Empowering the Powerhouse
Hiro Aso in Dialogue 30, London, Transit, Transportation

The scenic north of England is a new focus for economic equity and improved quality of life—the “Northern Powerhouse” that includes cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull. Image © Andrew Hawkes.

This post is part of a blog series related to Dialogue 30, "The Livability Issue.”

For many years, London and the South East region of England have been the focus of many of the UK’s conversations around the economy. But, in the short time since the first mention of the “Northern Powerhouse” proposal, there’s been a tangible shift towards support for the core regions of the North (including the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull).

This year is set to be the “year of the regions,” with the government placing the North’s prospects at the core of its agenda. The wheels are already in motion. In January, Prime Minister Theresa May released an industrial strategy green paper pledging a boost of £556m ($721m USD) for the Northern Powerhouse super-region for major new infrastructure investment, outlining the creation of a world-class transport system linking the cities and towns of the North to revitalise its economy.

Whilst key supporters and stakeholders recognize that the cities will be stronger by working together to develop a robust regional economy, each locality will also need to establish its unique position in the market. This vital piece of the puzzle is unlikely to be a priority for the central government for this reason: it is Northern cities themselves who will be responsible for creating their own identity and cultural legacy.

Key questions are emerging about what kind of visionary cities the Powerhouses of the North need to be, and what kind of cities they want to create. It’s evident that infrastructure will play a hugely important role in the success of the North over the next decades. But, for this investment to be truly visionary, additional coordinated investments will need to be made in science, skills development and culture, some of which are already in the works.

New high-speed rail connections in the heart of Leeds are envisioned as the spark to add essential elements of a vibrant community that’s connected, resilient, inspiring and healthy. Image © David Dixon.

In Leeds, York and Manchester, we are working with key stakeholders to address these questions. We’ve seen first-hand that when foreign investors look to the Northern Powerhouse, they are not only interested in investing in a city with genuine potential to grow, but also cities that embrace the essential elements of a vibrant community—connected, resilient, inspiring and healthy. Social connectivity along with transportation connectivity needs to be of equal standing in a city’s infrastructural agenda, producing resilient cities that are inspiring and healthy for all.

Gensler’s work as primary architect on the Leeds Station Masterplan demonstrates how infrastructure can fuse historic identity with a future vision to create unique and dynamic places. Tapping into the routes of the station’s Victorian heritage, we are incorporating features such as the original brick arches into a 21st century design and including the river that runs through the city into our masterplan. The significance of the River Aire, which has historically divided the city in two, is widely unknown. Leeds is, in fact, an old Celtic term for “fast flowing river.” By bringing local history to life, we are embedding a purpose in infrastructure design that expands beyond functionality, reinforcing a sense of place and authenticity.

The area south of the new Leeds Transit Hub is ripe for close-in redevelopment that will expand the urban core and join disconnected parts of the city. Image © Gensler.

In Leeds, our masterplan must help the city meet its ambitions to make the station a key national landmark and a pivotal driver of regeneration and commerce for the city and region. This vision is shared by all key stakeholders involved in the project, namely Transport for the North, Northern Powerhouse Railway, HS2, Department for Transport, London Continental Railways, West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Leeds City Council. Delivering for a community must not come down solely to constructing anew. It’s also about taking a hard look at our existing systems and structures, and giving our rich heritage‎ a renewed context. We are excited to be part of such a transformative story.

Few cities have undergone the scale of transformation that’s being anticipated in the Northern Powerhouse. But to reach their full potential, these cities face an extraordinary challenge to take these long-term aspirations beyond politics into reality. The major takeaway they need to take on board is the valuable lessons they will learn from each other by working together, rather than looking towards major centres such as London. Arts and culture blended with bustling business, shopping and entertainment districts must be at the heart of what we create to make these cities desirable places to grow, live, work and play. Planning and urban design strategies play a fundamentally important role in supporting this.

By stitching together the city’s disconnected north and south through robust urban strategies that are resilient, connected, healthy and emotionally rich and inspiring, we hope to unlock Leeds as a vibrant capital and one of the key pillars of the Northern Powerhouse.

We see the next generation of northern cities as a community of neighbourhoods, embracing their roots and inspired by a creative spirit. Of course, the journey will not be all plain-sailing—with many challenges and demands. It’s an exciting time to be at the epicentre of this new movement; being a part of creating history through design, the value of which will be felt for decades to come.

Read the full issue of Dialogue here.

Join the conversation: #dialogue30.

Hiro Aso is a leading UK-based specialist in the architectural design and delivery of regenerative transport hubs, with more than 20 years of experience. He has led major railway infrastructure projects in the UK, most notably as lead architect overseeing the multi-award winning redevelopment of London King's Cross Station for Network Rail and Crossrail Bond Street. Contact him at Hiro_Aso@Gensler.com.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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