Materializing Identities Bricks coming out of the ground: Reconstructing Norfolk Park

by Simone Abram

Introduction: The rise and fall of Norfolk Park

Buildings in the city are one of the most concrete of the material forms in which the city presents itself, and this article considers a form of concrete which tells a great deal about Sheffield and its experiences of post-war material change. However, the actual bricks and mortar are only one element of the materialisation of buildings, and this article reflects on the complex social and socio-technical relations which result in particular types of building. Before the ‘bricks come out of the ground’, the buildings exist as ideas, sometimes in speech, sometimes in texts and images, in policies and plans. During this process, the shape of the buildings may change, their emotional significance shifts, and later they may be changed again through memories and reflections, sometimes recorded and sometimes not. Sheffield has probably seen more than its fair share of iconic building and demolition in the past half century, and although the city centre attracts a lot of attention, the most dramatic changes have occurred in and around the many housing estates once owned and managed by the city council. Iconic modernist mass housing schemes which broadcast Sheffield’s socialist ambitions have given way to public-private partnership schemes of mixed tenancy brick and wood terraces, which are not only metaphors of changing socio-political mores, but reach deeply into the social and emotional lives of city dwellers.

Figure 1: the model estate nestling around the park, from Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield

The story of the Norfolk Park housing estate encapsulates both the heroic and the depressive history of political ambition in Sheffield. In April 1962 The Housing Development Committee of the Corporation of Sheffield published a landmark book entitled ‘Ten years of housing in Sheffield’, which elaborated its grand plans and projects to rebuild the city’s sub-standard housing. (Sheffield City Architect 1962). The text of the book appears in English, French and Russian, which in itself indicates something of the geo-political horizons of the city in the 1950s and 60s. In his foreword to the book, the then chair of the committee, Councillor Harold Lambert, outlines Sheffield’s role as an example not only to other British cities, but internationally, for the integration of individual projects into the overall ‘Town Plan’, and for their response to the particular topography of the city. At that time, development was due to begin in Norfolk Park, ‘to accommodate 9,500 people on an open site 1 mile south of the town centre’ (Ibid: 72) on about 220 acres of land. These were plans with up-to-the-minute ideas, where ‘[t]he layout has been carefully designed to take full advantage of the good ground and to fit into the landscape’, and ‘the whole area is planned for complete segregation of traffic so that one can walk in safety from one’s own door to any part of the estate.’ (p. 73), ambitions that might be found equally admirable today. As such, its portrayal is a classic of rationalist planning, the benevolent council’s gift to the people of the city, designed with the optimum production from the land available and using the most up-to-date design, building materials and construction techniques (prefabricated system-designed concrete).

Figure 2: the estate seen from the city centre

Only thirty years later, in 1994, the city council was describing Norfolk park as a low-demand estate, with increasing problems of vandalism, especially in vacant dwellings, with ‘wholesale breaking of windows and repeated fires in the basements of the tower blocks’ (Sheffield Housing Department 1994). All in all, ‘an atmosphere of environmental decay which makes properties difficult to let’, where aside from a new heating system in the 1980s, ‘the estate has had no major refurbishment since it was built in the 1960s’. At one point, prospective tenants were offered a bunch of keys to visit several flats to see if there was anything they might wish to rent (Ibid.).

Figure 3: The remains of Park Grange tower. Photo: Abram2005

Within another ten years, however, by the early 2000s, Norfolk Park was being described in governmental publications and at national planning conferences as a successful example of a sustainable community redeveloped in partnership between the city council, private developers and the local community ( ODPM 2004 Creating sustainable communities in Yorkshire and the Humber; Room/RTPI Regeneration conference 2005 (Odpm 2005) ‘Sustainable Communities: Homes for All’ p.51).

Figure 4: Miller and Gleeson Homes’ advertising logo for new houses in Norfolk Park ( visited August 2005).

