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From Slums to Skate Parks to Shopping: The History of the Broadmarsh

15 June 20 words: Dan O'Neill
illustrations: Agnes Papp

From slums and skate parks, to shopping centres and abandoned residential plans, the intu Broadmarsh Centre has long proved to be a problematic piece of architecture in Nottingham’s cityscape. Plans have come and gone, ownership has changed hands, and promises have been made. As work on the latest development plans by current owners intu grind to a halt, Dan O’Neill explores the turbulent history of the Lister Gate location...

 

At the turn of the twentieth century, long before the Broadmarsh shopping centre was built, the streets just south of Nottingham’s city centre formed a large slum. A police report from 1892 described the back-to-back houses of the Broad Marsh area as being in a “dilapidated condition” and residents of the neighbourhood as being “very poor” but “respectable”, apart from two houses of thieves. Mixed in with the houses stood a school, a Methodist chapel and various industrial buildings, such as John Player’s first tobacco factory which he bought in 1877. The area’s population tended to work in Nottingham’s nearby lace and hosiery industries, as well as cleaning, labouring, hawking and peddling. They formed a lively working-class community where residents took an interest in each other’s lives and children played together in the streets.

Running through the middle of the area and lined with shops and traders, Sussex Street served as a hub for this community. In 1928, Nottingham artist Hilda Smith recorded her encounter with the locals as she sat and painted in Sussex Street: 

“Immediately I sit down they surround me; myriads of urchins of different sizes and different states of cleanliness or dirtiness…  The children all surge round and I have to keep elbowing them away, telling them I can’t breathe. They move for a second and then approach again. One knocks over my water jar. ‘Shall I fill it?’ they cry. I say ‘Yes please’ and an urchin grabs it and runs off. He returns with it filled with clean water and I proceed… As the sketch progresses the older ones comment. More honest and scathing criticism I have never met.

Distinctive British skate spots are also being lost, replaced with contemporary architecture which is no longer experimental and communal but efficient and defensive

‘Sort o’ scribbly, ain’t it?’

‘Could drorit better mesen…’

[Later] the critics become less scathing. They even begin to like the picture as they recognise various doorways and windows.

‘That’s our lavatory door.’

‘Not bad, is it, considerin’ she’s a woman.’

‘There, she’s finished. Now ain’t it good. She’s a real artist.’”

The poor housing conditions and overcrowding of the Broad Marsh area provided a significant problem for Nottingham Council and they took the decision to clear the slum during the thirties, replacing the dilapidated back-to-backs with new council housing on Cliff Road. The area thus retained its mix of housing and industrial sites until the sixties, when ambitious new plans for Nottingham were unveiled.

Like most other major towns and cities in Britain, Nottingham looked to redevelop and renew its city centre during the fifties and sixties. British society was changing during this period as wartime austerity and rationing gave way to affluence and mass consumption. The council looked “to replan Nottingham to meet the needs of the future”, stressing that the city risked becoming “bedlam” if it didn’t change to meet the needs of increasing car ownership

One solution favoured by councils and post-war planners was the pedestrianised shopping centre. Here, shoppers could park up and walk safely around these modern cathedrals to consumption, away from the grime and din of the city’s busy roads. The mid-sixties saw plans for two ambitious developments for Nottingham being unveiled: the Victoria Centre to the north of the city centre, and the Broadmarsh Centre (or the Arndale Centre as it was initially going to be called) to the south.

Originally, both developments were designed to be commercial and residential in scope. Alongside the American-style shopping malls, both the Victoria and Broadmarsh centres were to provide a large number of new council flats contained in high-rise tower blocks. The sixties were a period when architects and city planners idealistically sought to create ‘streets in the sky’ via high-density housing projects. High-rise blocks of flats, with people living in close proximity to one another, were seen as a solution to the problem of maintaining a sense of community in the face of slum clearances and the spread of city populations outwards into the suburbs.

In 1965, Ian Fraser and Associates, the architects responsible for the Broadmarsh project, initially put forward a design which kept the shopping area to one floor of the building and included three high-rise towers positioned on top of the centre’s roof. These were to provide the city with an additional 360 council flats and the architects talked romantically of people living in the “air space” above the shopping centre. Social amenities for the flats were to include a créche, a garden and two children’s playgrounds; one on the building’s ground floor and the other just to the east of the shopping centre at Sussex Street.

Unlike the Victoria Centre, however, the final Broadmarsh Centre did not include any social housing. The absence of the three tower blocks from the completed building reflected changing attitudes towards high-rise housing developments. In May 1968, a gas explosion blew out one of the supporting walls of a newly built tower block in East London, killing four residents. Decades before Grenfell, the Ronan Point tragedy starkly demonstrated the safety issues affecting many of these quickly-erected blocks of flats. In the aftermath of the disaster, the Ministry of Housing announced it would discourage the building of any more high-rise housing developments.

With the plan for residential tower blocks in tatters, the Broadmarsh scheme faced a further challenge. A series of public enquiries was held into the treatment of various historic roads and sites under the proposed development, after objections had been made by various members of the public. Revised designs for the shopping centre made a greater effort to accommodate the caves to the north east of the site, but it was decided that historic streets like Drury Hill would still be demolished.

