If there’s one line I’ve heard multiple times in the last few years it’s ‘oh no, not more student accommodation!’. For those following Sheffield’s developments, it can seem as if every conversion or new build near the city centre is being developed only for Sheffield’s ever increasing student population.
And they’re not mistaken, student accommodation has been the fastest growing development sector in Sheffield for some time. Why? Because student demands have changed dramatically. A couple of decades ago Sheffield’s students would live in ‘halls’ for their first year and then, typically, move to a shared terrace in neighbourhoods like Broomhill or Hunter’s Bar. Then, when the government introduced student fees, needs and expectations changed, almost overnight. Students now expect modern living accommodation with ensuite bathrooms and communal facilities located close to their Universities and thriving social districts.
Sheffield now has over 50,000 students and many of them are now choosing to live in and around Sheffield’s city centre. I wonder whether, amidst the sighs over yet ‘another student accommodation block’, many people are missing the impact and opportunities that great new student accommodation can bring in regenerating our inner city? Sheffield’s students embrace all that is special about our city – independent shops, interesting cafes, pubs and music venues, as well as access to great countryside. Sheffield regularly features in surveys as one of the best places to study in the UK. The challenge, as I see it, is for the city to keep itself competitive in the student market, remaining attractive to them while making the most of the urban regeneration opportunities that emerge.
New student accommodation can offer opportunities for regeneration of both the urban fabric of our city and help to improve the life and vibrancy of our communities. I believe that good design can have a positive impact on people and society. When HLM Architects designed the new 972 bed Hollis Croft student accommodation sitting just off Broad Lane, we were presented with an area that is full of industrial heritage – but that was left without attention for a long time, leaving a city centre neighbourhood that looked and felt neglected. Student accommodation has started to bring activity back to the area, it now has new shops and presents future opportunities for new cafes, restaurants and retail. Redevelopment in this area is starting to bridge the link between the vibrant neighbourhood of Kelham Island and the city centre. Understanding the potential of sites, such as Hollis Croft, to link areas and integrate students into the life of the city is fundamental to the success of student accommodation design.
So at Hollis Croft, we developed a masterplan which connects the development to the wider city. A new public route through the site, along a long lost historical link, allows easier pedestrian movement between the steep roads in this neighbourhood. Well-designed public realm with activity at street level encourages people to meet, interact and socialise. This encourages the changing residential population to integrate with the local community, increases footfall for local businesses and connects residents to the potential of the wider city. It will make the neighbourhood feel safer, more inviting, and will ultimately create a renewed sense of identity and place. Underpinning the Hollis Croft design is a respect for the heritage of the area. Great care has been taken to retain the historic street patterns which give this quarter its identity and, in turn, a sense of place for residents. The new public realm is predominantly hard landscaped with glimpses between the brick buildings into private internal courtyards, which builds on the industrial character and is rooted in Sheffield’s heritage.
And there is another benefit to these student developments that you may not have considered. In the last decade the number of people looking to buy or rent a home in Sheffield has almost overtaken the stock of affordable housing. By building new accommodation for Sheffield’s students, we can help to release some of our city’s terraced accommodation, meaning that communities can be more mixed – contributing to vibrancy and economic development. So don’t dismiss student housing – it’s vital to the vibrancy of our city, keeps our Universities competitive, and enables a wider urban regeneration of our neighbourhoods that we can all benefit from.
Delia Harmston is Studio Director at HLM Architects in Sheffield.