My York Central in 2020 & Beyond – Scope & Constituencies

One of the recurring themes within public engagement is “how do you reach the hard-to-reach”.

This merits a little unpicking straight away; There will be people who really do have a stake in a place or a question but who are often bypassed by “conventional” means of engagement – and here swapping “easy-to-ignore” for “hard-to-reach” is a fair criticism. With our work we’ve always been willing to work with the “usual suspects” but have also always made efforts to engage far more broadly – we’ve run appropriately-tailored sessions in church hall drop-ins, school classes, pay-as-you-feel cafes, midnight walks with the homeless – the harder to reach.

But there are still a lot of people out there beyond this. A big development – like York Central – feels like it should make ripples right through the city, but does it? Are there people who live in suburbs on the opposite side of York for whom it means little, who would argue it’s for someone else? I would argue that there are, and this then prompts reflection on the purpose both of the process of engagement and the subject itself – in this case York Central. How can we frame questions which engage both with the development proposals but also with the lives of everyone in the city? And how can the development be shaped to ensure it as generous as possible, bringing benefit to as wide a constituency as it can?

Ensuring that a process of engagement is agile enough to fulfil this broad range of purpose isn’t straightforward, and it can’t simply be extractive – it relies heavily on two-way communication which enables ideas to be identified and addressed within a conversation, bridging between fairly specific questions about the development – York Central – and everyday topics of conversation where the conversation is taking place – that largely unrelated suburb, for example. What connects the design of a street in York Central with “you said you’re looking forward to the weekend – what especially?”

Within our work, Helen and I talk often about citizenship and democracy, and particularly a type of distributed democracy which engages with everyday conversations in everyday settings. We have had conversations with people who work in the Local Area Coordinator (LAC) teams about their role of their work in big city-wide processes. We often look at how apparently specific decisions about – say, the design of a junction – actually connect with very broad policies around transport hierarchy and about personal experiences around, in that case, movement and travel.

Covid-19 and the response to it has added a layer of complexity to those everyday conversations; issues of loneliness or poverty may well have been heightened, and the opportunity to share and connect with others has been diminished. But is has also created opportunities – a call for volunteers brought over four thousand responses; an over-subscription which has meant many people who are happy to be involved in the city’s response to the virus have no  t been able to take part. For many people, thinking about the future might feel impossible due to uncertainty and fear, but there are many others who could – potentially – help kickstart a city-wide conversation linking their own neighbourhoods and offering collective reassurance, along with new networks connecting people with their neighbours.

So – what does all this have to do with York Central? What does York Central provide as a framework within such a broad conversation? It can be:-

  • At the very least, the development is an idea, a “what if”, a tool for discussion around how we shape our city in future, what oft-misused words such as “sustainability” or “zero-carbon” really
  • It may be a future place where people might live or work – where there is a question “what would it need to be like for you to be there?”
  • It may be a place of exchange – where people go to learn, or teach, or share – to be excited and challenged by it.
  • It may be a place to go through – a new route into the city (with better buses or greener cycling routes. Or just less traffic).
  • It may be seen as a catalyst for the city – a place where we pilot bold ideas which make broader change across the whole of York; where aspirations are deliberately set high because of the opportunities to test new futures.

There are routes we can use to connect these opportunities and questions back to that broader context. In our work to date we’ve used film-making terminology to talk about how you make use of an agile viewpoint – “panning” and “zooming”. Here, we need to be able to use:-

  • Panning – to examine and understand existing neighbourhoods and use that understanding to shape York Central, the city centre, and those existing neighbourhoods themselves, and…
  • Zooming – to use broad understanding to then shape detail decisions about specific places or issues.

Can we set up conversations which allow this to happen? We have the Local Area Coordination teams out there already, engaging with people at neighbourhood level, joining in their conversations and enabling them to be richer in purpose. We have thousands of Covid-19 volunteers, spread across the city and all, to some degree, already engaged with their own neighbourhoods. Can we – within whatever constraints on contact endure – start conversations which begin with simple questions:-

  • What about your home makes you happy?
  • What about your neighbourhood makes you happy?
  • What about York makes you happy?

