Dr Steve Tiesdell, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy (1964-2011)

Dr Steve Tiesdell, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Glasgow and one of the UK’s leading academic urban designers, died on 30 June 2011, aged 47.

Steve was brought up in East Anglia and studied at the University of Nottingham, from where he gained a BA in Architecture & Environmental Design in 1985, a Bachelor of Architecture in 1988 and an MA in Environmental Planning in 1989. He worked briefly for Tibbalds Munro, qualifying as a chartered architect in 1990, before then returning to Nottingham as a Lecturer in Planning (Design).

In 1998, Steve became a Chartered Town Planner. That year, he moved to the University of Sheffield and thence on to the University of Aberdeen in 2000, where he was appointed to a Senior Lectureship in Land Economy. By then, his expertise was becoming widely known in the UK and abroad. He gained his PhD in 1999, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2000, and held a Visiting Professorship at the University of Pennsylvania in the US in 2003. In 2005, he moved on to his last academic appointment at the University of Glasgow.

Throughout his career, Steve was at the forefront of re-interpreting and re-energising urban design as a means to transform people’s lives for the better by creating places in which they could thrive. His strong commitment to social justice was reflected in the importance he attached to urban regeneration and, more recently, in his growing interest in South Africa and other parts of the global South. He was much inspired by Francis Tibbalds’ approach to making ‘people-friendly towns’ and by a highly creative period of collaboration with like-minded colleagues at Nottingham who developed a radically different approach to understanding and teaching urban design. He tested out this ‘people-based’ approach in a series of early research projects on making city centres safer, and on managing town centres and the evening economy.

Despite the greater commitment needed, Steve always believed strongly in the importance of publishing books, even though he also wrote numerous conference and journal papers, both individually and jointly. He served as book reviews editor for Journal of Urban Design (which he helped to establish in 1996) and became a highly respected editor of the Elsevier urban and regional studies research monograph series. In due course, the ‘Nottingham’ view of urban design thus found expression in the now seminal text on ‘Public Places – Urban Spaces’ which he published with Matthew Carmona, Tim Heath and Taner Oc in 2003 and which appeared in a much expanded second edition in 2010. Other books flowing from this important collaboration included ‘Revitalising Historic Urban Quarters’ with Oc and Heath, and ‘The Urban Design Reader’ with Carmona. He was himself a prolific book collector and reader, amassing an extensive ‘enlightenment’ library spanning architecture, design and much of the social sciences, with travel, sport and literature also well covered.

Steve remained incredibly passionate about urban design throughout his academic career. He spent many of his holidays building up his direct knowledge (and extensive photographic collection) of design issues across the world. What made this passion so intellectually powerful, however, was his inherent curiosity and his enthusiasm for scholarship. This marked him as possessing an unusual keenness to reach out well beyond his own discipline and build numerous bridges to those with other academic and professional interests. He was a fervent advocate of multidisciplinary approaches and a powerful critic of what he called ‘silo-based’ thinking.

By the time, he arrived in Scotland in 2000, Steve increasingly understood the importance of effective delivery to urban design, which led to his growing interest in land and property development as well as policy and governance. His architectural background proved no barrier to developing an ever stronger knowledge of these fields – indeed by drawing on design language he was often able to communicate key policy concepts more effectively. He employed and developed institutional theory to promote a more holistic understanding across disciplines. Steve’s Glasgow work was thus marked by the distinctive way in which he combined his passion for urban design with his increasing insight into policy science – indeed, he increasingly saw urban design as a specific illustration of public policy.

Steve was a highly effective communicator, whether in the lecture room or, as he loved to do, guiding a party of students or visitors around the cities in which he lived and worked. As one former student said, Steve “had the rare gift of being able to convey the commonsense nature of urban design in such a way that was inherently memorable and intuitive.” He could readily capture and retain audience attention by the enthusiasm he always conveyed for his subject. With his voice resounding across the lecture theatre or in the open air, it was never hard to hear what Steve said or to appreciate the importance he attached to saying it. He was keenly committed to seeing practitioners equipped with stronger design skills and appreciation and indeed was equally at home speaking to practitioners as to students. He developed urban design modules for CPD purposes and became an active member of the Glasgow Urban Design Panel advising on the design of new development in the city.

Steve fundamentally believed in the prime responsibility of academics to enhance the student experience and he always took this seriously himself. He consistently sought innovation in course design and quality in course delivery. He thought it important to invest time in students, often on an individual basis, to make sure they understood what he wanted them to learn. His approach was never dry, for Steve well knew the importance of humour in embedding knowledge and used it to good effect in his teaching. As one former student commented that he was “an amazing lecturer who always made us laugh – so full of wit and energy”, while for another his courses were “very efficiently planned, highly educational and yet fun too”. Indeed, Steve’s field trips were so well planned that they were famous for ending in a city centre tavern with participants enjoying a beer and continued conversation.

Although passionate about academic enquiry, he never took himself too seriously – his self-deprecating sense of humour was frequently used to good effect. So many people have remarked how much they enjoyed their lively discussions with Steve about academic matters and indeed much more, and will long remember those chances to share a drink or a meal and appreciate his company. In many ways, he was an old-fashioned conversationalist – keen to listen as much as to talk – but always liable to inject new insight and new direction into any discussion.  His widespread popularity among colleagues and students alike reflected his own generosity of time and his keenness to share and debate ideas. He was well known for his collegiality as a colleague. As a highly committed team player, Steve was willing to take on burdensome administrative tasks uncomplainingly, while always seeking to make improvements.

Steve grew up as a keen sportsman, playing cricket from an early age and participating in five-a-side football until his late 30s, when he was diagnosed with a heart condition. Although frustrated by the constraints this sometimes imposed, Steve’s creativity and enthusiasm for academic enquiry remained undiminished. Since mid 2010, he had fought with great courage against brain cancer, continuing to work on as far as possible on two new books (Urban Design in the Real Estate Development Process published shortly before his death and Shaping Places, due out in 2012, both with David Adams) and in sketching out new areas for research. His continued legacy of publications will remain a powerful resource for many years ahead - no doubt continuing to instruct future generations of urban designers about the critical importance of making places with people primarily in mind.

David Adams
University of Glasgow