The community difference – living in Derwenthorpe

I asked Carol Warren to tell a little about living in a neighbourhood which was designed as a community – Derwenthorpe by Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust.

I moved to Derwenthorpe on the outskirts of York with my Partner, Nick, almost a year ago. One of the most important reasons for the move was the knowledge that a thriving community already existed here and that the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust had planned the layout of the estate with both the environment and community in mind. Community was something I hadn’t properly experienced since growing up in the working class terrace houses of Poppleton Road in the 40s and 50s.

So what is a typical “community” day like in Derwenthorpe? Physically the estate, with its landscaped gardens, restricted car access, groupings of a variety of house styles and sizes, communal parking and bin areas, offers lots of shared spaces which promote casual engagement with your neighbours. The front gardens are small with no gates, so front doors seem more inviting and accessible. Ours is frequently knocked on as it used to be in Poppleton Road. People might wave at you through the large, low windows or stop to talk as you garden or sit on the bench outside your door. Cycling is promoted via cycle paths which also leads to more encounters. You bump into people much more on this estate for sure. It feels quiet and relaxed walking round the lake or indeed just round the houses. We’ve done our share of door knocking since living here and the number of people we get to meet seems to grow daily, facilitated by both these accidental encounters and more structured activities.

Today, for example, I am going to feed the cats for Katie, a lovely young woman we met in our first week, who helped us move boxes and is now running the book club that Nick has joined. After that he is going to the choir committee meeting as we’re both keen singers and joined the choir soon after moving in. Next weekend we’re both helping at the Open Gardens event, Nick by making a cake, me by manning the tea and coffee stall. Recently, when the nature group were bee-bombing the cycle path outside our window, I took them out a cup of tea and was happy to be recruited into that group. We’ve helped out at monthly coffee mornings, the children’s Christmas party, walked with a group on Boxing Day, attended the 50 Ways to Love Your Planet events, invited our other choir to sing at The Big Picnic, visited a recycling centre with the intention of reporting back to residents very soon. Most of these events are organised by the Community Activity Network which I joined very soon after we moved in, wanting to meet people and get involved as quickly as possible. In June, I volunteered to help with the distribution of Lots On, the monthly newsletter keeping everyone informed of all the upcoming events and ongoing groups. The list goes on, the wine club, litter picking, art classes, Joe’s organic veg stall, Pilates, Yoga, French circle; all on your doorstep if you want it and no problem if not.

I suppose what all this active volunteering and joining has done for me and in a very short space of time has been to give me a sense of belonging to a purposeful, good-natured, active, supportive community that weaves strong threads through doing things together. This in itself creates other opportunities to meet up in other, more social ways, dropping round to each other’s houses, going to the local library cafe, sharing information and skills, offering help, minding cats and keys.

An example of a nice and unexpected encounter a couple of weeks ago, was walking round the wider estate to show it to Nick’s son who was visiting, stopping to admire a front garden, striking up a conversation with the owner (up until then, a stranger) which ended up with her digging up and presenting me with a big clump of a flowering shrub to take home. That’s sort of how it feels here, friendly, generous with a real mix of people, retirees, young families, people with disabilities, people on low incomes. It’s not a utopia, there are problems of inclusiveness, trying to get a wider range of people involved with community building. There will always be issues between people, between people and organisations and issues with the physical space such as unfinished roads, faulty heating systems, inadequate community space. Nowhere is perfect, but this place has been built and imagined on solid principles of sustainable community living. There is a real sense that through the physical environment and the structured activities the threads will hopefully continue to grow, strengthen and cross over binding the community together for years to come and I for one feel very lucky to live here.

A visit to Citu at the Leeds Climate Innovation District

Innovative developer Citu have been collaborators on the My York Central project for some time – they took part in our Sustainable Construction – Let’s Do It! event last June, and have expressed an interest in building on York Central. Their approach is nicely set out in their website but in particular there are many aims which are aligned with the Big Ideas which came out of the public engagement process – building sustainably, and building to high standards of performance and comfort for all; providing training and employment to local people and taking a holistic approach to what they do – not simply building homes but building a piece of city.