This dramatic rate of change reflects the history of public housing across much of the UK since WWII and the swings of political favour from welfare to laissez-faire, and then ‘Third Way governance’. Residential tower blocks, in particular, as machines-for-living have been a materialisation of changing political ideas and relations, as well as changing property relations. At the same time, though, these rapid changes in the buildings that form our environment have profound effects on the lives of those who live in them and around them. Buildings not only reflect the organisation of people and matter that lead to certain types of building in certain places, but they then have a role in shaping the lives of people within and around them. In a hilly city which displays its suburbs from so many vantage points, the Sheffield estates also have had an iconic role as visual reminders to other city dwellers of the changing fortunes of the city.

Figure 5: Sustainable Communities: Homes for All Chapter 6 ODPM)

I am not aiming in this article to try to account for the decline of the estates, which is characteristic of council housing in Britain under the Conservative governments of Thatcher and Major and the attempts to regenerate under Blair. This story of under-funding, inadequate maintenance, and political alienation is recorded in housing analysis literature which is readily available, and although Sheffield suffered particularly badly during this period, particularly given its high level of council tenanted housing, the roots of its problems are not unique to the city but reflect a wider project, firstly of idealistic paternalistic large-scale slum clearance, to a gradual and catastrophic run-down of council property (see, e.g. Cole and Furbey 1994). What I want to examine, instead, is the re-materialisation of the estate: the story of regeneration. As new housing begins to appear on Norfolk Park, as ‘bricks start coming out of the ground’ (in the Regeneration Team leader’s vivid terms), what are the stories that those bricks represent for the different participants? These new buildings are the material product of a set of relationships between humans and non-human materials, and my aim is to try to reveal some of these relationships. Norfolk Park also exists in documentary form, as texts, pictures, as promotional materials for selling houses (figure 4), but also in promotional materials for ‘selling’ policies (figure 5), and to tell particular stories about the estate, the city, and the idea of regeneration, for example. These different material forms are part of the story of Norfolk Park.


This text is based on research that emerged from the development of a new module on research methods. In 2002, I began to investigate the possibilities of asking diploma students in Town and Regional Planning to conduct original research projects about Norfolk Park. I began by approaching employees and members of Norfolk Park Community Forum, to whom I was introduced by a colleague. Students later visited the estate and were given an introduction to the regeneration process by staff at the forum. The students then designed and conducted short qualitative research projects to investigate the experiences of people who had ‘lived through’ regeneration. After a couple of years, it became clear that the students’ results were limited, partly because each group of students began the project from scratch and struggled to appreciate the history of the regeneration, since their perspective was always related to the current condition of the estate. Additionally, the pace of change was so rapid, and the demands on participants so heavy, that sending increasing numbers of students to Norfolk Park to interview residents or retailers threatened to produce ‘research fatigue’ and become a nuisance. In 2004, therefore, with the support of the University of Sheffield, I began to convert the course into a web-based teaching resource. This meant transferring elements of the course into electronic formats. This was done partly by digitising documents and other resources, but most significantly by filming interviews with key participants, both residents, forum staff, regeneration company employees, city council regeneration team staff, housing managers, and so on. Each interview was edited into a ten-minute clip which students were able to view online. In addition, the interviews and additional footage were edited into a 30 minute film about the regeneration process, to help students think about the kind of narrative they might construct about Norfolk Park. The film is also available on video and dvd for a wider audience, from the University’s media unit. In addition, residents also participated in a radio recording for BBC Radio 4 in August 2005.

The research has therefore included about 20 formal interviews, attendance at a wide range of meetings, for example meetings of the city council’s area panels, regeneration progress meetings, meetings of the community forum; various visits to the estate and formal and informal discussions with those involved with the regeneration, including staff of Sheffield Wildlife Trust. In addition, students have reported on their own interviews, which include interviews with retailers, community police, transport organisations, and a range of local organisations. Students have conducted around 60 individual projects over three years, and I am grateful to be able to use their findings as background to my own writing about Norfolk Park.

