“Sheffield is heroic - it’s like a boxer struggling back to his feet after a series of knockdown blows: down but not out.”
Whether those living here would agree or not, this is the opening gambit of a journey made by Adrian Jones and Chris Matthews as part of their book, Cities of the North - an illustrated tour in which Park Hill flats are described as ‘monumental and marvellous’, the university Arts Tower ‘sublime’ and the Gleadless Valley estate ‘a masterpiece’.
The work looks at the changing townscape, special character, architecture and planning of the ‘great Northern English cities’, with an entire chapter dedicated to exploring Sheffield in detail.
Adrian - formerly Nottingham’s planning chief - and Chris, a historian and lecturer at Lincoln University, bring an independent, irreverent view, praising perceived successes, identifying lost opportunities, and judging how the place shapes up alongside its neighbours Leeds, Wakefield and Manchester, among others.
Therefore parts of Sheffield emerge somewhat bruised from the book’s pages, Meadowhall in particular, the shopping centre deemed ‘utterly vacuous and claustrophobic’ and an ‘anti-city centre’. Sheaf Street, meanwhile, is an area of ‘traffic hell’, while the West One scheme off Devonshire Street is ‘savage and overpoweringly arrogant’.
“The fascination and pleasure of exploring Britain’s towns and cities is endless,” write the pair, who were inspired by the architectural critic Ian Nairn, who researched Sheffield 50 years ago in 1967.
Their latest book is a follow-up to one from 2014, Towns of the North, and evolved from an online blog called Jones The Planner.
Chris said there was much to spur the imagination while touring Sheffield.
“I think in terms of character and impression Sheffield is clearly remarkable in terms of its landscape; tumbling down the Peak District and into the Don Valley - certainly up there with Newcastle, Bristol and Edinburgh.
“But then there is its history as a city of workshops and heavy industry, which created a confident working class and was comparable with Birmingham. I think that might account for why these two cities are so friendly - although Brum was more mercantile and so its Victorian architecture more splendid.”
He said Sheffield’s ‘postwar modernist vision’ - clear at Park Hill and Gleadless Valley - was ‘probably the most impressive outside London’.
“The decline of its industrial base since the 1980s was a real hammer blow in terms of confidence, and Meadowhall was a massive own goal, but since the 1990s there have been some remarkable achievements.”
The book touches on plans for the retail quarter, which will, the pair say, make for a ‘more conventional shopping centre’ after the old proposals were dropped.
But Chris said: “In terms of public realm and walking, Sheffield beats Manchester and Leeds into a cocked hat. When you think of the improvements around the station, the Gold Route for pedestrians, the Peace Gardens, the Winter Garden and Devonshire Green – what city has done more for making the city centre a sociable place? So you’re way ahead there.”
However, he warned: “If you think of the bus service then Sheffield is embarrassingly way behind Nottingham, which has an oyster card, fleets of electric and bio-gas buses and more extensive real-time displays.
“Don’t put up with second rate.”
n Cities of the North is out now, £12.99, published by Five Leaves. Visit www.fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk to buy.