We decided it was worth taking a look at one of their projects in the flesh, so Helen and I took a trip over to the Leeds Climate Innovation District accompanied by Imelda Havers (Bluefish Regeneration), Caroline Lewis (Clean Air York), Denise Craghill (Executive Member for Housing), Tim Moon (Community and Self-Build Housing Officer) and James Newton (Yorspace). We were met by Citu Director Chris Thompson, and given a guided tour of Citu’s factory and their development site on the riverside – where they will be building around 800 homes over about seven years – accompanied by a primary school and care home. They’ve also thrown in a bridge…

…not because it was a planning requirement, but because they thought it was a good thing to do – to provide better walking links within their new community, and to local communities beyond.

This hints at their approach – they’re not a standard housebuilder. They have based their whole enterprise on a wish to create a move towards low-carbon cities, and have brought to this approaches from the motor manufacturing industries and elsewhere. This includes manufacturing timber frames for their homes in a factory on the site – a very lean operation where feedback enables them to test and refine practices in an ongoing process of change. Not without challenges though – the production lines in the factory work on a timescale of seconds, while the more-traditional site works in increments of weeks. When the two come together it isn’t always pretty, but is a constant spur for change.

The company employs about 20 apprentices on site – most come from a traditional construction background but are destined for a more multi-skilled workplace, something which is still at odds with CITB training practices. Management staff are largely from outside the construction industry, and very much focussed on process – the “how” to the final built product’s “what”. Timber frame manufacture is gearing up for a 300% increase in the next six months.

The site spans the River Aire, with Phase One currently underway on the north bank, arranged in long terraces which respond to the waterfront location. Every square inch of the site serves more than one function – homes are stacked on a deck above well-concealed parking, and riverside fire engine access road is constructed from grass in a plastic mesh so it can also be used by local children for play and as an informal access to riverside sitting areas. Even the bridge serves multiple purposes – accommodating the local heat network’s bulky piping across the Aire. As a result, higher densities allow them to profitably tackle a “difficult” site which would be ignored by most developers.

The timber-framed homes are very contemporary in feel – claddings are applied direct to the frame (no brick skin disguises here) and are built to high environmental standards. Design and construction is done to Passivhaus standard (the PHPP design tool is used throughout and every house has, and passes, two airtightness tests) but the houses are not certified. This is because prioritising orientation in relation to the river rather than the sun means overall energy performance varies. Some will be better than the Passivhaus limit of 15kWh/m2yr wheras others will fail to meet it – although overall on average the target will be hit. Is this fair? Well, at Passivhaus levels even a 300% variation in energy use isn’t really a biggie – £100 or £300 a year for your fuel bills isn’t a deal-breaker on a £400,000 house.

The showhouse we visited was three-storey, with living space at ground floor lit from above by a light-well at the rear of the house – a response to the back-to-back configuration but also a way to back up mechanical ventilation with stack-effect summer purge ventilation. Sunshading above windows is a spec-your-new-wheels-style optional extra, but even without it, summer overheating is expected to be infrequent. Internal finishes are contemporary but fairly conventional – Citu have no intention to “go volumetric” by factory-producing entire rooms. The timber frame panels are trucked across from the factory, assembled on site and then a fairly conventional fit-out process starts.

But it’s very much not just about the house. The “package” which is sold is in large part the location and new neighbourhood. This is literal – the land is retained in co-ownership by the collective owners, and the energy and IT networks are similarly shared, evening out demand on renewables output and allowing a surplus to be made on broadband provision which is ploughed back to the benefit of all. On a more emotional level, owners are being offered buy-in to a neighbourhood, a broader identity, rather than simply four walls. This significantly shifts the focus onto placemaking – private outdoor spaces are largely confined to roof terraces, but public realm is generous and richly specified – wildflower meadows flank riverside decking and the hidden parking (around 0.6-0.7 spaces per dwelling) means you’ll never see a car on the shared street, ensuring it becomes a social space.

We left discussing how this might translate onto York Central. Densities and building heights there may be higher, but the principle of doubling up uses on any given footprint has already been tested to some extent in Leeds. The Leeds development is only 5% “affordable” (in partnership with Leeds Community Homes) and the sale prices certainly aren’t bargain basement. But these are high-spec homes – comfortable and with very, very low running costs. And Citu reckon that the process of refining their operation will see their costs being level with “conventional” homebuilders within three years. It certainly feels like a conversation worth continuing, and an already promising fit with the big ideas of homes built to high standards and mixed-use high-density neighbourhoods, with communities made through exchange. We’ll report on that conversation as it continues – meanwhile many thanks Citu and Chris Thompson.

