Life Sized York Central – fourth session, Lessons for York Central – Phil Bixby

This was a discussion event – a real conversation – reflecting on what we’d seen in the films and asking how it helps steer our direction in the early stages of creating York Central. We set out the background of My York Central and the early and ongoing work being done by YoCo, and then asked Project Director Ian Gray to respond.

Ian sees this as an astonishing opportunity, with public agencies which enables long-term thinking and can create a sustainable community. He wants to work with the community, not against. He noted the history of “model villages” – Victorian examples like Bourneville which addressed accessibility and wellbeing. He wants a mix of tenures, enabled by public funding which pushes boundaries and helps all. “What will be the norm in fifteen years, and how do we build them in now – but not by replicating examples elsewhere”. He suggested we have to look at all issues – transport, materials – “currently quite light at looking at sustainability” – and says the current outline scheme is only a start, “a baseline, but a nice one”. Also we need a space where ideas can come together at this early stage, and there’s a responsibility too on all of us not to miss opportunities, and to boldly create ways of testing things.

We then asked five speakers to respond to a question each.

How do major players within a city work to enable and partner with community-led action?
Charlie Jeffery / Vice-Chancellor and President at the University of York

Charlie is now on York Central steering board – is interested in placemaking based on community action. We must make York Central an asset for the city as a whole; his focus is on the economy and opportunity it brings for people to shape the economic future of the city. There are a number of major players in York – YSJ, York College and Askham Bryan – and they jointly see opportunity for collaboration here. Digital and creative industries, biotech, the circular economy and robotics are all local strengths, where new local products can sustain new local businesses. Local people need to be able to participate – we need a new centre on York Central which becomes a place for local people, via enterprise, research, education, training, support. And how do we connect this with community-level action?

Discussion:- How do we share wealth – community wealth-building? Examples like Preston. Big players need to be on board to help Zero Carbon aspirations. How do we bring transparency to development process and allow the community into deliberations? Commercial decision-making cannot be transparent, but elsewhere transparency can be improved by inviting in the community.

Is the balance of the development right – housing -v- employment? York Central can reshape the broader economy – across York. Covid may impact use of commercial buildings, but not necessarily the quantity of space they need – outdoor space is important too. How can we guide demand to respond to local economy, not just fill up space – providing skills and apprenticeships. Illustrative masterplan is just illustrative, but there is a planning framework. The idea of a place for learning – St.Pauls to relocate, but also a kitchen, a library, much more.

How can public and citizen engagement enable connection – even in large cities – between grassroots thinking and city-wide strategy? Joe Micheli / Head of Commissioning (Early Intervention, Prevention & Community Development) at City of York Council

Joe reflected on the films – the power of active citizenship, something which can be cool, sexy even. It can be seen as worthy but dull in York. York Central brings an opportunity to be bold – to think big. People need connections to grow, and this space can provide that; there is a policy framework already in place – we’re a City of Service; where power should be shared. Working with Nesta on People Power Shift, with council as enablers. Local Area Coordinators are the best thing Joe’s seen – and really important in surrounding communities. LAC’s give different discussions with different people – we can bring it onto York Central.

(And if you want to know more about Local Area Coordinators – hear Joe talk about them here!)

Discussion:- Can we do practical stuff – invite people onto the site – different people? Example of Hamm – youth camp on a site, alongside big hitters and designers. Council’s ten year (recovery) plan – how do organisations use pandemic as a chance to change. Plan “has a line beneath which consultation happens” – it’s not a main objective, but plan is aspirational in comparison with what came before. The pandemic has probably moved things along towards a more citizen-driven basis – plan probably needs a further re-write. Need to acknowledge changes like retail’s condensed five-year leap forward.

How do broad issues such as wellbeing translate into action which is strategic and also responds to the individual characters of varied neighbourhoods? Chris Bailey / Clerk of York Guild of Media Arts

Chris said we need to think about our language around “co-creation”. Community action in York can be frustrating – how do other places better connect small-scale to big? And how do we learn how to do good stuff rather than simply copying good examples. We need to “learn how to learn”, which in turn means we need to better understand ourselves and our lives. But how to change? Different models – The Grey Briefings – pyramidal, Leviathan, village. What would Mikael Colville-Anderson look for in a future York, and how might York shift from “Live to Work” to “Work to Live” and build stronger relationships with people, places, culture. Is there a third thing inbetween council and grassroots dominance – an international organisation which values wellbeing (Yes:- UNESCO).

Discussion:- Active citizenship can bridge that gap too – how do we do this on YC. Can we have “shadow” LAC’s to experiment with process and change. How do we get “people with lived experience” involved in decisions? Who participates – local areas, but also the broader city? How do we connect people and highlight those connections? In York it’s hard to find “representative groups” – how do we do this? How do we “mass observe ourselves”? My Future York has done work and thinking around distributed democratic systems – how to build connections between communities.