Introducing the Norfolk Park estate

Figure 6.: original designs for the twin tower blocks on Norfolk Park (from Ten Years of Housing…)

The first housing estate was built between 1963 and 1966 on open land made up mainly of small holdings, but also dotted with old mine-workings and various geological faults. The building was commissioned and constructed by the City Council as one estate of rented housing. On this difficult steep site, careful surveying allowed the design to include fifteen twin-tower high-rise apartment blocks with 126 apartments each, some 74 four-storey blocks of maisonettes and XX ‘Vic Hallam’ pre-fabricated three-bedroomed terraced houses. The housing was designed to spacious standards, and for a significant number of tenants, the built-in kitchens and fitted bathrooms were a significant improvement on their previous homes.

The project of creating the estate began with a masterplanning process, where the architects envisaged the best of modernist apartment design, with wraparound balconies and penthouses. As the economies of state projects started to draw the project in, however, the designs altered from their original high-specification (see Figure 6) to a more modest design.

Residents remember a number of remedial works on the site, with tower blocks built onto rafts of concrete where the ground stability was poor. The new estate was quickly let, and waiting lists for housing built up rapidly, with indefinite waiting times emerging for the popular ‘Vic Hallam’ terraced houses.

Given that much of the estate was built using prefabricated concrete materials, and that much of the construction was designed to minimise costs, it is perhaps not surprising that where corners were cut, structural problems later emerged. Spalling (weakening of the steel core within the reinforced concrete) and degeneration later found in the maisonettes and tower blocks were hard to remediate. Problems with heating single glazed poorly insulated buildings were addressed to some extent in the 1980s with the installation of a new district heating system. The combined heat-and-power system was run through a network of underground pipes and cables (Owen 1992) . The complex geology resulting from the original instabilities in the ground, plus the cables and pipes of the heating system would inevitably present problems for reconstructing the estate, but it was not envisaged early on in the renewal process that these would be insurmountable. More problematic by the time that rebuild began was the issue of financing the rebuilding project. Given also that much of the accommodation on the estate was empty and hard to let, making space for demolition and reconstruction did not perhaps appear to present particular difficulties.

Regenerating Norfolk Park – involving ‘the community’

If only structural problems had been at stake in Norfolk Park, it is likely that a refurbishment of existing buildings might have been possible. However, there were parallel social problems

Throughout the early 1990s, Sheffield City Council was bidding for various government funding schemes (under the ‘City Challenge’ umbrella) to rescue its run-down housing estates. Demolitions had begun in other parts of Sheffield where estates were considered beyond recuperation (e.g. Kelvin Flats, parts of Hyde Park), and where dwellings were empty and impossible to let. On Norfolk Park, some tenants had been involved in bidding for ‘Housing Action Trust’ status, only to be disappointed by rejection of the bid. In the mid 1990s, the City Council put forward a bid for another government scheme, under the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) funding programme and were successful.

SRB, along with many contemporary schemes, demanded a level of tenant participation, and the Norfolk Park Community Forum established for the HAT bid became the formal channel for community representation in the regeneration process. The extent to which formal organisations actually represent the diverse views and preferences of a large population (of thousands – at least before demolitions began) is, of course, questionable. There is relatively little recognition of the problematic nature of the concept ‘community’ in government policy and practice, and, hence, little strategic advice on how to manage populations. The simple imagined community of fellowship with common experiences and aims is adopted into the policy discourse as though it were a straightforward entity. These is, however, also a local discourse of community among some residents of Norfolk park. Indeed, residents argue that there is a sense of community, a lively set of social networks and what is sometimes referred to in the geographical literature as a ‘sense of place’. That is, people construct Norfolk Park as a place distinct from surrounding neighbourhoods through their talk and actions. Some of the same residents who built up a social life in the early days of the estate (bussing residents to a working men’s club for social evenings, creating estate football teams, brownies and guides, etc), continue to organise social events and clubs for residents of the estate. Representation through a Community Forum or other association may be thorough, politicised and enthusiastic, but it will never be exhaustive, just as no form of political representation is exhaustive. This can lead to a number of problems, however, such as double representation where unelected representatives from community groups may challenge the legitimacy of elected representatives (councillors), or the opportunity for less scrupulous actors to side-track objections to particular parts of the regeneration process by ‘consulting’ or ‘including’ alternative representatives.