One Planet York Festival of Ideas Event – 10th June 2019

One Planet York Festival of Ideas Event – The Creativity of Sustainability

10th June 2019

Speakers:-

Helen Graham & Phil Bixby

Catherine Heinemeyer

Mike Bonsall

Ivana Jakubkova

Christine Marmion-Lennon

Event Outline

After an introductory presentation by Helen Graham and Phil Bixby on the approach to public engagement used on the My Castle Gateway and My York Central projects, four speakers talked about their own project and how each addresses specific One Planet principles. After each talk there was a pause for reflection and participants were asked three questions:-

  1. What interests you in this?
  2. What are the challenges – what questions does this raise for you?
  3. What connections or collaborations are needed to make this change happen?

Participants were asked to record their thoughts on Post-Its and these were collected…

…following the event they were individually scanned, uploaded to Flickr and tagged for ease of searching. The Flickr album can be found here, the list of all the tags here – they’re all gathered, starting with “opy”. This can be searched by simply clicking on any of the tags. More refined searches can be made by adding extra tags, so for example search for opycouncil, then in the address bar change https://www.flickr.com/photos/165399988@N08/tags/opycouncil/ to https://www.flickr.com/photos/165399988@N08/tags/opycouncil & opylegislate to find Post-Its looking at the council and legislation, or https://www.flickr.com/photos/165399988@N08/tags/opycouncil or opylegislate to find Post-Its looking at the council plus Post-Its looking at legislation.

A summary of the results

Just under 300 Post-Its were recorded. These were tagged on the basis of theme, any action which was suggested or implied, and any body type of body which was connected to the theme or action. So for example:-

Taking a look first at the most numerous tags, Wellbeing was a common issue with Social Prescribing being a common theme within it, and access to it mentioned by many.

Home Energy was also a common issue with a wide range of concerns and themes linked to it – exploring different ways of saving energy / looking at legislation for higher standards of new-build sustainability / assessing the best way to make improvements.

Also common was reference to Land as a key issue – particularly in respect of opportunities for green environment whether large (a York National Park City) or small (Guerrilla gardening).

Collaboration was the most frequently mentioned of the actions, but noted in a variety of contexts. Collaboration with or between organised groups was frequently mentioned (especially Extinction Rebellion) but also peer-to-peer collaboration between individuals (for example community bulk buying).

Information was seen as key, with reference to shortage of information (“how do I find out about…”) and the way in which it needs to be delivered in accessible format. Linked to this, many people mentioned the giving and getting of help and the channels through which this worked, and communication.

Of the various bodies noted in connection with these issues and actions, the council was the most frequently mentioned, with specific roles in respect of policy and recycling, but also more generally as a link with other organisations.

Extinction Rebellion was also seen as a key player – in all sorts of ways but in particular in connecting and collaborating with other bodies (and at the same time concerns were voiced about a crowded field with many environmental bodies and a need to ensure avoidance of unhelpful overlaps). Indeed, a simple wish to ensure cooperation between different groups was also a key concern.

Overall, connections / collaborations were a key concern – between different groups and between issues and key players. Ways of sharing information and educating / getting buy-in were also major concerns, with a wish to carefully explore the possibilities of online platforms and new technology, tempered by a concern that such innovations (eg Uber, AirBnB) aren’t always as cuddly as they are initially portrayed, and a recognition that sometimes collective action works best where people meet, and talk.

Re-imagining The City – A Journey Into The Future

Paul Osborne, local transport planner, used the Festival of Ideas event on Re-imagining The City to paint a picture of a future journey.

Let me take you on a journey into the future. How far into the future is up to you…

I leave my 4th floor apartment in Moortown, Leeds. It’s eight o clock and overcast. I’m a bit late but hey, it’s not often England make the world cup final, two tournaments in a row.

My phone alerts me – my train is leaving on time and there’s a city bike waiting for me at the end of the street. As I approach, the bike unlocks itself and my phone pings to tell me that it has been serviced and the tyre pressures are fine.

I set off, humming a tune from the morning’s breakfast show. I pass the kids making their way to school, some of them wearing their replica England shirts. The bins are out for collection. The pothole which had opened up the day before, has been fixed.

The car ahead, automatically limited to 20mph on all residential streets in the city, moves to the right to let me through, the driver alerted to adjust his position by his in-car sensors. I thank him as I go by and his daughter smiles at me through the car window.

