Magazine Article

Leeds, From Grey to Green

From the "Motorway City" comes the largest city centre park in the UK. This is Leeds' radical transformation from grey space to green.

23 May 2024

Leeds Civic Hall ©️Solomon Charles-Kelly

This case study is taken from Issue One of our magazine, Public Notice. It's informed by the Leeds City Council team’s open call submission and a follow-up interview with their Regeneration Projects Executive, Lee Arnell.

We have seen the growth of pseudo-public spaces popping up across the country, where a public space looks public but is, in fact, privately owned and managed, resulting in limitations on civic freedoms, including protesting. At times like these, it's heartening to see Leeds City Council taking the lead by investing in a vast park and green space to rejuvenate their city centre, and it's inspiring to see this local authority helping to facilitate the delivery of a major new civic space while securing a long-term lease and retaining the management of this asset for the future.

In the 1970s, Leeds proudly promoted itself as ‘The Motorway City.’ It was the first UK city to construct a motorway through its city centre, and ‘letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city’s modernity: Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies’ (1). Since then, much has changed, and this project signifies an enormous shift away from celebrating multi-lane motorways to a forward-thinking city focusing on providing green spaces that have long-term value for the population.

Lee Arnell, Leeds City Council ©️Solomon Charles-Kelly

Aire Park and the Grey to Green project is a remarkable initiative bringing about one of the most significant transformations in Leeds' recent history.

The scheme will deliver substantial climate benefits, with a new mixed-use destination, including the UK's largest new city centre park. The park has a brand-new footbridge, multiple play areas for children, and an outdoor event space.

Construction started in 2018, with the first phases completed in 2022 and 2024, and the mammoth project is a collaboration between Leeds City Council, West Yorkshire Combined Authority and the private developer Vastint.

Public Practice chose this case study as it demonstrates how a council can use its leadership hats to facilitate large-scale, visionary transformation per the city’s vision.

Leeds city centre is home to the River Aire, with the historical centre situated to the north, including the retail hub. The south bank of the river has historically been a centre for industrial use, and for decades, part of the area was used for the headquarters of Tetley Brewery, surrounded by large-scale motorway infrastructure, including four lanes of fast-moving traffic.

Leeds is the economic capital of Yorkshire in terms of economic output. Its broad-based economy has grown over the last 30 years, and the city has a strong base of knowledge-intensive businesses. Home to six universities and a teaching hospital, the original city centre has been expanding and growing south of the river.

The Tetley Building

With this in mind, Leeds City Council developed the ‘South Bank’ concept through co-production with public and private sector partners. The South Bank development is a regeneration initiative aimed at developing the river's south bank with the intent of doubling the size of the city centre. It is not a duplication or a replica of the north of the city, but instead a new vision for a people-centric, mixed-use neighbourhood rather than a pure retail destination.

Taking a step back, in the early 2000s, Leeds as a city and partners had begun to ask what the future vision for the city centre should be. From this, several projects evolved, including a new arena and cultural infrastructure. However, one of the partners' and the public’s most frequent asks and aspirations was for a new city park, a quality green space for families and citizens. This idea planted a seed for what would eventually become Aire Park.

When the Tetley Brewery site became available, it opened a conversation about the future regeneration vision for the South Bank area as a whole. Leeds City Council then embedded the policy of creating a park in the historical Tetley site in collaboration with landowners.

Following this, a city-wide conversation with residents about the centre’s future began, including significant engagement with communities near the South Bank. This area has some of the most economically deprived neighbourhoods in the country. The team worked hard to engage people of all ages and backgrounds to determine what they wanted from the park.

They received an overwhelming 30,000 responses to the South Bank Consultation, with suggestions ranging from a zoo to a wrestling ring!

Aire Park site in development. Photography: Leeds City Council

The data collected showed that while children's play areas were important to residents, it was crucial to have recreational space for people of all ages. People like play; it doesn’t matter how old you are. More importantly, they wanted a place to connect with their family and friends outdoors.

When producing the South Bank Regeneration Framework, Lee Arnell was particularly proud that “20% of all our responses were from the adjacent neighbourhoods, which may traditionally be harder to reach, but in this instance, we found there was so much energy and thought about how to shape the future of the city centre".

"There is something about a park that really captures people’s imaginations”.

Over several years, Leeds City Council conducted these engagement activities with communities and successfully brought together the many different layers of this multifaceted vision.

It’ll come as no surprise that in local government, teams wear many different hats when it comes to place-based leadership. Leeds City Council are the statutory planning authority that determines planning applications and sets policy; they are the highways authority responsible for the city’s roads (including managing those famous seventies motorways); they are one of the landowners associated with the site; and they are the regeneration agency - a team that brings people together to try and unlock, de-risk and accelerate regeneration in line with the city’s inclusive growth ambitions. In the process of delivering this major project, the council has had to wear each leadership hat in different ways at different times. This involved setting a clear planning policy and guidance for the private sector developers, demonstrating what the overarching vision for the park was.

