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the renaissance man

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Only the best will do for Scunthorpe, says Alan Simpson, director of urban renaissance at Yorkshire Forward, who is travelling the world to recruit the finest urban designers to tackle some of Yorkshire's most troubled towns

Selby needs some good news, and it is about to come from Alan Simpson. Shortly after the town was told coal mining would be phased out along with 5,000 jobs, the director of urban renaissance at Yorkshire Forward regional development agency included it in his renaissance programme.

The much-publicised initiative has just added six more towns to the original six that started last year's scheme, which included plans for a Tuscan-style makeover for Barnsley by Will Alsop (AJ 14.4.02).

Selby enters the fray with Scunthorpe and Halifax, among others, and Simpson's goal is simply stated.

He aims to create 'world-class towns and cities in a world-class region'. This is easier said than done, he admits, and not just in Selby. 'The kind of urban skills that combine visionary architecture with a social sense and an eye for economics are hard to find throughout Britain.

'Sure, we have planning departments but they don't make plans, and we've lost that ability. We already have some fantastic countryside and towns but the economic and social agenda has to be raised a lot more.'

So he is looking to Europe and the US to bring inspiration to the likes of Castleford and Bridlington. 'There are so few people in the regions driving forward urban issues, which partly explains why we have to go so far around the world. And when we've got these skills, we'll make sure they never leave Yorkshire.'

Expertise will be drawn down to the region and taught to schools, universities and the private sector. 'So abilities won't leave the region when the urban panel leaves. If a problem crops up you won't have to go back to West 8, Koetter Kim and Associates or EDAW for help. Experts must be here to ensure quality can be delivered, sustained and maintained. Education is such an important part of this process.'

Simpson, a '50-something' architect trained at Portsmouth and Newcastle University, has a healthy contacts book amassed during 10 years of teaching in the US. He did work on new towns for Northumberland council in the 1970s and also had teaching stints at the Bartlett, Newcastle and Liverpool universities, and with Ricky Burdett at the London School of Economics.

He has already enticed UDA Architects from Pittsburgh, and more recently wooed Michael Sorkin from New York. Sorkin, who teaches at Columbia, is noted for creating 'unsolicited masterplans' to challenge statutory ways of thinking, says Simpson.

Such 'pioneers of exploratory processes' are crucial for turning Yorkshire's mean streets into clean streets, he insists.

What the region does not need is big architecture without social input, or dreaded Lottery projects. 'There are far too many of those damn things and they have done nothing.' What Simpson and other urban leaders are crying out for are visionary experts in procurement and delivery as much as design.

'We have terrific architects on our panel but there's a small gap between moving from the vision to the delivery, and we are trying to encourage statutory bodies to think upside down. We need a lot of help to persuade new thinking, so city engineers, for example, make streets instead of traffic canyons.

'We want to turn around all the old thinking, and this could be harder than creating showpiece design. We don't need networks of underground and overground passes to make streets work, but the city engineer's budget and remit is to stop people getting killed by cars.We want him to think more loosely, though no less safely, of streets as places for people and cars, culture and commerce.'

Simpson's long-term goal is to help create a 'cities renaissance programme' in the north of England, which could draw on support from businesses, RDAs, politicians and maybe the Rowntree Foundation. This would create several centres of excellence rather than one urban design nerve centre.

'The centres won't just show off projects but will share skills and train undergraduates and mid-career people in economic and social areas as well as design.'

Recent government papers have given an almost unstoppable momentum for 21stcentury urbanism, he feels.

'Yorkshire Forward has been very smart in picking up on the urban and rural white papers and proposals by the Urban Task Force. These have not told us how to do things, but they have sent out very important messages and we must seize the moment.'

Simpson was recruited by Yorkshire Forward just over a year ago and has been given £1.4 million to finance the initial stages of the 25-year renaissance initiative.

This money has been used to build up the teams, develop proposals and firm them up through public consultations.

But finding hundreds of millions of pounds to build the wacky proposals is going to be a difficult job, and Simpson reckons it will be at least two or three years before major buildings come off the drawing boards. In the meantime, smaller community projects and landscaping will be pushed through. Barnsley, for example, is lining up a tree-planting swoop of one million.

He is guarded on which new British designers he would like to bring on to the renaissance programme but already counts Lord Rogers as a contributor through discussions and commentary. Some very big UK names could still become part of his big idea, he hints.

Next week, Simpson is going to Toronto, then Europe, and then on a well-earned holiday with his wife, Marion, a teacher. 'I describe myself as crazy about streets, ' says the dad of two when it comes to his hobbies of photography, film and theatre. 'The way the city translates into art fascinates me, or should that be the way art translates into the city?'

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