re-form landscape architecture limited: Sovereign Square is the first major public space in Leeds City Centre for a generation. The space, which provides the setting for a new business destination, is the first step to the South Bank regeneration area which will expand the city centre over the next 20 years. The project presented an opportunity to bring nature into a city centre that lacks any major green spaces and has tree cover that is 25% of the European city average. Sovereign Square will become a gateway into a future City Park that will help transform Leeds into a healthier more attractive and ecologically diverse place.

The public space has been delivered alongside two new office buildings but the brief stated that this would be a place for the people of the city and managed by the city. It was also important that Sovereign Square contributed to Leeds becoming a ‘Child Friendly City’ – the city council’s programme for making Leeds a more inviting and playful place for children.

Sovereign Square is a lush environment that attracts many people. 50 new mature trees have been planted around a large central lawn. The mix of plant species selected will ensure there are flowering species for a long period, from early spring to late autumn, thus establishing a place that is beautiful and a much-needed habitat for wildlife in the city.

A 35m long rain garden manages surface water for half of the square, with swathes of different plant species that can withstand the toxins and petro-chemicals that will be washed from the paths and road. The rain garden also provides a more intimate environment for people to go where new seating has been placed within the planting.

Seating is a fundamental part of the design, for this is how most people will choose to spend time in a space. There are places for people to sit as a group in the summer, or protected from the wind on a cold day in winter. There are places for groups to lay down and others to work quietly amongst beautiful planting. There are also places to spend time with your children or to wait for a friend – whether you are young or old, able bodied or in a wheelchair. This range of opportunities means that people occupy the space throughout the year, and allows them to experience Sovereign Square in different ways.

A popular place to sit is beneath the grove of Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos). As well as its hardiness and amazing leaf colour, this species was selected for the beautiful dappled shade it provides. It creates a complex texture on the paving that moves with the wind and becomes a source of animation in itself. re-form has enabled a range of experiences throughout Sovereign Square, that are appealing places to spend time, heighten the senses and allow people to engage with nature.

Water is an integral part of the site’s heritage and this project. A goit (water channel) once diverted through the site from the adjacent River Aire to power the mills that were abundant in Leeds throughout the 18th Century. The concept for the plaza, which is constructed of a seemingly cracked and stepped plinth of stone, was inspired by the source of the River Aire at Malham Cove. This is a place that is famous for limestone pavement which is characterised by the deep fissures carved out over thousands of years, by water. The water at Sovereign Square emerges from these cracks, bubbling up from beneath the surface and flowing down the rill. The fountains are not intended as a choreographed display of dancing jets, but something that is much more natural and authentic. This has created a place that is exciting for children but also a mesmerising back-drop for others.

The rill runs from the plaza towards the river – an important navigational aid which will link with a future connection underneath the viaduct. People can be seen walking alongside the water, which is agitated by an uneven surface, creating interesting patterns and reflections along its length. Children play ‘pooh sticks’ and dip their feet in the shallow water which is a calmer, more passive alternative to running through the fountains. The water and its juxtaposition with dynamic plantings animates the space and engages people in lots of different ways.

Sovereign Square is making a positive contribution to the quality of public life in Leeds City Centre. People are choosing to spend time here and numbers will undoubtedly increase when the remaining development plots are complete.

Project name: Sovereign Square
Location: Leeds, United Kingdom
Design firm: re-form landscape architecture limited
Design year: 2012-2014
Completed: 2016
Area: 4,550m2
Budget: £2.5m
Street furniture: Hess + Bramhall 1840
Tree nursery: Ebben
Consultants: Water feature specialist – Fountain Workshop. Artist – Mel Chantry
Text credit: re-form landscape architecture limited
Image credit: Simon Vine

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