Alan J. Simpson

Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Street Space Society

Street Space Society

Alan Jackson Simpson - Professor of Architecture and Urbanism


In the City of York a small team of Urbanists – architects, economists and engineers - have been working as advisers to the City of York Council (CYC) on a twin thrust programme to;

The ‘York New City Beautiful – Toward and Economic Vision’ was published in September 2010 and received enthusiastic support from the City of York Council (CYC), and the City’s business and community leadership. The last such exercise in forward planning for the City of York was the Esher Plan (1969) – a study in conservation, when Bath, Chester, Chichester and York were the subject of the government-driven Four Towns Study.

This next visionary plan-making exercise is a major opportunity for York. The City of York Council recognizes that quality of place matters to businesses making decisions about where to locate and invest; matters to residents as a living place and a place to live; and matters to the visitor – to enjoy, to learn, to invest and to come back.

Consultations with City Officials in economic development, planning and highways together with the many amenity, business and community interest groups to be found in York, determined that the city had to deal with two fundamental issues; (i) to design better access to the City and deal with the damaging impact of too much traffic; and  (ii) to create a better connected and more attractive City, through its streets, its public places and spaces, and in its parks – to create a more Beautiful City.

Appropriately the officer and adviser teams decided to learn from the past and to find application for the ways in which many older and historic cities have successfully been made beautiful and managed to stay so. There is no shortage of best example in Europe and beyond - Stuttgart and Freiburg Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne, Boston and Chicago all offered powerful lessons. It was however through the comprehensive character and ambition – urban design as three dimensional social policy – that the more generic City Beautiful Movement quickly became a model – a paradigm – for the York Economic Vision.

A further challenge was working at both the ‘street’ and ‘city’ scales through an urban design approach. From work done by the Urban Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University (David Lewis and Alan J. Simpson) innovative methods of research and practice in consultation, evaluation, and plan making provided the inspiration and methodologies for the York Vision.

‘People flock to those cities where conditions of work are good, where means of recreation abound, and where there are attractions for the senses and the intellect. Persons of wealth and refinement seek such cities as their abiding-places; and those who have accumulate wealth in a city bent on improvement remain there.  Moreover, there is no stronger appeal made to the citizen of to-day than comes from the call of one’s native or adopted city to enter upon the service of creating better surroundings not only for one’s self, but for all… to love and render service to one’s city, to have a part in its advancement, to seek to better its conditions and to promote its highest interests are both a citizen’s duty and a privilege.’

Daniel Burnham 1909


All cities are ideas, ultimately. They create themselves and the world acknowledges them accordingly - or ignores them. Cities in the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States have implemented adventurous and bold urban renaissance programmes, in Barcelona, Berlin, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Liverpool and Newcastle upon Tyne, and are acknowledged for their achievements in urban regeneration. Many are now very different places to what they were twenty sand thirty years ago, with attractive, often beautiful, city centres and downtowns, and waterfronts.

Chicago City Beautiful - 1909 Plan

Chicago City Beautiful – 1909 Plan

Cities are best understood at the spatial scale of the street. That is the scale at which people understand place, space and form; where built form and movement systems become visibly integrated; and through which strategic overviews of function, form and future are best developed.

The City of York seeks to address the complex issues of sustainable urbanism through the challenges of (i) an inherited and historic city, (ii) a contemporary city with all the modern day challenges of UK urban settings and (iii) the creation of an economic vision founded in the physical and cultural setting of the place and its future - a city of tomorrow. In its history, traditions, and patterns of growth and change, the city has much to offer in both the idea and the reality of itself

There are many cities where strategic urban design can be seen to have driven economic well being; and some cities around the world where the idea of the ‘city beautiful’ has been used to secure a successful economic future.

The idea of City the Beautiful has been adopted by world cities with varying degrees of success, in Paris, Berlin, Sydney and San Francisco. No city has developed a plan so comprehensive in scope or successful in application however than that prepared for the City of Chicago. Following a devastating citywide fire at the end of the 19th Century, Chicago responded in 1909 by producing a renaissance strategy based on city beautiful principles.

The Commercial Club of Chicago led the plan; and the architect Daniel Burnham produced a visionary long-term economic, social and urban plan, creating a city of great streets, public parks and waterfront settings.  The city’s leading citizens understood that the creation of great urban settings, great streets, public parks and squares, could bring forward the economic drivers of the city’s future. The 1909 Plan of Chicago is still referred and adhered to; its longevity was celebrated in 2009.

