Geography, motives and ideas on permaculture

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Mick Downs, Director of Urban Vision CIC, based in Burslem Stoke-on-Trent. I had some questions for him regarding the geography of Stoke-on-Trent and whether the physicality of the city has an impact on the social and cultural quality of the city. In this post I will be discussing the first of three questions, but first of all we need to look at the unique geography of the city I’m working in- Stoke-on-Trent.

Stoke-on-Trent’s unusual layout

Geographically, Stoke-on-Trent is the legacy of Britain’s industrial past. Rather than having a nuclear arrangement (where the city starts in the centre and sprawls outward in all directions) the city was federated just over 100 years ago from a line of 6 towns arranged along a coal seam. Having no natural centre meant that one had to be decided upon. With Stoke Town and Hanley sitting in the middle of the ‘line’, it is evident today how these two towns became unofficial centres- Stoke Town with it’s major train station and Civic Centre and Hanley with it’s large shopping centre and cultural quarter. It is generally accepted today that Hanley is the city centre in all but name, until recently when a new round of regeneration aimed to ‘rebrand’ Hanley as ‘City Centre’. This has met with much resistance from the residents of Hanley and of Stoke-on-trent as a whole.

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Inspired by my research into The Situationists International and The Sociological Art Collective, I began to recognise that by observing the geographical issues surrounding a place you can discover a whole range of information about the mindset of people who live there. More than just being the place of my birth, Stoke-on-Trent is, geographically, an interesting place to study. It has no equivalent in the country and I set out to put aside my own impressions and find out how people feel about the city today.

Interview with Mick Downs

Mick Downs has 39 years’ experience working in planning in the public, private and voluntary sectors. He was a founder and Executive Director of Urban Vision North Staffordshire. Previous roles include Design and Conservation Manager with Stoke-on-Trent City Council and other roles in planning policy and development control.
Mick has developed and delivered a range of heritage regeneration projects, master plans, and design and heritage conservation policy documents. He is also an accredited Building for Life Assessor.  He set up and manages the Urban Vision Design Review Panel and has worked on neighbourhood plans around the country.
Mick is a chartered member of the Royal Town Planning Institute and a full member of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation.  He has a BA in Human Sciences, a postgraduate diploma in Town Planning and an MA in Architectural History.
Political and economic forces

I began my interview with Mick by asking him about a method of redesigning cities that has emerged from my research: Is it possible to evaluate existing cities and public spaces like ecosystems in order to develop ways to synergize with/disrupt their patterns for the good of the community? 

Mick had some reservations about this method. He felt that it might seem beneficial in principal but to put it into practice would be incredibly difficult. He, rightly, pointed out that in the current system there are economic, political and major infrastructural motivations that are all vying for consideration in the design of a new or updated public realm. He argued that the level of complexity of such an ecosystem would make it almost impossible to factor in observed social patterns in order to create bespoke designs at an infrastructural level. The current systems are set and hard to change.

We continued to talk about Stoke-on-Trent, specifically about the quantity of ‘fallow land’ in the city. He remarked that, county wide, developers are buying up land in order to retain the land value and eventually sell it on at inflated prices. The consequence of this, of them having no intention to develop themselves, means that there are vast swathes of empty land and empty properties evident in Stoke-on-trent.

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.” – Bill Mollison

I would suggest that artists should seek free access to this land. From the developers perspective, the more positive attention the land gets the more valuable the land could become. From the artists perspective they get exposure, work and exhibition space and a better chance of funding their practice. From a member of the public’s point of view they are experiencing the unexpected, they are witnessing vitality and growth in the city where before there was only an image of absence and decline, they have an opportunity to express themselves and expand their horizons through art.

Ideas like this, based on principals of permaculture or ‘mutual benefit’ are probably artists’  best chance of synergising with our city ecosystems within the current system, from a bottom-up perspective. Important steps on this ladder include using the right language to speak to developers, local authorities and property owners, developing good methods of observing what the ‘fallow land’ needs in order to benefit the community and access to adequate funding. I will be exploring all of these, ideas and comments welcomed.

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