In our latest blog Isabelle Carter reflects on gender, housing and everyday life at Sheffield’s (in) famous Park Hill.
Built in 1957 and still standing today, Park Hill remains one of Sheffield’s most ambitious housing developments. With 995 flats reaching up to thirteen storeys on the hillside overlooking the city centre, the estate epitomised Sheffield City Council’s desire to offer modern ways of living to local people. The estate became famous as a post-war social experiment, with wide ‘streets in the sky’ intended to reconstruct the sense of community that had existed among the streets of more traditional back-to-back housing below.
Since residents first moved to Park Hill, several groups have attempted to determine its success or failure. To this end, architects, sociologists, the council and the press have studied the estate, seeking in particular to uncover women’s perspectives of multi-storey living. These occasionally appeared in newspaper articles and documentaries about Park Hill, in which women attested to the estate’s suitability for families in its early years before later voicing concerns over crime and children’s safety in high flats. However, archived social surveys, interviews and reports enable a more in-depth study of everyday life, documenting the experiences of the residents who spent the most time at Park Hill between the 1950s and the 1970s.
In 1958, a report of Park Hill by Sheffield’s City Architect J. L. Womersley noted ‘facilities on the estate must make life easier for the housewife’. Despite this concession to making domestic life more manageable, traditional understandings of women’s role in the home and community were intrinsic to Park Hill’s design. Architects widened street decks to encourage neighbourly interactions, situated children’s playgrounds near to overlooking windows and balconies, and installed modern household facilities in flats in an effort to cater to women on the estate. For several women responding to a social survey in 1962, these aspects of Park Hill made it ‘a woman’s paradise’, but for others they did little to alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness. The latter was a point of concern for contemporary psychologists, some of whom argued that anxieties associated with living off the ground and seen to be particularly prevalent among young mothers were evidence of ‘high flat neurosis’.
Residents inevitably had mixed feelings towards their homes, but this did not sit well with attempts to evaluate this social experiment. In 1972, the Department of the Environment surveyed ‘1,317 housewives and 369 of their husbands’ across six high-density estates in Sheffield and London respectively, including Park Hill. The Department wanted to quantify levels of resident satisfaction with the layout of their homes. Rather than producing a definitive account of mass, multi-storey living, the report found that the overall opinion of residents at Park Hill was simply that although some liked the estate, others did not. For BBC Radio Sheffield, the report’s ‘inconclusive’ nature demanded a closer inspection. The station dispatched a journalist to speak with a group of women who lived on the estate, but was disappointed to hear a similarly multifaceted representation of life at Park Hill. Women recounted their children’s love for the estate, describing how, despite their personal preference for a house with a garden, their children’s desire to stay persuaded them not to look for housing elsewhere. Another report by the local station in 1973 also found mixed feelings among resident women, with some complaining about noise levels and the lack of play facilities for children at night, while others expressed a sense of satisfaction with Park Hill.
Dichotomous narratives of success and failure replicated in the estate’s existing literature have left little room for this range of perspectives. My research combines archived documents with oral history interviews to move beyond representations of multi-storey estates like Park Hill as merely utopian housing experiments gone wrong. From interviews that I have undertaken over the past year, it is evident that aspects of life beyond housing shaped the lived experiences of both women and men on the estate, from their length of tenure, income, employment status, family and sociability. To some extent, Park Hill’s architects understood this, taking a wholesale approach to planning that encompassed not just housing but the facilities that surrounded it too. Studies that focus primarily on the height and density of the flats and their apparent social effects to gauge the estate’s success or failure do so at the expense of this more detailed picture of everyday life.
Isabelle Carter is a second year WRoCAH-funded PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. Her project explores the social history of multi-storey council housing in Sheffield and Manchester from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Aerial view of Park Hill Flats, John Lord / Flickr.
Women at Park Hill in 1961, Roger Mayne Archive / Mary Evans Picture Library.