How can economic systems and land ownership be manipulated in order to allow neighbourhoods to function well according to their own chosen priorities, and how can this be made to work in areas of high land values? Imelda H / Bluefish Regeneration

Imelda outlined two strands:- First, land and access to it. Land usually “belongs to someone else”, so providing access to people for their benefit can be problematic. Second, economic modelling and structures – easier as you can nibble at the margins. How do you redistribute wealth, reversing recent trends, re-setting the balance. Need to move away from economics based on wealth and onto something more sustainable and based on quality of life. We need to be brave; but there is interesting work being done (in Scotland for example). Plus “Who Owns England” and how we change land ownership, and work by Shared Assets – on creating a new land narrative. We *all* need a proper, creative role, not just established “creative” bodies. Covid has flagged the need for granular mixed-use neighbourhoods, allowing small businesses to collectively be more than sum of their parts.

(You can read a more detailed version of Imelda’s presentation here)

Discussion:- We need a new economic model – but how does investment relate to this, how do we give them something sufficiently exciting to offset short-term returns? There are precedents for granularity – largely what the Victorians built – which show we can buck contemporary trends. Can we bring social entrepreneurs in to York Central – York has lost some recently due to lack of opportunity – to apply creativity; and can we allow them to emerge from life experience, as well as having formal training. We can look for ethical funding – ethical pension funds etc interested in 4% over 40 years, who will take on long-term stewardship. We don’t want bog-standard development, but we also need community to take on long-term stewardship. We don’t want Brindleyplace and Ladywood; we don’t want exclusive groups. We should experiment, make test beds.

How can cities engage with children and young people as equal citizens and allow them to fully inhabit and engage with their city, and to shape its future? Andrew Morrison / Chief Executive Officer at York Civic Trust

Andrew asked how we give people a continuing investment in the site. Should children be *more than* equal citizens since their surroundings shape them, and if we want York Central to be a lever for change across the city? There needs to be resource for this process. How to avoid the example of the Millennium Bridge and kids’ design competition – young people need to understand by example that they can have lasting influence. Who needs to listen? Us – those with power. We need to accept they’re not like us, and we should encourage broader acceptance. The YorkCentralScape needs to respond, allow loitering. We need to allow young people to inhabit and engage – example of Freemantle Esplanade Youth Plaza, allowing taking ownership. Food is key – a focus for coming together; and young people use public space more than adults. Citizenship isn’t something you get at 18 – education isn’t an essential qualification. Lotus Gardens, Mumbai – used Minecraft as a tool to enable engagement without need for design “training”. So – can we let young people experience York Central now? Can we be creative, go after dark, listen, bring food, think differently. Make it “a park with buildings” from the beginning – and resource it properly.

Andrew’s wonderful visuals for his presentation are available as a PDF here – York Central and Young People

Discussion:- Proposals being shaped for Matt& Fiona project  where young people design and build – aim to do this in the Foundry Building. “Ownership” is positive – example of well-loved Peace Gardens in Sheffield – “The Beach”; but ownership begins before the space/place is created – it starts at the beginning of the thinking process. People have much to contribute to this process. “Immediate intervention” would send a strong signal about community engagement and ability to influence the scheme.

Next steps

So – how do we take the big themes from all of this and ensure we’re working with them as we develop ideas for YoCo? Here’s an outline:-


We need to build a network of partners who share a wish to make York Central a place of learning, but come at it from diverse directions to enable something really connected and multi-faceted to come out of it. Specific actions:-

  • Work with University of York / York St.John and others to develop ideas for how they can have a presence on York Central which links with community activity, and accepts experimental ways of working
  • Work with existing neighbouring communities to identify resources and consider skills and training issues
  • Develop ideas around social/community entrepreneurs and how there can be more support for community and creative initiatives
  • Define “community led” to ensure what we do is open to all and not elitist


Let’s find ways to use food to bring people together. Learn from experience elsewhere such as Homebaked in Anfield but create something which is specifically York Central. Specific actions:-

  • Get on site growing some veg and eating outside on long tables!
  • Work with Ian Gray and others to think about design of the public open space and how this can provide places for people to grow and do things collectively
  • Think about “food deserts” and how to avoid York Central being one by ensuring there’s affordable food there

Children & young people

We need to find ways to enable them to inhabit and engage with the site and its opportunities, and in ways which increase their connection with the city as a whole. Specific actions:-

  • Develop current proposals underway for a project with Matt+Fiona to do children’s design and construction project in partnership with local schools
  • Develop current proposals underway for a second REACH Bags of Creativity project with York schools, focusing on placemaking and the city

Ownership, Economy and Governance

We need to explore ways of creating a local economy which allows good things to happen – building on the My Future York ideas of “a community built through exchange” and examining how to make this work despite high land values. Specific actions:-

  • Programme events around economy, governance and enterprise – might be good to dig deeper into some case studies
  • Contact the sociology /economics dept at UoY to look at YoCo as a live brief
  • Look at functionality of worker co-op models – YoCo has some contacts

…and two final but important things:-

Book onto our bonus Life Sized City screening & conversation on Wednesday 10th February – free tickets at Eventbrite here! And…

If you have any ideas on ways to carry this work forward then please get in touch – Contact – My Future York