The most successful achievement of the Burnham Plan was in its bringing together two seemingly warring impulses: private interests and public control. Nineteenth-century Chicago was the American Manchester. Here the new industrial order was on display in its full splendour and squalor. It was also one of the most ugly cities in America.
By the 1900 Chicago’s leading capitalists had become convinced that the town they had helped to build would never be a world capital the like of London or Paris unless it began to discipline its growth and alter its image and appearance.

Major projects in reversing the flow of the Chicago River and the raising of the city   ground   and   street   levels   were   implemented to ensure uninterrupted growth. In preparing to host a world’s fair in 1893 that would showcase their city, Chicago’s business elite carried through a civic renaissance unparalleled in the history of American cities. They built superb libraries, a world-class centre of learning in the University of Chicago an impressive new museum for the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue and a civic centre for the performing arts - and expanded Chicago’s impressive system of parks. Burnham’s Chicago Plan 1909 was the crowning achievement of this civic awakening. America’s first metropolitan plan encompassing both the city and its surroundings gave Chicago its peerless lakefront, established the Parisian boulevard character of Michigan Avenue, and protected from development forest and park land on the periphery of the city.

None of the achievements Chicago has made over the past ninety years would have been possible without a fundamental condition being in place - a partnership between the private and public sectors, the Business Leaders and the City’s Politicians and Public Officials. Chicago was not being built or rebuilt on government hand out or public grant; the investment was to be made by the wealth creators in the city, the industrialists and commercial leaders. Herein lies a lesson for all Cities. Without strong partnership and joint leadership between the private and public sectors little will be achieved, especially in stringent times.

A reliance on public grant has hallmarked the failure of so many of our major public projects and programmes in the UK. Even in healthy times government funding can only truly account for a small percentage contribution to public projects and too often that contribution has undermined the financial future of projects in creating false financial projections. The UK urban regeneration scene is littered with failed public projects driven by public finance and without the private investment and understanding of real market conditions and projections.        

York, as with all UK Cities, needs the support of its business communities to grow and become the place it aspires to be; a city renowned for its history, its setting, its architecture and archaeology, its longevity, innovation, creativity and the ability of its citizenry to come together and work together toward tomorrow. York New City Beautiful.

York New City Beautiful 2010  : City Core

York New City Beautiful 2010  : City Core

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York New City Beautiful 2010 : City Wide

Good governance is the hallmark of successful and beautiful cities and good governance is not only the province of City Councils but of the community at large; in affairs driven by amenity and civic life, in business and commerce, in politics, in social well being and in the making and managing of our towns and cities.

York is a successful place, unequalled by all but a few cities in the UK. However, investigation reveals an outdated transportation infrastructure; a lack of quality spaces and green infrastructure in the city centre; and two historic rivers largely ignored. It has fractured connections that limit the effectiveness of several key city assets including the railway station - main gateway to the city, the university campus in the east, and between important functions of the city core – cultural, retail and commercial.

To improve the city’s economic performance addressing these issues is critical. Successful and sustainable renaissance results from a range of interventions, and one of the most important is focused on enhancing quality of life and improving the amenity, attraction and well being of the place as a pre-cursor to business investment and growth.

Urban design could never be classified as a science and its costs and benefits are unlikely to be successfully reduced to a mathematical algorithm. But we do know how effective place making has been in the UK, Europe, and the US in promoting international interest and investment. We know that successful cities are magnets for people, culture, finance and business.

The applied methodology, born out of the city’s history, is based on a process of Audit (the city today); Precedent (comparable successful cities) and Vision (the future of the city).
Through the processes of audit, precedent and vision, the team looked beyond York’s historic layers and identified a series of strategic ways forward focused upon: the city rivers; the city walls; the city as park, and the city streets and squares.  Each ‘strategy’ highlights York’s historic and contemporary settings. Each can enhance the city’s economic, cultural and environmental performance.

To identify the likely benefits, projects were tested against key objectives (filters). The filters were the means by which proposals were tested against critical agendas relating to: (i) community and culture; (ii) economy and business; (iii) skills and learning; and (iv) movement and form.

Together these key projects and proposals will shape the next historic layer of the city. A successful and competitive city is one that can retain and attract high quality human capital. Individuals with the skills and talent that can drive the local economy and underpin sustainability; this human capital is not attracted by the power of higher wages alone.

Quality of place is a key factor that affects personal and business location decisions. Enhancing the physical appearance of the city, improving accessibility and raising image and perception are all key issues if the city is to increase investment, employment, and wealth creation. Economic ambition driven by the physical character and setting of the place is the core of the Vision for York – New City Beautiful.