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LOOK OUT FOR RIPON'S 'SLOAPS'

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 25th September 2009
Look out for ‘sloaps’, says David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society

Here’s a word you might not have met – SLOAP. No, the spellchecker hasn’t stopped working, it’s ‘sloap’, not ‘slope’ (either as a noun or a verb) that’s the subject of this week’s column.

Really, it’s not a word at all; it’s an acronym. It stands for ‘Space Left Over After Planning’. One internet definition gives its meaning as: ‘Useless bits of ground left between streets and rigidly rectilinear buildings of International Modernism (which rarely followed traditional street- or urban-patterns)’. It’s the sort of thing you find between residential tower-blocks or offices in cities, or where motorways have ploughed through urban areas.

The existence of ‘sloaps’ has led to ideas for their use – and to a great deal of pretentious on-line waffle, too. One website says, ‘Those spaces claim a potential to be re-invented as pockets of discovery; they carry the promise of enhanced experience, yet remain strangely dysfunctional at the same time’ – whatever that means. Among the odd (and sometimes illegal) uses suggested for urban ‘sloaps’ are to use them to hold ‘urban hunts’ for urban foxes, and to convert an east London roundabout into a space for whitewater rafting. Too many people with too little to do, perhaps.

Of course, ‘sloap’ is not new. When Ripon’s Market Square was first laid out, it’s ten to one that local people complained that it totally ignored the street pattern they had always known, that that it left useless pockets of land around the edges and it was really contributing to the scruffiness of their attractive town. When the canal arrived, more ‘sloap’ was added to Ripon – and the same happened when the railway and the bypass arrived. On every occasion it was no doubt complained about vigorously.

The new Marshall Way and the Booths supermarket development are the latest projects to cut across the ancient layout of the city, and they, too, have given rise to the ‘sloap’ – though there may be an argument to say that it has actually resolved the problems of ‘sloap’ from previous centuries by making use of back-lands that were scarcely regarded before, except by informal car parkers. Still, there are odd, redundant corners of the new development – at the curve on Marshall Way by Coltsgate Hill Chapel, for example, or an odd triangular space, partly used for car parking, behind the terraces on Westbourne Grove.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Ripon is suffering badly from ‘sloap’. The city is hardly a wilderness of unregarded space where the wind howls between high-rise buildings and where razor-wire-topped galvanised fencing surrounds scraps of weedy land. Quite a lot of the city’s unregarded land could be considered the result of neglect as much as of the unintended consequences of planning. There are still too many ‘back-lands’ that are in need of care – and care does not always mean building on them. Some years ago the Civic Society transformed derelict land off St Marygate into a park; the Society cared for the new Allhallows Park for years before finally presenting it to Harrogate Borough Council for their upkeep. This column has pointed out several times the areas that might benefit from a little care to make the city more attractive. But let us also celebrate the fact that some consequences of planning have been made to look better – consider most of the roundabouts on the bypass, where sponsorship has made them into attractive features, or the roundabout at the bottom of Bedern Bank, bright with flowers. Probably a better bet – though perhaps not as exciting – as a venue for whitewater rafting.

The true ‘sloaps’ of Ripon tend to be small pockets – the minimally-planted areas around the margins of the new Booths car park, for example. They need the same sort of care as the roundabouts. Other ‘sloap’ areas, like the arches through the railway embankment beside the bypass, for example, or the field margins alongside Rotary Way, may be better left in their semi-wild state, softening the landscape with trees and shrubs.

There is a certain visionary attitude that seems to come over some writers about ‘sloaps’. One says, ‘The metamorphosis of the region will be encouraged by advances in technology, and greener and more efficient transport systems will soften relationships with the street. The distinction between roads and paths will begin to blur; car-parks will change to parks, transportation hubs will become bustling markets and the verge becomes a place to live.’

Ripon is not yet quite into verge-living – but we still need to keep an eye on our ‘sloaps’ and what happens to them.

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