However, SRB also required private investors and developers to be partners in the redevelopment scheme, as part of the public-private partnership agenda of the Tory, and then New Labour governments. The first step in the redevelopment of Norfolk Park after funding was achieved was to draw in private investors and development partners. The process began with a competition to appoint lead developers on the regeneration scheme, in which tenants and residents were invited to express their views on the various competition bids.

Four firms were invited to tender for the masterplanning project, each of whom produced drawings with their ‘vision’ for the estate. According to community forum members, the residents overwhelming preference was for a company called Lovells. Their second choice was Miller Homes. Their least preferred entrant was a regeneration and construction company called Gleesons (who had, in fact, been involved in much construction work in Sheffield in the 1950s and 1960s). In the event, Lovells was excluded from the competition as they were being taken over by another company. Millers were then chosen as preferred developer, and appointed a firm of architects from London, Hunter Thompson Architects , to draw up a masterplan. However, they became reluctant to take on the risk associated with such a large project, and invited Gleesons to become partners, leaving the least preferred bidder as by far the largest partner in the project, along with a planning consultancy called Hall and Partners. A new joint-venture company was set up, which included Gleesons and Millers.

This episode typifies several aspects of partnership management and the role of community participation, and explains much about the shape of Norfolk Park as it evolved. The reasons for the choice of developer were made public, but among members of the Community Forum, there is a strong sense that this episode demonstrated that their views were not respected. Even though there were evident reasons why the choice was not implemented, these are often taken to indicate that their interests are sidelined and those of the developers prevailed and continue to prevail. Although ‘the community’ expressed a view, it became subservient to over-riding market priorities. The story is, thus, woven into a series of examples where local knowledge was not respected or taken seriously.

On the city council’s side, such difficulties are part and parcel of the bundle of pressures under which planners and development officers are working to produce a new range of housing under multiple ownerships and management. The regeneration project was managed by a special planning team known as the South Sheffield Regeneration Team (or ‘Regen Team’), which was within the Neighbourhoods Directorate of Sheffield City Council. Members of the team acted as observers on the board of the joint venture company, alongside a ‘lead’ Registered Social Landlord (RSL), North British Housing (which also had further partnership agreements with other social landlords), and members of the community forum, TARA and councillors. Parallel to the regeneration process, the city council’s housing department was gradually externalised to semi-private companies, or ‘Arms Length Management Organisations’ (ALMO’s), so that the Regeneration Team was working both with the councils’ southern area housing team and the ALMO. In the Regen Team leader’s own terms, this large scale project is managed by ‘a very loose partnership between the community, the council, the developer and RSL North British’. As he explained, ‘the whole thing is driven by a very complex development agreement which is between the city council and the developers…’, an arrangement which he described as ‘extremely complicated’ and ‘at times extremely frustrating’.

Figure 7: Images of houses/streets from the masterplan proposals, copyright HTA architects

The plans which were first put forward by the developers’ architects portrayed a leafy but densely populated suburb focused around a social centre with a ‘cyber-centre’ forming the focal point between the primary school, health centre, shops and other community facilities. Around this appeared various kinds of apartment blocks and streets of low-rise apartments and terraces.