Leeds City Council owns only a small part of the South Bank development site and had to utilise its convening power to facilitate its delivery. It was, therefore, essential to build relationships with private landowners who would be responsible for delivering the majority of the park. There was also a strong desire from partners and communities that the park be managed as a civic asset. The council agreed to secure a 250-year lease at a peppercorn rent with the major landowner to enable this whilst also helping to accelerate and de-risk the delivery of the park.

The partnership with the private developer allows the council to manage the park in perpetuity as a civic asset for the people of Leeds.

Bringing a transformation project of this size and scale to life required a wide range of specialist skills. The project involved strategic and spatial planners, the green spaces team, the council’s regeneration service, and technical expertise, including transport planning. It took years of complex thinking to change decades of highways and attitudes towards movement around the city. The objective was to do this in a way that reduced reliance on cars and increased active travel and sustainable transport. The team drew on a mix of internal and external support, including an external landscape architect, to design areas of the Meadow Lane part of the park.

Meadow Lane Park in development. Photography: Leeds City Council

Having a private developer deliver a large portion of the park, in line with Planning guidance, alongside a piece produced by the council resulted in a collaborative approach that drove the overarching vision. The different but equally essential skill sets brought together by this project were integral to its success and worked harmoniously in the realisation of this complex regeneration.

The best ideas can be the hardest to fund, and funding a cross-departmental project of this complexity was, at times, challenging.

The scheme required £13m of public infrastructure investment and has leveraged over £100m of direct private investment, including new office and housing developments. It could be viewed as a highway project, housing, or regeneration project, which meant applying for and drawing funding from various sources. In Lee’s words, it became “a cocktail of funding”, achieved through the Government's Getting Building fund, the Connecting Leeds programme, and selling council-owned land to be redeveloped into housing as part of the wider masterplan. Thanks to this, 300,000 sq ft of Grade A office is under construction, and a reserved matters planning application has been submitted for 450 residential units.

As part of the development, a new footbridge connecting the northern and southern parts of the city has been named after David Oluwale. David Oluwale came to Leeds from Nigeria in 1949 and suffered from homelessness and mental health barriers (2). He tragically drowned in the River Aire after being chased by two policemen in 1969 (3). Naming the bridge after David Oluwale signifies the city trying to recognise and learn from its past. Recently, as part of the city’s Year of Culture Leeds 2023, a permanent memorial for David Oluwale was installed at Meadow Lane within the park. The memorial is a 10-metre-tall sculpture by Yinka Shonibare called Hibiscus Rising.

The new David Oluwale bridge ©️Solomon Charles-Kelly
Hibiscus Rising sculpture by Yinka Shonibare ©️Solomon Charles-Kelly

This inspirational case study demonstrates the power of having clarity of vision, the flexibility in how to achieve it, and the absolute need for multi-disciplinary, multi-sector and multi-agency collaboration to unlock transformation.

The team will measure their success in various ways when considering the regeneration benefits, including visitor numbers, the number of new houses delivered, the number of new jobs created, and the amount of office floor space. There is also a specific focus on the climate impacts of adapting four lanes of motorway into green space with over 500 new trees. However, the team are mindful that the benefits of the park will ultimately be much more than the physical development it unlocks, such as the civic pride and how inclusive and accessible the park is for all communities of Leeds.

To manage this public space in the long term, the council will use contributions from the income provided by the event space in the park. There will also be a management agreement in place, including an agreed maintenance schedule with the developer, as well as a lease, and the park will be maintained to Green Flag standards.

Once the park is complete, it will diversify the way residents use the city and change the rhythm of how people move around. The project has transformed what was a manifestation of "Leeds Motorway City" into a vibrant, climate-centric mixed-use destination. Lee says, “This is a civic space for everyone in Leeds. It’s a unique development not just about new office spaces, houses, or consumption. It’s about space. A space where people can come together.”

The joy of Leeds City Council's creation will ultimately be measured by the feeling it instils in its residents.

Team

  • Leeds City Council
  • West Yorkshire Combined Authority
  • Vastint UK, and sub contractors
  • Leeds 2023
  • David Oluwale Memorial Association
  • Planit
  • Mott Macdonald and BAM
  • John Sisk and Son

Sources

  1. ‘Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”’, City Monitor, July 2021
  2. 'Remembering Oluwale: A Timeline’, Leeds Beckett University
  3. 'Date set for David Oluwale memorial sculpture unveiling’, BBC News, October 2023

Would you like to read more?

Learn more about the Public Notice magazine, "public placemakers" and their projects.

Contributors

Lee Arnell

Regeneration Projects Executive, Leeds City Council

Solomon Charles-Kelly

Photographer

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