Leeds City Centre Vision Conference 2008

VisionconfLast Thursday I braved the howling winds and driving rain to attend
the 2008 edition of the Leeds City Centre Vision Conference, at the invitation of the city’s Chief Economic Services Officer, Paul Stephens.

Upon entering the main hall, I felt immediately out of place as the only person not wearing a suit – though I found later that the gallery above was full of students exiled from the main floor 🙂

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The 300+ delegates were largely made up of the great and the good of the property development sector, local/regional government and large employers…ranging from Harvey Nichols, the BBC, Arup and Balfour Beatty to KPMG, to the universities and a handful of media outlets.

It’s a shame that the conference was invitation-only – this in a single stroke excluded a diversity of talents and perspectives, leaving the city’s future concentrated in the hands of BigCorp with no representation from grassroots groups, citizens, indeed even elected officials!

There was perhaps a great opportunity here to unlock the schedule with a parallel unconference, opening the agenda to broader commentary and input as well as surfacing important ideas in an environment that seemed to lack bold thinking.

Though the roster of speakers included the city’s chief executive, it’s civic architect and also the director of city development, by far the most engaging and thought provoking were those with an internationalist perspective, able to comment on Leeds’ place in the world and its emerging regional and international rivals; the city’s made great progress, but its unguided and lacking vision. Each speaker held great hope for the city but warned of short-termism in planning the built environment…some notable quotes included…

  • ‘look to define outcomes not projects’
  • ‘to date, Leeds has been practicing Urban Dentistry’
  • ‘we need a city park!’
  • ‘we need a tall place to see the city from – like a space needle’
  • ‘more tree-lined streets’
  • ‘be able to rent a bicycle when I arrive at the train station’
  • ‘the city’s full of full-stops, gates, blocked paths’

Perhaps the most notable discussion was from Wayne Hemingway who (rightly) acknowledged the city’s transformation, but argued that it lacked ambition, vision, an attention to detail (iconic pavements, not towers!) and the guidance of the city’s creative class, noting the absence of an organisation such as the South Coast Design Forum. Hemingway’s talk raised some eyebrows, but I felt it carried the necessary boldness to shake the delegates up a little…

WaynehemingwayI wasn’t able to stick around for the workshops in the afternoon, but I’ve a feeling they weren’t particularly inspiring or productive. Prior to the event I offered to articulate a vision of Leeds as part of a Silicon Valley style hub of startups, coworking and creative+tech culture…just one possible vision to encourage debate; not a solution, just a scenario. I didn’t get a single response.

I hope some of the day’s material will be shared online – particularly speaker presentations, delegate profiles and (if they exist) videos of the day’s talks. It’s too important a discussion to remain behind closed doors.

One very encouraging sign was a brief chat with Paul Stephens – he felt the initial event had to cater to large organisations but was very keen to move onto a broader base of representation; my suggestions of an unconference track, discussions on municipal broadband and helping some of the Civic Architect – John Thorpe – work find a way online as a kind of ‘digital civic map room’ enabling citizens to direct the city’s futures.

All in, my expectations were low, but the conference was thought provoking and holds some promise to start some interesting discussions 🙂

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