Figure 8: Site vision from masterplan proposals, copyright HTA Architects

Artist’s impressions included in the early plans were seen locally as futuristic and ambitious (Figure 8). Commonly, such so-called masterplans are seen as blue prints for action and, indeed, this is how planners often tend to portray planning documents. It is a common-sense understanding of plans that they indicate the shape of future activities. However, in practice, masterplans tend to have a rather more symbolic than instrumental role. These masterplans are not like architectural plans which builders work to, but are outlines of possibilities and priorities. They may identify site boundaries, key developers, general features of the kinds of buildings to be prioritised (heights, densities, etc), the kinds of arrangements to be put in place to retain community facilities, and so forth. These form the basis for negotiation between the planning authority (i.e. the city council), developers and builders. The masterplan that emerged was used, then, as documentary evidence that the project had been thought through, and served, amongst other things, as a business plan to secure further funding. This kind of document seems to have a life of its own, where its content only bears a tangential relationship to what is eventually built. It circulates as a particular materialisation of the future estate, to provide an alibi for financial planning, and to generate belief in a possible future which is radically different from the present. It also functions as a lobbying document, to persuade later actors to adopt the same priorities as its authors. As it is commissioned from a secondary firm (usually, as in this case, architects), it can be one step removed from the management firm, in this case, the Norfolk Park Joint Venture Company, allowing the management firm to avoid complete commitment to it as a blueprint. The ideals expressed in the document remain ideals, often treated as ambitious goals to be aimed at rather than concrete outcomes to be implemented. Master planning, therefore, is more an art than a technology, and much of that art lies in negotiating difficult relations between parties with often conflicting interests.

Deviations and abnormals

In the case of Norfolk Park, deviations from the plan took two main forms. The first was related to unexpected opportunities, and the second to unexpected conditions. One of the city councillors for Norfolk Park outlined that the masterplan needed to contain a certain amount of flexibility. Various deviations therefore occurred through site swaps, for example. Although the original masterplan did not include any indication that the local primary school should be rebuilt,

When you get an opportunity to have a brand new primary school you don’t say, ‘no that’s not in the Master Plan’.

When funds became available to rebuild the primary school, a site was decided on by the education authority which was between two existing primary schools. The new Norfolk Park Community School was an opportunity to put into practice some of the more environmental ambitions held in Sheffield, and the city architect’s department oversaw the construction of a school with a green roof, grey water recycling, and other environmental assets. However, the new site was some way from the old school, which had been near the shopping centre, health centre and community forum offices. The removal of the school to a new site undermined the viability of the other services considerably, since the main attraction of local shops is that they are convenient to local people. Hence, having a small shop near the school is convenient for parents taking or collecting children from school and with this additional turnover it can better serve other local residents. Without this added custom, and with the loss of so many residents during the reconstruction process, all but two local shops have closed, leaving only a combined post office and pharmacy, and a grocer, alongside the Community Forum’s offices.

In other words, the new school may be a success on its own terms, but it has not been incorporated into an integrated vision of the redevelopment of the whole estate. Deviations and site-swaps have been treated as exceptions to the plan, and are one important way in which material outcomes deviate from planned outcomes.

The second kind of deviation, known as ‘abnormals’ were problems encountered between the planning and building stages. In particular, grounds conditions, such as geological faults, the remains of Combined Heat and Power cables and pipes found underground, and occasional old mine shafts were discovered once builders moved onto site, causing significant delays, not only for remedial ground works, but more significantly for negotiations over how these works would be funded. Some cause disbelief among residents on the estate for two main reasons. One is the appearance of stability problems on previously developed sites, as a member of the forum staff explained:

It does seem quite strange from the community’s perspective as to why a site which held two 16-17 storey tower blocks upon it suddenly provided problems in terms of stability when it was proposed on that site to put 2-3 bedroomed houses and that’s difficult for me to understand. I’m not a structural surveyor or a geologist but it does seem strange, you know the sheer weight of a tower block and concrete and then replace it with 2 bedroomed houses and all of a sudden there’s half a million pounds worth of concrete required to stabilise the land; it seems rather strange.