The revised plans reflected the ambivalence of city planners in the sixties towards historic sites. In the rush to modernise the city centre, little consideration was given to places of historic interest other than grander structures like churches and townhouses. For instance, St. Nicholas Church on Maid Marian Way had, at one point, a graveyard attached to it. In preparation for the building of the Broadmarsh centre, the graves were dug up and the bodies moved to Wilford Hill cemetery and the now-empty graveyard transformed into a car park

In 1970, the council expressed their concern that the new, towerless plans for the Broadmarsh centre had removed the “ancillary features” originally envisioned for the site, but admitted that they did not think that any “worthwhile useable space” could be made out of the now leftover area in Sussex Street. Nevertheless, as the Broadmarsh centre was constructed between 1971 and 1974, Broadmarsh’s architects decided to press on with building the proposed playground. Despite the lack of housing included in the revised Broadmarsh scheme, the Sussex Street site could still serve both the shopping centre and the existing social housing around the corner at Cliff Road.

While the current redevelopment of intu Broadmarsh stalls due to the uncertainty around the coronavirus and the purported financial situation of current owners, the next phase in the site’s history seems unclear

The playground had a unique design, thanks to Broadmarsh’s architects. It featured six earth mounds covered in bricks, the two largest of which were connected by a bridge. One featured a ladder and slide for children to play on. The site also included what the architect’s plans called a “totum [sic] pole”, on which were secured several sculptures of historical figures such as William Shakespeare, Robert Burns and, regrettably, Cecil Rhodes. The plans indicated that these came from Burton’s, which may have been a reference to the grocery shop whose premises were in Smithy Row, by the Market Square. 

The Sussex Street playground reflected, on a far smaller scale, the experimental design and concern for civic identity which was characteristic of the so-called ‘brutalist’ style of architecture that was popular during the post-war period. The playground echoed the banked surfaces of buildings like London’s Southbank Centre and the Barbican’s brick curves.

Unfortunately, as early as 1975 landscapers working on the Sussex Street playground noted the “vandalism problem of the area”. The bridge between the mounds had been broken and was removed, and damaged trees were replaced. The playground was surrounded by the ascending road on one side and a railway viaduct on the other, isolating it from the outside world. The site typified a problem that architecture from the sixties and seventies suffered from. Critics would argue that the blind spots and labyrinthine walkways of post-war buildings acted as incubators for crime and anti-social behaviour.

This apparent problem could, however, act in a positive way. From the late seventies onwards, Sussex Street became a hive of activity and creative energy. Secluded from the public and the rest of the city, the space was colonised by skateboarders and BMX riders who interpreted the playground’s unique design in their own way. The brick banks’ unconventional contours made for a unique spot, with the humps challenging skaters in a way that few other skate spots could. Becoming known as the ‘Broadmarsh Banks’, the Sussex Street space featured in videos and on the front cover of national magazines. 

Much like London’s Southbank skate spot, the Broadmarsh Banks moulded generations of Nottingham skaters and they became a recognisable space which attracted visitors from around the country. The colonisation of the banks was an example of what urban theorist Jane Jacobs has referred to as “healthy street life”; skaters and BMXers brought liveliness and camaraderie to a marginalised part of the city, self-regulating the spot and discouraging more anti-social behaviours and crime.

Sadly, the banks were demolished in 2009 as the then owners of Broadmarsh, Westfield, attempted to redevelop the site and wrongly suspected that there was a heating pipe underneath the skate spot. The destruction of the Broadmarsh Banks reflects a wider trend within British cities. Many buildings from the sixties and seventies are now being demolished, as they cease to be useful and their upkeep costs become prohibitive. Along with the disappearance of these buildings, a host of distinctive British skate spots are also being lost, replaced with contemporary architecture which is no longer experimental and communal but is efficient and defensive. Architects now design spaces to be explicitly uninviting to ‘undesirable’ groups. Grooves are cut into ledges and railings are placed on banks in order to prevent skateboarding. Metal studs are placed on windowsills and on floors to prevent homeless people from sheltering there. Architect David Knight argues that these design strategies privilege dominant users of the city (primarily middle-aged, professional and able-bodied men) and consequently hinder the access to urban space of young people, women, the differently-abled and people from lower income groups.

While the current redevelopment of intu Broadmarsh stalls due to the uncertainty around the coronavirus and the purported financial situation of current owners, the next phase in the site’s history seems unclear. The council has reiterated its commitment to the project, which includes plans to remake Sussex Street into a more open public space. The current redevelopment presents an opportunity to embrace the area’s past and create a space which has real value, in a non-commercial sense. Creating skateable architecture in Sussex Street would encourage young people to engage with their city in a meaningful way, bringing fun and joy as well as “healthy street life” back into a neglected part of Nottingham. If the council are serious about creating a “liveable” city, then they need to engage with the uses and values that residents of all ages and backgrounds can draw from their public spaces. Only then will real vibrancy be brought back to Broadmarsh.

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