Alan J. Simpson

Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Street Space Society

Street Space Society

Alan Jackson Simpson - Professor of Architecture and Urbanism


Public policy and sustainable communities

The Urban Task Force led by Lord Rogers and commissioned by the UK Government in 1999 to identify causes of urban decline and practical solutions to bring people back to urban centers, described ‘urban renaissance’ as being ‘founded on principles of design excellence, economic strength, good governance environmental responsibility and social well-being.’

To achieve a higher degree of economic success, we must improve on our standards in “design quality”. This means design quality in both public and private sector design and construction of buildings and the provision of services and facilities. It means quality in a hotel bedroom and in a cup of coffee in high street cafes. In particular, it means the quality design, construction and maintenance of ‘public places’ - our streets, squares, parks and gardens.

The direct involvement of community, amenity, business, and political interests needs to be at the core of urban renaissance. Good governance by the community for the community is perhaps the single most distinctive characteristic of the Renaissance approach; a strengthened sense of civic pride and civic leadership within our communities.

‘The State of English Cities’ published by DETR alongside the Urban White Paper at the end of 2000, highlights the fact that many English cities lag behind their US and European counterparts in terms of economic performance and urban quality. The case for urban renaissance has been successfully demonstrated in towns and cities around the world through regeneration activity over the past thirty years or so, in for example: Chicago, Birmingham and Rotterdam, in Portland, Oregon; Brisbane, Queensland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumbria.

Streets for People : Greys Monument Newcastle upon Tyne

Streets for People : Greys Monument Newcastle upon Tyne

Cities and Towns across mainland Europe, in France, Italy, Germany and Spain provide many examples of great urban quality and established maintenance regimes. Many European cities have a tradition of urban care and a sense of quality that makes their urban centers so attractive.

In the UK many towns and cities also maintain high standards in the urban environment - places like Durham and Bath, the Cotswold towns, in Edinburgh, and parts of London – however the culture nor the attitude is demonstrable in any sense as the national trait it needs to be. While as a nation we value quality in our buildings and civic spaces - the value of tradition, amenity and beauty - we nevertheless lack real concern about what a place looks like in its everyday life. This lack of concern manifests itself in low quality buildings, the poor state of our public transport system and the general condition of many of our streets and squares. It manifests itself in the prevalence of litter and pollution and in the shortage of attractive landscaping, street trees and good public art. It manifests itself in the lack of an overall concept of amenity and in a sheer lack of beauty.

 Great Streets … Brisbane, Grenoble, Copenhagen, Singapore, New Orleans

Great Streets … Brisbane, Grenoble, Copenhagen, Singapore, New Orleans

The Government’s Urban White Paper (2000) highlights a broad range of potential urban renaissance roles and responsibilities for regional and local authorities. In Yorkshire, for example, methods of community involvement were imported, first developed in the United States through the American Institute of Architects’ “Regional and Urban Design Assistance Team” (RUDAT) program.

Town Teams and Panel ‘charettes’ -  plan making workshops

Town Teams and Panel ‘charettes’ - plan making workshops

The concept of ‘town teams’ provides a necessary new mechanism for engaging the interest, support and ideas, from local communities. The formation of town teams - via word-of-mouth, press advertising and town charettes (large-scale workshops) - generates excitement and a sense of real change. Community and business leaders come together with local and national politicians, business and community leaders to engage in structured meetings and workshops through which initial ‘community charters’- agreements of intent - are prepared.

Great urban projects in Portland Or, Boston Mass, and Chicago

Great Urban projects in Portland Or, Boston Mass, and Chicago

The town team provides a middle ground - a crucible - where local government meets consultants, meets citizens. The different strengths of public, private and voluntary interests and aspirations can be brought together at all stages of the process. Getting local authority officers to work alongside ex-miners, journalists to work alongside artists, full time house wives to work alongside young entrepreneurs - plays a part in challenging past assumptions, raising aspirations and encouraging people to express their concerns, and channel their energies into a positive approach for change. This revitalizes citizenship and engenders the confidence necessary, both internally and externally, to drive social, environmental and economic improvement.

Town Team  urban visions : Yorkshire Renaissance Towns

Town Team urban visions : Yorkshire Renaissance Towns

To create confidence in the process it is essential to have the local authority support the initiative at a high level, with key figures regularly attending meetings and workshops. As well as benefiting the renaissance process, their involvement can energize councils themselves, inspiring a fresh look at their locality, providing a new perspective on the opportunities that exist.

Cityscape and the Nine Squares strategy for Newcastle upon Tyne

Cityscape and the Nine Squares strategy for Newcastle upon Tyne

The work of the town teams is assisted by members of an advisory panel. The Panel is made up from recognized architect-urbanists, planners, economists, geographers and advisers on social and cultural issues, Panel members support the towns and work to facilitate the renaissance process - to write, draw and speak on behalf the community in the development of ten, twenty and thirty-year visions and plans, whilst learning from each other, exchanging experiences and maintaining a creative edge necessary to achieve true renaissance.

Charter Documents and Master Plans are produced by the Town Teams and the Panel who engage week by week in design charettes, workshops, debate, the preparation of drawings and models, written statements of intent; whilst temporary transformations of physical spaces give an idea of what might be achieved more permanently. Inspired by the Swanston Street Project in Melbourne, Australia, ‘street transformations’ demonstrate possibilities – accessibility, amenity and attraction – testing proposals and providing the way forward for future improvement projects – creating ‘streets for people’.

Street transformation in Newcastle upon Tyne

Street transformation in Newcastle upon Tyne

Visions, plans and proposals are shared with the broader community through the local press and published documentation. Plans of a long term future based upon the work of the town teams - delivering best practice; raising perceptions and aspirations and building sustainable communities - a fitting inheritance for our children, the citizens and civic leaders of tomorrow.