Where there’s life there’s Hope Street

When I tottered slightly unsteadily out of the Philharmonic Dining Rooms at closing time on the Saturday of Planning Summer School back in September, I little imagined that two months on I would be helping to celebrate the award of “Great Street 2013” to its address, Hope Street, Liverpool, by the Academy of Urbanism.

Of course the Academy of Urbanism’s very name, and its glitzy annual awards lunch in Covent Garden, conjure up comparison with its more famous namesake – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – and as a new Academician I went along to last Friday’s ceremony fully expecting interminable thankyous to “my mom, my dad, my therapist and my crystal healing practitioner” from each award recipient, as they dabbed their eye elegantly with the corner of a tissue. So the reality – that each winner had to recite a poem specially written for their street, neighbourhood, place, town or city by the Bard of Barnsley, Ian McMillan – came as something of a relief.

Now of course awards are funny things, particularly in the world of planning and development. Buildings are with us for many decades, and yesterday’s award winner can all too often become tomorrow’s abandoned experiment in radical design. But as a member of the Academy you are strongly exhorted to vote – something I found quite difficult when I had to choose between places I had never visited. So when it came to Great Street 2013, I was glad to be able to have Hope Street and Exhibition Road in London to choose from – two streets I have at least walked up and down in the last twelve months.

What I really like about the Academy of Urbanism awards is that they don’t celebrate development for its own sake. Instead their strapline “space, place, life” sums up the philosophy that buildings and spaces merely provide the crucible for what is actually important, which is the life that happens in places. And so it is the combination of the three elements which is celebrated in the awards.

So when Hope Street was announced as the winner in its category, the party which mounted the podium to collect the award consisted not of the Mayor, the City Planning Officer, The Director of Highways and the street paving contractor, but representatives from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Hope Street Hotel, Blackburne House (an educational social enterprise), and the organisers of the annual Hope Street Feast. And they were, in their own words, “chuffed to bits” to have won.

Hope Street does have a range of conventional regeneration credentials of course. It now has its own Community Interest Company – Visit Hope Street CiC; there is a regular programme of festivals; several of the liveliest places are conversions of recently unloved Victorian edifices; and the public realm and traffic calming are very nice too. But of course it is the everyday life on the street that really creates a memorable location.

As regular visitors will know, Hope Street is the centre of “proper” culture in Liverpool. Safely up the hill from the flesh pots of the city centre, it boasts the Philharmonic Hall, the Everyman Theatre (currently under reconstruction), top notch hotels and restaurants, and – for those who are that way inclined – two cathedrals as well of course. And personally I love it. Well most of it anyway. The restaurant in the hugely successful Hope Street Hotel proved a bit too “footballers’ wives” for me (and indeed for my wife, who, whatever other qualities she may have seen in me to justify her choice of life partner, never expected my contribution to our national game to extend beyond making up the numbers for my office team), but there are plenty of other places to choose from.

And as I walked back to Waterloo to get my train after the awards ceremony, down St Martins Lane, through the heart of London theatreland, past the Salisbury pub with its fantastically ornate mirrors (and pretty decent beer), to the Baroque church of St Martin in the Fields at the bottom, I realised why I like Hope Street so much.

Our experience of any place, whether a square, a street, a neighbourhood, town or city, is a product of two different things. One is the life that goes on while we are there. The other is how the place conjures up not just all the other times we have been there, but all the experiences we have had in similar places elsewhere. Yes of course everywhere is in some way unique – but places enable us to access memories, and these are part of our experience all the time we are there.

So every time you are in Hope Street you are experiencing again every pint you’ve had in the Phil, every play you’ve seen at the Everyman and every meal you’ve had at the Side Door for example. And not just that but every experience you have had in streets in other cities with either a similar mix of uses (e.g. St Martins Lane) or similar Georgian roots (large parts of Dublin for example). And this works both ways of course. Whatever planting and street furniture you put around a concrete 1960’s shopping parade on a Council estate, it is going to have to give us the experience of a lifetime to overcome the less than outstanding times we may have spent in such places in the past.

So where does this leave me. Well first of all I have realised that I need a considerable level of emotional literacy when I visit places. I need to be able to ask myself how much of what I am feeling as I walk about is how the place is feeding my memories and my imagination and how much is the life I am experiencing round me. Nothing wrong with both of course – but it is quite handy to know which is which – particularly if it limits our willingness to move out of our locational comfort zones.

But secondly, and more fundamentally, it is that places are indeed merely the crucible in which life takes place. And for those who remember their Chemistry GCSE, a crucible is a very small pot in which very large reactions can take place. But of course without the crucible itself, the reaction couldn’t take place safely at all.

I hope to go and have a look at more of the 2013 Academy award winners over the next year – not least Galway, which will host my nephew’s wedding next summer (brave of it…), and I will report back. In the meantime, to help you celebrate Hope Street’s success, here is Ian McMillan’s poem.

Imagine an axis; imagine a washing line

Hung across a city. Two cathedrals, a theatre

And a hotel hang from the line

And flap in the century’s breeze

This is Hope Street; imagine an artery

Pumping life through a city, imagine

A walk from one end of Hope to the other end

Of Hope on a moonlit evening…

Yes, that’s right. You’re walking through Hope.

Imagine a street where the soul is brightened

And the coffee is the best you can get in a city

That loves to keep itself awake

Hope Street. Aptly named. See you there.

  • Christopher Bamber

    Nicely put, Tim. I like Hope Street too. But … it’s relatively easy to make award-winning urban design in a street with lots of well-heeled footfall, sitting between a gentrified residential area and a university. When we start seeing more of these awards for schemes on the likes of your “concrete 1960s shopping parade on a Council estate”, then we’ll really know we’re getting somewhere.

    • Andrew

      Hope street is in Princes Park ward, Liverpool, in the poorest 1% of wards in the country with mainly housing association residents (93% of residents are in the 10% poorest in the country). Please base your comments on fact not conjecture.

  • scott mccubbin

    Hope Street is a gem, and one that has truly come to life in the last few years. It’s great to see it receive some credit for it’s role in Liverpool and its regeneration.