The other reason can be summarised as the loss of local knowledge. Local knowledge is often thought of in policy terms as knowledge of local history and social history, yet local knowledge can also be highly technical. Detailed knowledge of local geology, ecology, topology and microclimates are forms of local knowledge often overlooked in the development process. In Norfolk Park, collectively, residents knew a great deal about where the geological faults lay, and where the district heating system was located, as well as the relative safety of different areas. They also knew how strong the winds blew down over the estate, not least after a resident was once knocked off her feet and onto a road by strong winds. Although a number of residents did talk to planners and architects about these issues, it appears that they were not taken particularly seriously until planners and developers personally experienced the ferocious winds coming off the moors. Many of the ‘abnormals’ came as no particular surprise to long-term residents, and yet they caused significant delays and extra costs. The detailed geological knowledge gained during the initial building of the estate in the 1960s appears to have been lost, so that despite detailed planning, the land itself began to make its presence felt by presenting obstacles. We can imagine the land itself as a kind of actor in this scenario, subverting and undermining (sometimes literally) the ambitions of developers and planners.

Social planning

The agreed version of the master plan was mostly converted into a document called ‘supplementary planning guidance’, which has a formal status in the management of the development process as a site-specific supplement to standard existing planning guidance issued by the government or the City Council. It forms the reference point for any planning applications made for any of the sites in the regeneration. However, it is not an implementation plan, as it is not the basis for a plan of action, for example. Any development still has to be initiated by a developer who may apply for permission to develop with reference to a part of the supplementary planning guidance. The plan does not materialise the estate, then, in a literal or direct sense, but offers a partial and fluid objectification of possible futures. It remains a relatively abstract and technical set of policies.

There are various references to involving local communities in the supplementary planning guidance, and a whole section in the masterplan refers to social and community development. These documents stress the importance of economic development and the replacement and improvement of community facilities. In particular, a role is envisaged for a community development organisation to run training programmes, develop community-based companies, the necessity of centrally located health care facilities, small shops and so on. This ‘social masterplan’ was interpreted by local organisations as a commitment to securing facilities for existing and future residents on the estate.

An early draft ‘Design Guide’ (Enterprise.Plc 1999) states:

‘The strategy… is centred on local involvement, support and partnership. Both the physical and social projects which we have indicated will only be successful if they tackle real issues within the community, and have the support of the community and key organisations currently resident or associated with the area.’ (4.4.1)

indeed, the document makes a great deal of issues raised by local residents, such as the following:

‘a key concern raised by residents is the need to ensure that service and facilities developed as part of the regeneration of Norfolk Park are accessible to everyone’


‘the provision of accommodation for community resource provision…, retail and primary healthcare services is considered to be of primary importance to the regeneration of Norfolk Park.’ (

Indeed, various professionals declare a willingness to work with local residents and organisations, and some make claims to have ‘fully consulted’ local people, such as the regeneration manager of the development company, Gleesons regeneration.

Funding (makes the world go round)

Much of the funding gained for Norfolk Park was so-called ‘gap-funding’. This is intended to fill the gap between the cost of works and the market value of final products, and is a standard response to regeneration of difficult areas. However, gap-funding is a rather complex concept, as it forms part of a speculative exercise. We may be familiar with ideas about trends and changes in housing markets, yet what does this actually refer to? The ‘housing market’ is an agglomeration of myriad transactions or exchanges between different people, where price is part of a set of negotiations. When deciding how much to invest in a building, the investor tries to estimate potential revenue from the investment, and in the case of housing, this is usually in terms of either rent or sale value. Making such estimations is always hazardous, since such large investments are often sensitive to wider changes such as interest rate changes, wider national or global events, employment changes, and so on. Regeneration is one of the contexts where estimating saleable or rentable value becomes precarious, precisely because it is not only subject to wider conditions, but because regeneration itself aims to alter the value of property in the regeneration area (and sometimes beyond). Whatever the mechanism for calculating the amount of funding awarded, what is interesting here is the understandings among different participants of the significance of the funding. These vary widely. Many residents do report a sense of outrage that all the money was spent in the demolition process before a single house appeared. On the other hand, a project manager for the development company claimed that the project had not received any government funding. Clearly there are widely divergent understandings of the regeneration process at play.

