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defining vision

When the IRA blew open Manchester city centre Alison Nimmo helped turn the disaster into an opportunity for positive redevelopment. Now she is attempting to drive through regeneration in Sheffield as head of Sheffield One by austin williams. photograph by

Alison Nimmo is the chief executive of Sheffield One, charged with developing and implementing Sheffield's central area masterplan. Born in Scotland, she spent her formative years in Swansea, but left at an early age to travel to London, echoing Burns' 'O sweet to stray and pensive ponder' and Dylan Thomas' 'Goodbye to chimneys and funnels'.Her break with the principality was to prove the starting point of a successful professional career.

One of her earliest jobs was in the planning department of Westminster Council in the mid 1980s. This was in the heady days of Dame Shirley Porter - the Conservative peer who was accused of selling empty council homes to potential Tory voters at the expense of homeless, probable Labour-voting families.

Nimmo quickly moved onto development control at Pimlico and Knightsbridge, where she saw her role as 'trying to maintain the sense of scale' at the height of the property boom. With hundreds of applications for conversions landing on her desk every day she resisted 'the trend to convert every Georgian home into 31 bedsits'. She fought for a successful, accessible city, arguing for a decent social mix: for houses as well as flats.

Escaping from London for a while, she travelled to South America and Australia.

She recalls 'the beautifully planned urban spaces and orderly architectural design of Brasilia', although she 'couldn't wait to get back to the chaos of Rio'. She feels that this sort of chaotic dynamism is an important factor in any urban environment. 'Cities are living organisms, ' she says. 'To be liveable they must have an element of uncertainty.'

There is a need for a palpable sense of energy in a city and, as the only country in Europe that deserts its cities at night, this is what Britain lacks. It needs addressing through 'an urban reappraisal'.

On her return to the UK, Nimmo was taken on by Drivas Jonas, during which time she gained a surveying qualification and worked as a regeneration expert, specialising in the commercial sector. 'Deal making, ' she calls it.

On 15 June, 1996, Manchester was devastated by an IRA bomb. Nimmo, seconded to KPMG at the time, describes it as having 'blown a hole in the city centre and in the city's policy and planning'. She saw the explosion as both 'a disaster and a huge opportunity'. The impact of the disaster was plain to see. The opportunity was for 'ambitious planning to inject quality, style and cosmopolitan-ness' into the centre of Manchester - an area which had suffered significant economic and social decline. She says that as well as refurbishing some lovely buildings, there was the chance to get rid of some of the concrete eyesores which had blighted the central district for many years.

Nimmo was appointed project director of Manchester Millennium Task Force, to head a team to improve investment opportunities and to diversify the economy of the city centre so that it would not just be a retail core. Nimmo set about constructing the team to 'cram 20 years of development into four'. To deliver to that timescale, Nimmo worked with a small, well-knit team of professionals including the landowner, developer and designer. 'Architects, ' she says, 'do not have a monopoly on regeneration.'

'The principle driver for the Manchester project was economics, ' she acknowledges, but underlying that was an urban masterplan 'in the traditional sense'. Asked whether she believed that economic vitality was a necessary precursor to civic regeneration or vice versa, she insisted that these two elements could not be analysed separately;

they must complement one another to be successful. 'Well-built city centres, ' she says, 'will not create economic dynamism. There has to be a twin-track approach.'

Nimmo knows that spontaneous investment will not happen in desolate, threatening areas of cities because the market needs minimal risk and maximum stability. However, these areas must be upgraded to prevent further decline. She is adamant that this is not a recipe for neverending government handouts but simply a plea for kick-start funding to get regional economies going again.

While finishing her tenure in Manchester, Sheffield councillors asked if the lessons learned from the Manchester experience could be applied in their own city. Given her record, her appointment as chief executive of the Sheffield One regeneration agency early last year was almost a foregone conclusion. 'My work on Manchester Millennium Task Force showed that I could form a small team to deliver regeneration. After all, regeneration is more than just grand plans. It is an overall framework for making things happen.'

In Sheffield 'the potential was there, but no-one was driving it through'. In just nine months Nimmo has already had an impact on the city strategy coordinating the masterplanning report by Koetter Kim Associates, which has just been delivered.

This outlines a thorough reassessment of the 'new vision for Sheffield', designed to help provide a high quality of life and a prosperous and commercially successful city.

In Sheffield, Nimmo recognises the challenge 'to take traditional skills and place them in a modern context'. Instead of casting the city's history in aspic, preserved as part of the nation's industrial heritage, she believes the decline can be turned around.

She cites Sheffield's famous steelworking legacy as an example of how heritage can become relevant and meaningful; a process of urban continuity rather than separation.

'Sheffield is now one of the world's leaders in the manufacture of surgical blades and hip replacements - all made from steel, ' she says proudly.

There was not time to address the downsides: the reduced employment numbers associated with this change and the incompatibility of skill transfers between heavy industry and precision engineering.

But the relationship between stability and flux is essential to Nimmo's philosophy: 'The trick of moving a city forward is to involve everyone - to ensure that they all have a stake in the city.'

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