Earlier this month, I wrote about the social segregation of Paris. Most cities have their rich and poor neighbourhoods, but in the French capital the thoroughness of the geographical sorting is remarkable. Paris is, in effect, two cities: one rich, one poor; side-by-side, but fundamentally disconnected.
When I was writing the piece I wondered whether there was a British parallel. London of course has extremes of wealth and poverty, but they’re stirred up together .
The brutal apartheid of the French banlieues
However, looking North for CityMetric, Sam Gregory argues that Sheffield is not one city but two:
“Sheffield A is a healthy, wealthy and leafy mix of greens, golf courses and gastropubs stretching from Fulwood and Ranmoor in the west to Nether Edge, Meersbrook and Dore in the south. This is the city that made international headlines in recent months with a campaign to protect its street trees from an incompetent and complacent council.
“Sheffield B is an adjacent but almost entirely unconnected city running down the Don from Upperthorpe to Hillsborough, up to Ecclesfield in the north and stretching to Tinsley, Attercliffe, Darnall and Gleadless Valley in the east. It is a place economically characterised by poverty, lack of opportunity, low-skilled work, poor quality housing stock and even poorer public transport.”
The west/south versus east/north split is remarkably similar to that of Paris, but Gregory draws a striking parallel with another European city:
“Uniquely for a British city, where pockets of deprivation are usually nestled uncomfortably between well-to-do suburbs, Sheffield’s dividing line runs directly through the city like the Berlin Wall. How did this happen?”
As it happens, I lived in Sheffield for three years as a student – so its Paris-like social geography should have occurred to me before.
The reason it didn’t is a telling one: almost all the students lived and studied and amused themselves in Sheffield A (though there may have been changes since my time). The politics and culture of the university was decidedly leftwing, albeit in a middle-class-but-pretending-not-to-be kind of way. The instinctively Labour but culturally conservative politics of much of working-class Sheffield was the one variety of leftism with no voice on campus. Indeed, there was very little about Sheffield B that impinged upon our solipsistic little world.
Sheffield is obviously a much smaller city than Paris, London or Berlin. You can travel from Sheffields A to B readily enough. Yet there are other kinds of distance. Gregory describes neighbourhoods along a bus route across the city where “average life expectancy falls by 7.5 years for men and almost 10 years for women”.
How did the city come to be so divided?
“The wealthier half, much of it dating from the turn-of-the-century, represents the flight of the managers and mill owners from the noise and smog of Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’. The rich ensconced themselves in an enclave high above their employees, literally: Sheffield A is significantly hilly, particularly the parts that border the Peak District to the west. The spacious Victorian houses often feature spectacular views across the seven hills.”
This west-versus-east pattern can be seen in many cities with a long history – and is partly explained by prevailing wind patterns and their contribution to air quality. It could be that this general factor combined with Sheffield’s particular topography to produce an especially strong geographical gradient of social separation.
However, as in Paris, architecture and urban design has also had an impact. The traditional streets and dwellings of Sheffield A, while by no means uniformly luxurious – are attractive, adaptable and loved by their residents. They are organically self-sustaining.
Non-traditional architecture, especially that purpose-built for social housing (like Sheffield’s brutalist Park Hill estate) is very different. It comes into existence through top-down initiative and can only be sustained in the same fashion. In more than one sense of the word, it keeps its residents structurally dependent upon those with power.
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In her recent speech to National Housing Federation, Theresa May said something surprisingly profound about social housing:
“Whether unintentionally or by design, the decisions we make about the homes we build for social rent – their location, quality and appearance – can all too easily make them distinct from the community in which they stand.
“This, in turn, can cement prejudice and stigma among those who live in them and wider society, leading to lowered expectations and restricted opportunities.
“It shouldn’t be this way.”
That’s right, it shouldn’t. But when one looks at the evolution of our cities, whether bigger ones like Paris or smaller ones like Sheffield, what stands out is that successful, sustainable patterns of development take hold when residents have genuine control and agency over the places they live in.
Politicians must therefore close their ears to the theories of fashionable architects (and their pockets to the donations of wealthy developers). The key to true regeneration is to give everyone the same chance to shape their own space.