed to offer an opportunity to change all that, to turn the city into something amazing. My friends and I dreamed of old factories full of art and music; of our brutalist heritage restored; of derelict cooling towers turned into Tate Moderns of the north.
We realised pretty quickly that this was a little ambitious. Regeneration wasn’t about big ideas at all. Regeneration meant recladding 1960s buildings and pretending they were contemporary. It meant knocking down 70s municipal buildings, creating dull faux-70s office blocks in their place and calling it “world class”. It meant rank after rank of apartment blocks, just as jerry-built as the council blocks they replaced, but with posh taps and sexy kitchens inside. It was a city-wide, 10-year version of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
And it wasn’t just Sheffield. Every northern city seemed to have fallen for the spiel. Every one rolled out the same masterplan. A new semi-privatised shopping mall, with a flash department store at one end, and bigger versions of the shops they had before. Some semi-public space in the middle, patrolled by security guards, surrounded by Caffe Neros. And a self-proclaimed “iconic” tower for footballers to live in. Easy.
Of course there were exceptions: an art gallery in an old mill here, some decent public art there. Even projects such as New Islington, in Manchester, which aimed to build a whole new community, with new canals to boot. But, for the most part, regeneration didn’t contribute much in the way of new ideas. Our cities look “nicer” now, true. The pavements are shiny. But “nice” isn’t really enough to build a new urban identity on.
If this was just a case of bland buildings and dull leaders, it wouldn’t be much to write home about. But there’s a more fundamental problem here. Our new cities are useless. Completely useless. Our urban economies are based on people buying shit they don’t need, made by poor people in far away countries, from ever bigger branches of Primark. Add a smattering of creative industries, to convince yourself you’re still making stuff, and that’s it. This is fine during a boom. But once the bust comes, and people stop shopping, the whole thing falls apart.
Sheffield has spent a decade turning itself into a consumer paradise, a regional retail destination. And before it’s even finished, while the rubble is still fresh on the floor, it’s completely out of date. Opening just in time for a future without oil or consumerism. A good sense of comic timing, as ever.
So we’ve gone full circle. Sheffield in 2010 is half-empty, half-demolished, and full of potential. But this time we’ve got the chance to create something worthwhile: productive, green, and useful. I just hope we can take it.
3/10. Must try harder.