What should cities do with ‘dark sites’, where tragic or sinister events occurred?

High Royds Hospital, Leeds. Image: 0742 Mark Mozaz Wallis/Wikimedia Commons.

Disused buildings are an inevitable feature of urban landscapes. Businesses move premises and areas become undesirable; think of Hull’s ‘ghost estate’ or Liverpool’s deserted Garrick Street, where houses were sold by the council for just £1. Disused buildings and sites are a waste of valuable land, and can be addressed in two ways: demolition or re-development.

Deciding which can be controversial. In my corner of Leeds, debate is currently raging over whether to preserve or build over a historic Victorian train tunnel. Yet there is a consensus that something needs to be done – that abandoned structures cannot be left as they are.

But what happens when these sites or structures hold a deeper significance? ‘Dark sites’ – places where tragic or sinister events occurred – exist across the UK. We tend to associate them with haunted natural landscapes, like Mother Shipton’s cave, named after an alleged witch; the ‘witches cottage’ unearthed near Pendle Hill, or the ‘devil's cauldron’ at Lydford Gorge.

But dark sites also exist in towns and cities: institutions, prisons, residential properties. If these sites are abandoned, the practical solution is again to demolish or re-develop. Psychologically and culturally, however, the stakes are very different. Dark sites occupy a prominent position in the urban landscape, attracting curious visitors and urban explorers. They also exert a powerful psychological influence, generating urban legends and providing a physical repository for fears and anxieties.

So what do we do with these most sensitive of abandoned spaces?

At sites where individual acts of violence took place, demolition, the opportunity to raze and start again, is tempting. In Gloucester, the home of murderers Fred and Rose West was flattened by authorities who removed the rubble and crushed it at a secure site – partly to prevent morbid souvenir-hunting but also, as the BBC puts it, “as a way of expunging the sense of evil linked to the place.”

In these cases, dark sites exert such a psychological hold that only ritual destruction feels appropriate. Even then, the space cannot be fully cleansed: the path that now runs over the site of the West’s house is an attempt to restore normalcy, but the gap formed between the other houses is a clue that something isn’t quite right. Demolition may have been the only real option, but even then the empty space acquires an eerie presence.


It’s unsurprising that communities want to physically erase the sites of violent crimes. In other cases, though, dark sites hold a deeper historic and social significance that can be commemorated. In these cases, redevelopment offers an alternative to demolition. High Royds Hospital was a psychiatric institution in Leeds which closed in 2003 and turned into housing. I remember walking around the site in the early stages of redevelopment. The grounds felt desolate, and it was easy to imagine the abuses that took place there.

They may feel abandoned, but disused sites like High Royds still attract visitors – most notably ‘urban explorers’. Urban exploration – the practice of entering and documenting abandoned urban structures – is not restricted to dark sites, but the theme of urban decay lends itself to the macabre (one of the most common images of High Royds is the white mortuary table).

‘Urbex’ photography can have a restorative function, shining a light on forgotten histories and helping to tell the stories of people who were ignored in life. Sometimes the focus on morbid details has the opposite effect, turning dark sites such as High Royds into a gothic house of horrors and its former residents into ghosts. In both cases, though, the increasing popularity of urban exploration shows the power of dark sites to catch the imagination.

These days High Royds is a high-end housing complex named Chevin Park. I’m not convinced Leeds needs more luxury housing, but I’ll admit that the re-development has restored a sense of normalcy. Its history hasn’t been forgotten: the water-tower is visible for miles around, and heritage walks are occasionally held on the estate. But High Royds is no longer an abandoned curiosity visited primarily by urban explorers and ghost-hunters. By moving a new community into the complex’s Victorian core, the development visually preserves a troubling part of our history whilst showing that some dark sites can be successfully re-integrated into their local environment.

Dark sites are not just abandoned spaces. They invite exploration, generate urban legends, and disrupt safe suburban landscapes. For these reasons they might be viewed as public spaces, even if many are fenced-off and privately owned.

When we talk about towns and cities we understandably focus on utility – transport links, housing. Disused sites are rarely thought of as contributing to the urban environment. For better or worse, though, dark sites exert an important influence on our towns, cities, and communities, and the question of how and whether we can live alongside them will remain relevant as long as they exist.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.