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‘Streets In The Sky’, the long and winding history of a Sheffield Icon

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Exiting Sheffield Train Station, you are immediately confronted with one of the UK’s first ever high-rise housing developments.

The Park Hill estate was built in 1968 and has history full of ups and downs. Narrowly escaping demolition in 1988, Park Hill is now a Grade II listed building and mixed tenure Community managed by Places For People. Its history is fascinating, charting much of Northern England’s social and industrial landscape for the last six decades, and has become something of a local icon.

Post-War Revival

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the UK faced a housing crisis. Over two million homes had been destroyed in the Blitz, but even those that survived were often slum-quality: cramped, unsanitary, and breeding grounds of disease and crime alike. This was especially a problem in Sheffield, whose steel industry made it a major target for bombing but also meant workers and their families were confined to slums surrounding the steel works.
 
In the 1960s, there was high hopes that tower block housing was the solution, maximising space by building upwards. Park Hill’s “streets in the sky” became famous around the world as a shining example of the future of housing. With a butcher, a baker, a creche, a primary school, four pubs, and a community centre, Park Hill was set up as its own self-contained community. The external balconies were even wide enough to drive a milk float through! The developers also tried to maintain links to the tenement housing residents had come from, naming floors of the tower blocks after old streets and incorporating repurposed cobblestones into its design. 

Inside, each flat came with all mod-cons of the 1960s, including indoor plumbing which most residents had never experienced before. The estate even featured an early form of renewable energy where household rubbish could be sent to an incinerator which would heat the homes. 

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Homes of the Future  

Eve was born in Park Hill and is the fourth generation of her family to live there. “The way it was marketed was that they would be moving into the communities of the future. They had survived the war and had lived in slum housing and now were being the housing and community that they deserved”. Although brutalist architecture continues to divide opinion, Eve recalled how her nan always found the building so futuristic, "she really felt like Park Hill was like stepping into the future, there was a lot of excitement”.  

However, many people found it hard to transition from the highly communal living they were used to in the slums. “Obviously they were excited to have their own bathrooms and their own running water, but a lot of people also missed seeing their friends, having a gossip at the wash house or the water pump”. The hardship of slum living had also bred a strong sense of community and solidarity that was hard to recreate within the individualised setting of a tower block.  

Decline and Renewal

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Unfortunately, the estate fell into disarray in the late 1970s. Amongst national economic depression, cuts to local council budgets, and the death of the local steel industry, the upkeep of the estate was increasingly difficult to maintain. Park Hill developed a reputation as a “no-go zone” among Sheffield locals.  

“People would leave the train station and take a longer route just to avoid the estate”. However, the estate was still home to many people even during this period. “Life still went on, it was still people’s home. People went to the shop and went to the little school. There was still some community there, even if it had a bad reputation”.  

Park Hill was given Grade II listing by English Heritage 1998 thanks to its brutalist design, protecting it from demolition. In 2002, the estate was bought by Urban Splash developers for just £1 and has since been transformed into a mixed-tenure estate featuring affordable housing, community and commercial spaces. 

A testament to its local iconic status, the estate has been the subject of a musical, ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’, that premiered 8th February 2024. It follows residents of the estate in the 1960s, 1990s, and today. “We went to see it and my nan absolutely loved it! It really celebrated the estate as it was, its ups and downs. It really made you think what could have been if it had been properly funded the whole time”. Sheffield musician Yungblud also celebrated some now-iconic graffiti on the bridge between tower blocks in his song ‘I Love You, Will You Marry Me?’. “The graffiti has now been lit up in neon lights and you can see it across the city which I think is a nice, turning something like graffiti that would have been looked down on as a sign of anti-social behaviour in the past into artwork to be celebrated”.   

Find out more about our history and heritage at Places for People.