At the next junction I have a left turn towards the city centre, I wait for a gap in the steady flow of inbound cyclists, safely separated from traffic. I join them and soon we are travelling at a steady 12 mph, nudged along by the coloured LED lighting in the roadway, sequenced to progress us through the next three sets of traffic signals.
We ride the green wave until we reach the first busy intersection. Countdown signals tell me how long we’ll be waiting, time enough to break into conversation with the cyclist next to me. She smiles and recommends a restaurant down a local side road – it does great vegetarian pizza.

The lights change, she’s quicker away than me. We pass the cycle counter which detects us as we pass, flashing up the daily and annual cycle flow. It feels good to be part of a crowd.

One hundred metres later (oops I mean yards – I’m still getting used to our return to imperial measures) and a variable message sign thanks me for not using the car. It flashes up the predicted journey time to the city centre, currently 30% faster than the vehicle flow beside me.

We reach the Sheepscar interchange. Plans are afoot to bury this huge junction below ground level and leave buses, bikes and pedestrians to take the surface route. In the meantime, images of live CCTV footage are projected onto huge LED screens to enforce the new bus and cyclist priority measures, funded by the city’s health investment strategy.
There’s one short hill into the city centre but the electric assist on the bike kicks in, keeping my speed and effort consistent. I join another green wave, having covered my five mile mile journey to the station in just under 25 minutes.

My bike locks itself as I leave it in the bike park. My phone logs the distance I’ve covered and updates my reward points. I get the choice to top up my integrated public transport pass or spend it at my neighbourhood shops. The bike downloads information about the journey, alerting the bike share company to its location, and passes data about air quality, traffic conditions and road surface condition along my route to the city’s transport team.
I head for the train, flashing my Owl Card (the Leeds equivalent of Oyster), I find a seat and decide on a good night to try out that pizza.

As Paul noted afterwards, many of the “futuristic” ideas in that story are already reality somewhere in the cycling-friendly world. If you spot a link to one of them on the net, tweet us at @my_futureyork and tell us where it’s already happening!

My York Central

Like our previous work at Castle Gateway, My York Central goes beyond conventional community consultation by enabling all those interested to become part of a sustained long-term conversation where influence comes through sharing responsibility for the area and its future. Throughout we are working to make getting involved will be active, challenging and fun. In our approach to York Central we are building the approach developed for My Castle Gateway.

The way we’re approaching this for York Central is through a Festival of York Central in March and April 2018. You can see the various events here.

Our approach includes:

  • Build a brief: Start with the personal… and make different people’s needs and ideas visible (and our thoughts on the value of a good brief can be read here)
  • Explore Challenges: Cultivate a grown up and sophisticated public debate about complex issues (an example from My Castle Gateway here)
  • Make change together: Facilitate community networks and local action as well as long term community influence in decision-making, design and delivery.

Day in My Life: Building a city-wide brief

'TEXT'
‘Any process of design is actually a more complex process of developing a brief (which sets out what’s wanted) and then a design response to this (which is largely technical). A brief is then the start of a design challenge, for design professionals; one which can still be a conversation – a creative partnership with the community – but one where each party is clear about their opportunities and responsibilities, and the long-term nature of this relationship’

Planning for the future of cities is a complex, dynamic process. Planning professionals in local authorities juggle the difficulties of technical and political demands – and often produce proposals which are contentious, or downright rejected by the public they are designed for. Why is this? Incompetence? Very rarely. Any process of design is actually a more complex process of developing a brief (which sets out what’s wanted) and then a design response to this (which is largely technical). There are two reasons why urban planners, highways engineers and other skilled professionals turn out poor proposals. One is that the briefing stage is handled terribly, with the community poorly engaged and with short-term politics over-riding long-term vision, and the second is that briefing, like design, should be a creative process, but is usually strangled by risk-aversion and lack of faith in the broader public. The minimum number of people are involved, rather than the maximum.

So how do we turn this into something more successful? The first important step is to note the distinction between brief and design; the two are linked (and good design often involves repeatedly revisiting the brief to check it is still completely valid) but distinct. Professionals often fear that inviting the involvement of the community is “getting the public to do our job” when it is nothing of the sort – it’s simply about providing the professionals with a better brief. Being able to plan the shape and structure of a city requires the professionals to know what the community wants to do in that city – how they will use the future buildings and spaces – and planning professionals are rarely actually given this information with any degree of completeness. The second important step is unhitching the briefing process from elected representatives. The cycle of politics – the politician’s “forward horizon” is far too short for strategic planning, and consideration of what will be popular with voters in four years’ time is unlikely to reliably describe what is wise for shaping a city for twenty, thirty, forty years of strategic change.