In the process, though, finance is often described as taking on the role of fuel in a technological process. While all the elements may be in place – ideas, knowledge, materials, labour – it is only once finance is injected that the disparate elements come together into a process of demolition and construction. Clearly, different parties imagine the fuel being used to different ends (a social utopia, a corporate profit, the fulfilment of policy, etc), and some see it as more central than others. The amount of fuel needed for different partners also varied widely, with some community-focused projects requiring more goodwill than finance, and private housing developments requiring large injections of funding. It is also clear that, just as engines need oil as well as fuel, goodwill and co-operation were equally vital to generating activity, as the developers found out to their cost.

Gleesons is an umbrella organisation consisting of separate companies. Gleesons Regeneration was a partner in the Norfolk Park Joint Venture Company, which contracted Gleesons Construction to do the construction work on Norfolk Park. However, while the regeneration project was underway in Norfolk Park, the same development company was building smart apartments in the centre of town, which promised to be much more lucrative. The construction arm thus appears to have chosen to direct its limited labour supply to the city centre, leaving Norfolk Park falling further and further behind schedule. Although the contract contained penalty clauses, it was almost impossible to enforce them as, at the limit, one part of Gleesons would have been obliged to chase another part through the courts. Consequently, delays became extended despite funding being available. Even so, despite this and other examples to the contrary, the belief that money is what makes projects move remains current.

‘Meeting’ (into) the future

Materialisation can also be temporary, or to put it another way, the imagined estate can be performed. Alongside the bricks and blocks appearing in the landscape, objects and buildings, as well as people and other creatures, are conjured up through speech, just as they are through the images and texts mentioned above. An ephemeral set of ideas about built objects may be contested and consolidated through enactment. The long series of meetings held in and around the estate about its future can be thought of as this kind of enactment of the estate. I mean this in two senses. Firstly, that the idea of a whole, a complete ‘estate’ can be brought into existence from the various entities which make up its content and its boundaries, through the statement of their inclusion. Thinking of the estate as a ‘polythetic classification’ (Needham), in the Kantian tradition, the word ‘estate’ is used to conjure a category whose content is not consistent nor stable. It varies both through time, and between individuals’ expressions of the potential content of their imagined estate. Secondly, the estate is conjured in various forms to express different intents. The original agreed masterplan fulfilled an idea of a ‘holistic spatially planned’ future, and this was managed through discussions about tying in different plots and sites, with social and economic activities, for example. Multiple versions of the imagined estate have had temporary existence as they have been negotiated and discussed between parties to the regeneration. Hence one of the roots of misunderstanding between parties to the regeneration lies in the fact that different people hold on to different versions of the future estate. As its form changes in time, there are nodes of solidity in the form of different documents, images, texts or policies, that are not consistent with each other.

