Jerry Spencer, as part of his new regeneration task in Stoke-on-Trent, is aiming to improve standards and give something back to the underfunded city
Stoke-on-Trent is a city in search of a skyline. For Jerry Spencer, who has joined the city council as assistant director for regeneration strategy, this suggests an opportunity for a new vernacular architecture that evokes its unique but lost urban signature: the bottle and beehive kilns that once produced 90 per cent of the UK's pottery and ceramics.
But first he has to get to grips with Stoke's administrative anomalies. 'Stoke is a city made up of six towns, seven town halls and, amazingly, 87 villages, ' Spencer says. 'If you ask someone where they are from, they don't say Stoke, they tell you the village. The challenge is to respect the individuality but somehow get it functioning as a whole. It has a tremendous location between Manchester and Birmingham and, with the new dual carriageway, superb links to Nottingham and the East Midlands. But you don't hear much about it. With a population of 260,000 it should be punching its weight more than it is.'
Spencer, who has degrees in urban geography and urban design as well as a diploma in town planning, has carried his particular remit of driving up standards of urban design and architecture through a distinctive public-sector career. He worked on the conservation and design teams for the London Borough of Hackney and later City of Nottingham Council, where he helped regenerate the Lace Market area. He then moved to Gloucester where he produced an urban design strategy to inspire the regeneration of Gloucester city centre and docks.
He moves to Stoke from the North West Development Agency (NWDA), where he was head of design. He believes local architects should have a central role in the Stoke regeneration strategy but must pull together with other partners if any radical transformation is to be achieved. He will also be managing a council team of urban designers, architects and landscape architects, and hopes to import some of the design initiatives he started at the NWDA.
These included guidance on best practice for commissioning public art and street design, design training, encouraging the adoption of design statements for agencyfunded development schemes, as well as conferences and seminars on building confidence (literally and figuratively) - particularly among conservative elements of the building fraternity, who, as Spencer puts it, 'think design isn't for them'. The Urban Design Uplift concept, for example, looked at bringing facilitators and urban designers to small market towns to tie in design potential and community interest with regeneration plans. 'It's not just about the Fourth Grace or the Lowry, ' says Spencer. 'In Chester we stimulated a passionate debate on the design for the new civic centre by Ian Simpson. It's been immensely satisfying working with local architects in the hinterlands too.'
In the Cumbrian town of Workington, for example, Spencer worked with a Carlislebased practice on a scheme for the Lillyhall Business Centre. 'The architect had designed a standard, rather squat, building but there was an opportunity for a more risk-taking design, a signature building that would be seen from 20 miles away and could look like a sculptural slash on the landscape - like something that has grown out of its own geology. He did it, and it's fantastic. It's still a work in progress, but it's a good example of how initial fear of the unknown can be overcome, by both conservative clients and an architect who had never been pushed to produce something more challenging.'
In Blackpool, where a new strip of mega-casinos is planned, Spencer managed to get the masterplan altered. 'These casinos completely block the incredible woven mesh of Blackpool that people graze through. They would be making money but lending no joy. I asked them to put small shops and cafÚs around the outside of the great boxy buildings to preserve that rich density of interaction. The Americans call it fiupholsteringfl. It's a much more humanistic approach.'
If architects get short shrift from Spencer for designing 'clumsy, lumpy buildings with little to say about the places they are in', firms that offer the 'urban design package' are further castigated. 'There's a fundamental difference between fibigfl architecture and urban design, ' he says. 'Big architecture is one firm's vision for an area, where urban design is about healing an area that has lost its original function. We don't want a silo mentality where people keep within their own specialism and never talk to each other, but neither do we want jacks of all trades who are not skilled enough to deliver the whole package.'
The regeneration business that has burgeoned in the last five to 10 years does what it says on the tin, says Spencer, but he is concerned that diversity and subtlety are being lost in the mix. 'Regeneration is measured by the number of new jobs created or the amount of floor space. But it also often narrows the choice: for example, city-centre apartments that cater only for young professionals who want private gyms, not health centres and schools. Or on a business park you have buildings that are pushed apart by, say, the need for car parking, with all this space sloshing around them that people can't cross or sit in. Space should be defined by the buildings, or be designed so that it appears almost to be carved out from the buildings. There needs to be more diversity, which in turn would bring more choice, and this is where the regeneration industry really needs to focus.'
The danger, believes Spencer, is that the so-called successes of regeneration, including acclaimed architecture, can leave behind the very people they purport to help. He wants to ensure this doesn't happen in Stoke. 'The challenge for architects is to move to a much more sensitive, people-based approach and develop a language they can use to talk about space to the people who will be using it.
'Urban design is about people, and people know when it's not working. The Potteries has had a phenomenally productive history. Its workers contributed to others' fortunes - whether they were doing the hard, dirty, dangerous jobs where they had to walk into the furnaces to retrieve the trays of pots, or finishing beautiful handcrafted products - but they got a raw deal because little was reinvested. It's time something was put back.'