A third, and important, issue is that producing a good brief isn’t easy; we assume it’s simple, like doing a shopping list for the supermarket. But it’s completely different; it comprises moving beyond consideration of the present into consideration of the future, it involves imagining things being different, and it involves altruism – consideration of what we hand on to others as our lives move elsewhere, or come to an end, or are simply shared with increasing numbers of fellow residents, travellers, workers. This process involves individuals developing a picture of their future lives, based upon their values and wishes, and then bringing together these individual strands into a collective vision of what buildings, places and spaces, what infrastructure (and indeed what governance) needs to provide in our future city.

And this resulting brief is then the start of a design challenge, for design professionals; one which can still be a conversation – a creative partnership with the community – but one where each party is clear about their opportunities and responsibilities, and the long-term nature of this relationship.

Find out more about how share your Day in My Life and to help build a brief for York.

Two Days in the Life of…

I decided if I was going to start asking the question, asking it of myself first was only fair. So here are two days.

4th May, 2016

A typical weekday workday; a session on the turbo trainer, and then on to a site visit at Haxby Road school via coffee with a friend at Your Bike Shed. The school meeting is to deal with Listed Building issues as part of changes we’re making to the school – the tricky side of making changes to history. The journey is by bike – I pull up alongside a fellow Environment Forum member at traffic lights in town. It’s the first really warm day of 2016 and we celebrate with a cheery discussion at the front of the traffic queue. From the school it’s onwards via picking up a Good Food Shop stuffed pitta (and narrowly avoiding messy consequences) to the chiropodists in town. Coming out I get a call from the site manager on a job in Fulford – could I call in? A ride down the riverside in the sunshine means it’s no major chore, and I meet an old friend – now retired – who’s just got back to York after a Brompton ride from Howden (“the wind’s a southerly, so I got the train there”), and he tells me he had dinner in the house I’m heading to, sometime back in the eighties. “Bloke drank a lot of port”. Carry on to the site and agree on foundation details which needed  checking, and get a call from the chiropodists – they’d overcharged me accidentally, so could I call back in? Another sunny riverside pedal, and then back to my office – the basement under my home. A couple of hours dealing with emails and phone calls, and a short walk (up the steps in the back yard) to dinner and news of my partner’s day, watching the trains rattle past out of the back window. Another couple of hours preparing stuff for the following day, and then the sofa.

4th May 2026

A typical weekday work-ish day; out from the house across the back yard to the office – I know I said I’d cut back when I got older and greyer but there’s so much happening it seems a missed opportunity to step back. Sort out all the online work information exchange, and then sling the tablet in a rucksack and head for the tram stop. It’s early, and there’s a deer peering out above the crops in the fields. I never thought I’d move out of the town centre but when the chance came up to build on a custom build plot out at Whinthorpe, among like-minded oddballs – well, we signed up. Caroline’s packed up the shop, so sorting this place out is a good long-term project. There’s always someone I know at the tram stop – a chance to chat, gossip. The tram cruises up, we board and head into town – they feel so much more solid and permanent than a bus, I love ‘em. Most of the morning’s in meetings at the York Central design office – whoever finally came up with the idea of establishing a local collective to carry the detail design forward over the lengthy development process was a genius – there’s a real atmosphere of wanting to get it right. A long way off finished of course – another ten years? Maybe, but at least there’s A Plan. Lunch is a short walk into town – every year the weather’s weirder so short walks are good – but today it stays fine and shuffling meetings to tables outside cafes works well – WiFi everywhere so work happens everywhere. At the end of the afternoon it’s still sunny and calm and I regret taking the tram, so take a bike from the hire rank in Parliament Street and after a quick wander round the newly-pedestrian-priority Bishy Road head down the riverside, over the Millennium bridge and out of town along the cycle path. Lots of others out too – cars are so expensive to use that it only takes a whisper of sun for them to get forgotten. Food, and online to catch up with my daughter in London – thanks to technology I get to talk more – phoning was always just that bit too much effort, or maybe now she’s in her thirties she’s just got more time for the elderly!

My present, and My Future York. What’s yours?

Phil Bixby