This suggestion may appear to take forward the idea of the textual material of plans as a material form rather far. Is any discussion about the estate material? Isn’t that rather tenuous? In a sense, it challenges our taken-for-granted assumptions about what is material to suggest that talk is material, as we commonly define talk as immaterial. However, the substance and energy of a group of people spending an amount of time together in discussion is also a material form, if only temporarily. In that sense, it is worth our while thinking about the material form of these meetings as another manifestation of the regeneration process. As the regeneration team leader implicitly suggested, the ‘bricks coming out of the ground’ are only one, relatively tardy, outcome of a long series of activities. Early on in the detailed planning process, architectural consultants met with residents and their representatives on a fortnightly basis, and once these plans were converted into ‘supplementary planning guidance’, the City Council’s regeneration management team met regularly with various resident groups and other local actors. The content of these meetings varied from clearing up detailed complaints about some of the changes around the estate, to discussions of strategic issues. However, a striking element of the more strategic meetings was the consistency of the requests made by residents. Attending meetings about ‘strategic’ issues, both for the estate as a whole and for the Community Forum, over the space of four years, it was remarkable that local ambitions for a eco-estate with high-quality public services remained strong, even though the estate materialising around them reflected little of these ideals. On the other hand, discussion of broader issues about the management of the regeneration could easily be sidelined by arguments about particular problems such as inconvenient parking, lack of paths or handrails, etc. This was often interpreted by professionals as the indiscipline of residents to the structures of meetings, yet it seems not to have been analysed as a product of the structure of meetings themselves. Whose typology is the categorisation of issues into broad, narrow, general, specific? When residents consistently attended meetings to complain or enquire about trees and lights, this could indicate a lack of other forums for effective communication about such issues. That is to say, that if these public meetings were the key point of communication between residents and managers, it is perhaps not surprising that ambitious discussions of visions or strategies might seem irrelevant to people whose demands for paving or lighting were otherwise unmet. It should also be noted that representatives of the development company never attended these meetings.

Striking, too, was the ritualised nature of public meetings, with a secure hierarchy of performers (speakers) and audience, which adopted the formal procedures of speaking ‘through the chair’ (addressing all comments to the person chairing the meeting – usually one of the local councillors), following an agenda, and so on. Although there were other types of meetings or events, these core business meetings were formal, routinised, often long and possibly tedious. Indeed, they were also often frustrating for participants, when questions raised at one meeting were referred back for information given at a following meeting, possibly some weeks later, and possibly little action before another subsequent meeting. Meetings thus became points at which normal time collapsed into a series of folding layers, where evocations of previous meetings and different states of the regeneration programme were evoked and contested, sometimes with the aid of previously-circulated documents or different versions of plans.


A key distinction in the imagining of buildings in the landscape tends to lie in the point of perspective lying either at ground-level, within the landscape, and the birds-eye view of the plan or map. Planners and developers tend to work overwhelmingly with plan-views, so that even if they are familiar with the landscape, their interpretation of it tends to work to site-plans and geographical overviews. However, another, more symbolic, set of imaginary structures exists in abstract policies and guidelines whose materialisation is much more difficult to demonstrate. These more abstract structures are materialised via other activities such as planning permissions or building contracts, where they are negotiated into agreements which later take on material form. In the complex world of partnership management, the conceptual distances between abstract, visual, and lived materialisations of the urban landscape present layered complexities which often lead to misunderstandings and frustrations for the participants, not least when they contradict or fail to relate to one another.

Materialising the imagined built landscape is a process which is multi-layered in a number of ways, temporally, spatially and symbolically. Any one building will have existed in alternate forms, in the imagination, in discussion, in text and images and in separate material elements brought together to make a construction. A whole estate can be seen to emerge from many layers of imagined futures, succeeding each other through contest and negotiation, where all the elements contributing to the process can have contributing or undermining effects. Norfolk Park’s very visual changing landscape can be seen from across the city as the removal of tower blocks and their replacement with red and orange houses winding up the hillside, but behind the bricks lie a host of stories about how those houses came into being.


Cole, I. and Furbey, R. 1994. The eclipse of council housing. London: Routledge.
Enterprise.plc 1999. Norfolk park: The design guide. Consultation draft.
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ODPM 2005. Sustainable communities:Homes for all. London HMSO (visited August, 2005) – this link is now broken due to an ODPM website reorganisation. An alternative can be found here.
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Sheffield City Architect 1962. Ten years of housing in sheffield, 1953-1963. Sheffield, Eng.: Housing Development Committee of the Corporation of Sheffield.
Sheffield Housing Department 1994. Sheffield’s housing strategy 1994 – in focus. Sheffield: Sheffield City Council.