Walking Around Leeds

The Yorkshire and Humber branch of the Landscape Institute organised a walk around Leeds and its recent and upcoming public realm improvements. We were guided by Andrew Price of Re-form landscape architects.

The event had a good turnout of both professionals and students and we were fortunate with the good weather. Throughout the walk, I compiled a set of notes on each of the sites we visited and have written up a small bit about each project.

Sovereign Square

The walk began at Sovereign Square which is a familiar location for us students having studied the design through case studies, but it was particularly valuable to visit the scheme with one of the designers behind the project.

The square is now around three years old and located just south of the train station it is formed of two main sections, the lawns and the rain gardens. A long rill runs through the scheme linking the two sections.

A series of different sized lawns designed to cater to groups of people participating in different types of activities. The lawns are slightly terraced to deal with the approximately 1.5m level change from the east to the west of the site.

Seating comes in the form of a variety of different sitting walls and features surrounding the lawns and of course, informally sitting on the grass is popular when the weather is warmer. Leeds BID also, through the warmer months put beach style deckchairs out on the biggest of the lawns. The surface to the seats is wooden this is because wooden seats are more comfortable to sit on and dry quicker than stone or metal seats. The grass is in places patchy but this is because it is well used, I think that it would be disappointing to see a perfectly manicured lawn that you were unable to sit on or walk over!

The northern end of the scheme is the rain garden positioned between two other long planting beds. The rain garden is one continuous piece of planting that has been designed specifically to retain excess water from surface runoff and underground pipes collecting water from the access road. The planting substrate is very free draining to allow water to be efficiently collected therefore the planting has been designed to be drought tolerant. Due to these dry conditions, the planting took a long time to establish but three years on it is looking very full and healthy. There is an overflow drain to prevent the garden from becoming flooded.

At the very north of the scheme is a large water feature which continually pumps water over the textured stone and gently pulsates. The water feature then continues from north to south in the form of a 70m long rill. The rill is a nod to the industrial history of the site as it once was the location of a goit.

The rill and feature are designed to look like one continuous stream of water but are independent systems. This is because for water to efficiently run down the rill it requires a gradient of at least 1:100 and the site slopes at approximately 1:200, so wherever the rill disappears under a footway and appears to emerge at the other side it is a different and independent rill to prevent a too shallow gradient.

The complicated system of fountains is all powered from a plant room and reservoir situated underground below an area of hard surfacing to the south of the site. We discussed the cost of ongoing maintenance for water features as they are very expensive to keep operational and can look unattractive if abandoned.

Sovereign Square is in a rapidly developing area of Leeds the boarded off area to the west of the site will soon be a hotel. Several office buildings were constructed at the same time as the square bringing pedestrian traffic to a new part of the city. 

At this time, there is still only a small number of people using the space this is because of poor links to the city centre and ongoing development. Therefore, there is very little passive surveillance of the site which has sadly led it to become a home for anti-social behaviour. 

One major issue is the damage caused by skateboarders who manage to evade anti-skateboard devices and damage the stonework. Whilst they do cause damage to the scheme they also display a great deal of skill and it does highlight the need for playful and resilient design to allow these skateboarding activities to continue somewhere without causing damage to public spaces.

Some damage to the seats has been experienced too, however, as the area becomes more developed foot traffic and passive surveillance will increase reducing the antisocial behaviour.

City Square and Boar Lane

We headed north under the railway and across several awkward and dangerous road crossings to what is known as City Square.

City square is the first part of Leeds you come to after the train station and is in a sorry state. The square itself consists of a few Robinia trees and semi-circular arc of Victorian era statues. The small oasis of trees is isolated by fast moving and impermeable traffic creating a space full of pigeons and very few people.

One interesting point we discussed were the disused waterjets which were turned off for good in 2013 because they were deemed no longer viable. Water fountains are expensive to create and costly to maintain. Because of this Andrew highlighted the importance of thinking carefully about using water and making sure the clients are prepared to meet the ongoing costs. A scheme designed with water features that then get disused can look unfinished and unattractive.

As a group, we head east along Boar Lane. The going is slow a considerable amount of our time is spent waiting for pedestrian crossings to change. The space given to pedestrians is minimal especially as it is a key route through the city.

We reconvene by the Corn Exchange, a unique and identifiable building in Leeds. The area is very hostile there are excessive barriers and we are close to traffic. The area feels very hostile.

The area in front of the Corn Exchange is a busy through route for all traffic. We discussed ideas to reduce this traffic to just busses and create a new high quality space that will create a link from the train station to this part of the city.

Playhouse Gardens

Heading down Kirkgate, the oldest street in Leeds, we visited the new Playhouse Gardens. Still not fully complete the new gardens work with the level change in the site to create a series of terraces ascended via several sets of stairs or a series of zig-zagging slopes.

The first thing you see when reaching the gardens from the direction of the city are a long line of bollards. The incredibly unattractive steel columns do serve a purpose, hostile vehicle mitigation. They are designed to withstand large vehicles travelling at speed towards pedestrian areas. As well as being designed to stop an immediate attack they are also a deterrent.

Often a risk assessment is undertaken to evaluate what measures are required to ensure safety. Andrew advised that working with the appropriate police consultants should be at an early stage in the project so required hostile vehicle mitigation could be deployed effectively without a detrimental impact on the scheme.

The terraces are composed of both ornamental planting and lawns. The planting is not established yet but we are assured that it will help to screen off some of the road noise.

Throughout the scheme there is a variety of seating arrangements that cater to multiple uses. They are comfortable and look modern and inviting. We discussed that in some situations seating can double up as hostile vehicle mitigation.

Outside one of the entrances to the play house there is a large level paved area this is to allow events to spill out into the space.

Just above this there is an area which is soon to be home to a large piece of public artwork.

This is a very key site for Leeds as it is a new home of the Leeds City College and a key creative hub for the performing arts. It is also home to BBC Yorkshire. The location is at the end of the Headrow meaning it is the terminus of a key axis of the city.

Conclusion

The walk and tour was informative and I think it was particularly valuable to hear how these schemes have been designed and realised. We were fortunate to have a good insight into the processes and reasoning behind the design.

What I found interesting was seeing how challenging it is to walk across Leeds, how vehicle dominated our city is and learning about what we can do to address this imbalance.

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