A modern challenge is perplexing the architecture industry from planners and designers to landscape and commercial architects: How should the public realm be developed?
Amid this debate a community stretching along the River Aire to the south of Leeds city centre is starting to take shape and offer up its own solution to the public realm problem.
Holbeck Urban Village is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in Leeds or, most recently, for the award-winning Round Foundry development, scooping such accolades as RICS Project of the Year in 2005 and the City of Leeds Award for Architecture.
As development starts to take off in the area, with Manor Mills almost complete and The Mint not far behind, it is the turn of Leeds City Council and Yorkshire Forward to make their mark.
Sweet Street, on the south side of the urban village leading into Holbeck, will be one of the first interventions offering a simple solution to a decades old problem of poor connectivity between communities to the south and the city centre. Closed in the 1970s following a traffic accident, the street has remained unused by traffic and pedestrians ever since.
Vanessa Allen, project manager at Leeds City Council, says: "Public realm isn't always about nice public squares and open landscapes with water features. While this has its place, the public realm in the urban village relies on having key routes between communities, opening areas up and making them more accessible for everyone."
The work at Sweet Street, expected to be completed by October of this year, will cost 636,000. It will open the street in a one-way direction towards the centre between Bridge Road and Bath Road.
Open to all vehicles – except those with high-sides – it will include York stone footways, a cycle lane, new street lighting and a 20mph speed limit. High-sided vehicles will be warned by a series of vehicle-activated signs and the carriageway will be reduced to two metres wide underneath to prevent access by large vehicles. A turning circle on the west side of the street will be built so that vehicles can turn around if they miss the signs.
In the meantime, at the opposite entrance to the urban village, work will start in May on Neville Street to transform it into an acclaimed city gateway. Having already won endorsement from the prestigious Northern Way Arts Programme the street is a major conduit used by more than 13,000 people every day. Yet very few know its name and even fewer are impressed by its dingy presence.
With the Scarborough Arms at one end and the Hilton Hotel at the other, this one street acts a major arterial route for visitors and commuters to the city and was last renovated more than 20 years ago. A design team, led by Leeds-based Bauman Lyons, will transform this grimy gateway in a 4.6m redevelopment funded by Leeds City Council, Yorkshire Forward and Northern Way.
Irena Bauman, co-founder of Bauman Lyons Architects, comments: "This scheme is not your average public realm project but it attempts to tackle a very common type of space which can be found in all cities and towns: an underpass below railway infrastructure that presents numerous constraints to work within. The great challenge is to turn a noisy, dirty, dark overcrowded space, used by thousands every day into something practical and safe but at the same time something of beauty that the people of Leeds are proud to have as their gateway."
Drawing together Leeds-based graphic designer Andy Edwards, German artist Hans Peter Kuhn and engineering intelligence in the form of acoustic specialists Arup, Bauman Lyons have devised a scheme, known as "Light Neville Street", which will reduce noise levels, enhance lighting, give an improved sense of safety and security in the tunnel and create a welcoming and impressive entrance to a 21st-century city.
The improvements, expected to be completed by December, will also widen the footpaths by a total of 1.25m (0.75m on the west wall and 0.5m on the east wall) making it a safer environment for people with disabilities to move along the street. An audio installation will be created to soften the traffic noise experienced in the tunnel.
Adding robust, graffiti-resistant, anodised aluminium wall panels will create a contemporary look enhanced by a new lighting scheme on the east wall incorporating thousands of LEDs, improving light levels in the tunnel. A further lighting scheme, installed on the west wall, will subtly remind drivers to watch their speed.
These are just two of the key public realm milestones expected to be achieved in the next 12 months by Leeds City Council and Yorkshire Forward, but The Green Building and Granary Wharf are also expected to be completed over the coming years and they, too, will have to develop for the public realm.
Gillian Kenwrick, development manager at Isis Waterside Regeneration, is confident that Granary Wharf can deliver: "Leeds is a fantastic city made even more so by the natural attractions of public spaces and waterfronts. We have thought carefully about the waterfront and how it will be used. Far from fencing it off for the few, we will open it out to the many and cultivate a thriving community of barges and river boats mixed with festivals and markets."
Granary Wharf will offer an exciting mixed use environment leading visitors through the Dark Arches with their Victorian architectural splendour and encountering an expanse of public open space with restaurants, retail, markets and waterscape activity including a City Inn hotel and a range of 282 homes from studios to three-bed duplexes with terraces overlooking the water.
Just around the corner, the Round Foundry phase 2 continues to develop with many of the commercial units already let.
Sam Moss, co-founder of the Leeds Brewery, based in Holbeck, is busy developing his new pub, The Midnight Bell: "For us, it is about being part of a community. We already supply to many of the pubs in the area and can see it really taking off," he said.
"People who wouldn't have moved south of the Scarborough Hotel or north of the Grove Inn are starting to take an interest in what's in between. We want to be there from the start and the Round Foundry is about as central to it as you can get."
The Round Foundry will include a second-phase media centre further boosting the creative presence in the area and already houses leading architecture bodies such as RIBA and RTPI watching over the public realm as it unfolds.
For more information on Holbeck Urban Village visit: www.holbeckurbanvillage.co.uk