This morning’s announcement by the UK government about the preferred route of the proposed ‘High Speed 2’ rail line north of Birmingham raises, quite rightly, the issue of economic impact and its geographic spread. Will the line draw commerce north, or make it even easier to pull southwards towards London’s greater critical mass?
One way in to the problem is to ask: who will take these trains, or rather: where will they have come from when they get on and where will they be going once they get off? In other words, to consider the total passenger journey.
History tells us through the footprint of human settlement worldwide that economic production is greatest in urban centres. The planet’s continued growth towards cities, despite all recent developments in mobile and online communications, suggests the trend is here to stay. HS2 should bear this urban imperative in mind.
The major stations planned along the high-speed route should be urban places, keeping faith with the economic/civic partnership that has prevailed for centuries. Not the coal-scarred, illicit marketplaces of Victorian times but the smart urban places that railway stations now can be, in the manner of HS1’s St Pancras and its ever-improving, over-the-plaza cousin King’s Cross.
The mantle of urbanism should be wrapped around each stop along HS2’s rail corridors. But what does this entail? In short, great streets and spaces, lined with buildings. It need not be more complicated than that.
Looking at two of the proposed stations:
– The hub at Birmingham Curzon Street – the eye of the Y – should not only be the most efficient piece of transport interchange but also a great urban centre, providing ready access to local businesses. All the components for this to happen are there, not least in the continuously connected grid system of streets that runs right up to, and passes through, the currently empty site. Like electrical leads or water conduits, these streets should be plugged into the new station to deliver its passengers from and take them away to nearby destinations on foot, on bicycles, on public transport. However they get there, their urban journeys should, as far as possible, be short.
Not only this, these streets should connect right through the station, as they currently do, allowing people to travel across the city using the new station as a destination en route, further enhancing its commercial value as real estate. The many millions of sandwiches and lattes sold annually at Liverpool Street Station to local business people cutting through the station are testament to the commercial effectiveness of urban connectivity covered frequently in this blog.
The fine-grained nature of Liverpool Street would be well-emulated at Curzon Street. The worst of all worlds would be to land this major rail hub in the heart of the city and for the enormous station buildings to then block out all life around them. The wealth of great cities – in their people, goods, ideas and innovations – flows through streets. Indeed, streets and public spaces become the creators of economic activity through the simultaneity of serendipitous contact and leisurely reflection that they permit. The more direct and well connected, the more efficient the flow and the more valuable the real estate created.
– Further north, Meadowhall must be more than a gateway to a major shopping centre, however useful that will be. This station’s success will also come down to the quality of the urban neighbourhoods that it creates around it. For this to happen in the currently fragmentary street network of north Sheffield, a web of new, simple, direct and connected streets and public spaces needs to be created, each of which can be lined by offices, apartments, houses and other urban amenities: schools, health centres, parks and sports facilities.
If successful, Meadowhall will raise another challenge: to the historic centre of Sheffield several miles further south. The challenge? To compete or to collaborate. To split the city and rival one another for the same customers, or to work together as more than the sum of their parts. For the latter outcome to be avoided, the two centres will need to work as one, which will again require efficient connectivity: strong public transport connections, as sleek, modern and efficient as HS2’s ‘shinkansen’ trains.
If the urban opportunities created by HS2 are seized then enormous local wealth can be created around the project’s many new stations. In this way, the economic-drag towards London can be countered. This requires investment – of money to invest, time to study and political will to lead.
If local urban connectivity is not deemed to be as important as global reach then an important opportunity for the growth of England’s city centres of economic productivity will be lost. If this were to happen then the southern railhead at Euston may well be the winner, enveloped as it is in the highly connected urban fabric of London’s street network.
Written on HS1. Making use of productive time that the HS2 economic equation considers to be unproductive. But that’s another story…