Sheffield’s Park Hill flats opened in 1961, the year I was born. The flats are still the most complete example of the architectural project optimistically named ‘Streets in the Sky’ urbanism: networks of one-sided residential streets of maisonettes stacked on top of one another, threaded through the landscape and surrounded by park land, yet close to the city centre. The streets in the sky aren't quite the same as the streets that they set out to replace: these have roofs over them for a start, and a long drop on one side. Today they probably have more detractors then they do fans, and when in 1998 they were awarded grade II listing it caused a furore that is still going on today. The streets-in-the-sky were by any standard substantial. Rather than mere practical walkways they were designed for conviviality – for children to play and for adults to pass the time of day. The scale of the streets was also meant to accommodate traffic – but only one type of vehicle – the electric milk float.
The eager, breathless whir of the milk float – like an ordinary car calling out with a stage-whisper – isn't a sound you hear too much anymore. There is clearly much less milk being delivered. When I was about 11 or 12 I, like many other kids at the time, used to supplement my pocket money with money I earned by having a paper round. I used to get to the newsagents at about 5.30 in the morning to pick up my stack of daily papers (supplemented with a few magazines and comics); these were arranged by the newsagent in the well-practiced order of the route. Apart from at the height of summer, it was nearly always dark when I started and usually light, or getting light when I finished. Sometimes, especially if it was raining, it was really miserable, but often I enjoyed the quiet, empty streets and the crisp unfolding of the prelude to the day. It was a time of the day I shared with others who were out delivering papers and post, the odd insomniac dog walker, and the asthmatic wheeze of the milk float.
For the most part post, papers and milk are distributed differently today. Park Hill flats has changed too. Some of it has been erased, some of it remains as social housing, and a large chunk has been taken over and refitted by an architectural group called Urban Splash. Urban Splash has successfully turned many of the maisonettes and flats into up-market, urban living, for those who want the adrenalin of inner-city life and the aesthetics of the warehouse flat. The scheme is all bright colours and wooden floors. It is hard to tell, though, what has happened to the network of elevated streets that were the social heart of the complex. Have they gone? Or are they still functioning? Perhaps amongst the sounds of carbonated water being opened you can just about hear the ghostly echo of the milk float.