The team behind the transformation of Hull for its UK City of Culture year believe Leeds can repeat the success as it bids to be European Capital of Culture in 2023. Chris Burn reports.
Little more than a year ago, traders in Hull were growing increasingly exasperated about the disruption being caused by the £25m redevelopment of the city centre to prepare for the start of its time as UK City of Culture in 2017.
Firms spoke of dwindling customer numbers and fears about balancing the books as frenetic work took place on transforming 14 streets and four public squares ahead of Hull hosting a 12-month programme of major public cultural events.
But now with the vast majority of work complete, 88 per cent of residents increasing their visits to the city centre since the start of the year and around 40 new businesses opening their doors, things are being viewed in a different light.
Phil Johnson, who co-owns Robbie Johnsons, a coffee and tea shop on Carr Lane, was one of those deeply concerned last year about how disruption from the redevelopment work was affecting business.
But he now says: “If I’m being honest, it has been worth the hassle. Basically since the beginning of the year, it has been fantastic, we can’t complain at all. While it was going on, it was touch and go as to whether we could stay but I am so glad we did. What they have done is really good with the money they have invested. The pavements really needed doing because it was like a death-trap walking around the city centre. Now they are lovely.
“As a business, we have noticed a lot of people who are obviously not from Hull who are here for the City of Culture stuff. I would like to think it will carry on from next year – Liverpool [which was European Capital of Culture in 2008] is a great example where the effects didn’t stop and I’m hoping Hull will be the same. We have seen a massive increase in business.”
Fish and chip restaurant owner Bob Carver, another one who saw customer numbers dwindle last year, says business has now picked up back to what it was. “It was bad but it has improved,” he ventured.
Council plans to redevelop Hull’s city centre to make it more welcoming and accessible to both residents and visitors alike were already in the pipeline but were accelerated after it won the battle to be name as the 2017 UK City of Culture back in November 2013. When work started in October 2015, it was originally hoped it could be completed by December 2016 but the tight timescale saw the majority eventually finish in March this year.
The work included removing an old church wall and installing new benches and mirror pools in Trinity Square, cleaning and relaying basalt cobbles in the Fruit Market quarter and tram tracks along Humber Dock Street, as well as creating a walkway for pedestrians from the train station into the old town and the docks.
Dozens of mature trees were planted throughout the city centre, while new seating for up to 160 people was placed in Queen Victoria Gate.
Andrew Price, director at Leeds-based landscape architects re-form, says the work was the equivalent of doing 18 projects at once. His company worked alongside Hull City Council, engineering and design firm Arup and construction consultancy Gardiner and Theobald on the schemes.
“There was a plan to change most of the public realm over the next 10 years. But being awarded the UK City of Culture accelerated things,” he says.
“It was a really fast process compared to other public realm projects and took three and a half years. It is certainly the biggest public realm project in the north of Europe in the last 10 to 15 years.
“We got the opportunity to effect change in a city in ways that aren’t possible through one or two projects. The main thing about the whole city centre is people were completed disengaged with it. Our big plan was to re-engage people with the city and treat streets as public spaces welcoming them and making people want to spend time in them. We wanted to change how people who visited Hull saw the city, but also changing how people living in Hull use the city centre. A lot of it was really simple things like providing seating that is comfortable.”
Price says the preliminary statistics collected during the City of Culture indicate the regeneration work has been a success, with dozens of new businesses, including award-winning restaurants opening, and an 83 per cent increase in the number of people visiting the city centre at night.
“The figures indicate that the city centre feels much safer and a place people want to come. There have been 40 to 50 new businesses which have opened since the start of 2017. That is testament to having an environment people want to invest in. It feels like somewhere you want to be,” he says.
“The real test will be in a year’s time when it is not the City of Culture any more. But you speak to people all the time and the council get a lot of feedback and there is no doubt more people have got a sense of pride in the city and are spending longer in the city centre.”
Price believes Hull has set the standard for how hosting a major cultural event can be used to a catalyst to invest in buildings, streets and public spaces and create a long-term legacy. He now sees similar potential for Leeds to make the most of its bid for to become European Capital of Culture in 2023.
His company is already involved in the multi-million SOYO scheme in Quarry Hill which include new apartments, bars, restaurants and a hotel. But he says while there are already plenty of development projects taking place across Leeds, the Capital of Culture bid offers the “opportunity to do something big and effect change in a way you wouldn’t otherwise”.
Price believes the redevelopment of Leeds city centre should prioritise the needs of pedestrians. “It should be a more attractive place but it’s not just about that,” he observes. “The city needs to be designed for people rather than cars – this means designing places to slow traffic and prioritise pedestrian movement but it also means creating places that are enjoyable and attractive places to spend time.
“Leeds city centre needs more spaces that can host a programme of cultural events, but also a public realm that fosters everyday streets culture – eating a sandwich, sitting with friends, children playing etc.”
Martin Green, chief executive of Hull City of Culture, says one of the key lessons for Leeds from Hull is the importance of partnership working. “It has been a combined effort by many people and many agencies in the city. No one person can claim responsibility. You can achieve magnificent things if everybody plays their part,” he adds.
“Success was very much about the reaction of people who lived in the city and giving them a sense of ownership. There was always a danger people felt this was being done to them, not for them. This was always a great cultural city and we didn’t start from a blank sheet but we have been able to build on its unique assets and stories and amplify its unique voice.”
Work provides ‘magnificent stage’
Regeneration work has been a vital foundation to the success of the City of Culture year in Hull, says Martin Green.
“One of the key things the council did was give us this magnificent public stage. If you come to the city centre now, it is just a fabulous place to have a mooch about,” he said.
“It is an absolutely textbook example of how improving the public realm then has knock-on effects for the rest of the economy. We have seen it time and time again where people have said I haven’t been to Hull for x months or x years. But there is now an opportunity for people to discover and rediscover the city centre. This is a magnificent legacy for the city that the council has done. The new public realm will be here for a very long time.”