…but then start to allow us to pan and zoom in order to work with the stories which are generated, while at the same time ensuring that the conversations build connections within neighbourhoods, and start to identify opportunities for local collective action. Conversations – which start maybe by phone (an invite through the letterbox) and maybe continue via socially-distanced doorstep chats or tea in the street when that becomes possible – all facilitated by people who themselves live in that neighbourhood, who know some of its issues, and who will share some of their neighbours thoughts on what function York Central might play for them.

This could be a genuine process of imagining and re-imagining; of giving form to ideas around happiness and wellbeing, bridging between the solid piers of the lives of individuals in their neighbourhood, and the largest and most important new part of the city. It would add meaning to work on more specific York Central design issues too; conversations with interested groups and individuals have always identified broader issues, and this city-wide network of conversations would be a perfect way to take this process of “exploring the challenges” out to a much wider group of citizens, to create a richer democratic process which itself can lead to more broadly supported directions in policy and process.

“Active citizenship” – especially in a time of great change and amidst fears of disengagement with the democratic process – must be something we seek to bring out of the current crisis. York Central can be both a tool and a beneficiary if we have the courage to engage generously; to share, listen, and to then work within neighbourhoods to support people in creating better places, alongside York’s wonderful new quarter.

YoCo meets Citu – online workshop – 19th March 2020

This event was hastily reconvened as a Skype online session due to Coronavirus – many thanks to all who took part. We’re looking at ways of using a more robust platform for ongoing events, but it was extremely helpful to see how this session went.

Many thanks especially to Chris Thompson, managing director of Citu, and to Ian Gray, project director at York Central Partnership (YCP). Here are some notes which summarise today’s discussion.

After brief introductions from everyone, Phil gave a brief update of where we are up to with the York Central Co-Owned (YoCo) proposals – starting from the My York Central big ideas and leading through a number of public events to this one here, which set out a sketchy check on the scale of development we could fit on the site adjacent to Leeman Road which we’d investigated.

Ian then briefly outlined his thinking on the early stages of the development of York Central. He noted that initial phases off Leeman Road had the potential for around 400 homes, and that he was keen that this first phase “set the tone” by showing an intention to do good quality development working in partnership with the community. He also said that while involvement of YoCo in providing affordable housing might “tick a box”, he wanted to show how we could jointly go further and do something which demonstrated that innovative community-led development was possible. Ian also clarified that the recent funding announced for York Central wasn’t the expected HIF funding – he’s yet to find out exactly where this is coming from and what it’s to be spent on.

Chris outlined Citu’s aims – a company very much driven by a wish to address climate change through the developments they do. He described their “vertical integration” – taking on everything from timber frame manufacture through to marketing in order to control their product and ensure quality. He described the Leeds Climate Innovation District – 280 acres overall – and their part in it which will ultimately comprise around 850 homes, some workplaces, a school and care home and a lot of high-quality public realm.

Chris said that a key element in making their approach a success was making efficient use of land; by eliminating roads and surface-level parking they had achieved densities more than three times higher than usual (the Leeds scheme has low parking provision, and buried under the homes and public space). They have found that sales prices have been comparable with others in the area – higher quality and energy performance doesn’t immediately translate into higher values – but that as the development has progressed values have risen (from around £300/sq ft to around £310). Ian commented that YCP would want to act as “master developer” on York Central to ensure they controlled the overall identity of the development.

Chris was asked whether the building methods they were using in Leeds would translate easily across to York Central. Chris noted he was talking very much about the technology – designs and housetypes would be site-specific (they don’t have a range of houses which they drop just anywhere – thank heavens) – but that on the face of it they were currently doing 4-6 storey developments using timber frame. Post-Grenfell timber structures can’t be used above 18m height; this would still allow 5 storeys but there is uncertainty around whether this might be reduced to 11m in upcoming legislation – which would then require different building methods and flies in the face of “zero carbon” aims. Chris noted their Leeds factory had been designed with capacity to serve all of Yorkshire, so if a scheme was built in York the frames would be made in Leeds, but erection and finishing teams might be local.

Chris was asked about mixed tenure and affordability. Citu have been working with Leeds Community Homes – basically aiming to build housing within the mix to be owned and managed by LCH. At present all completed units are market sale, so there’s no experience yet of how a mix of owned/rented works there. The same approach can in principle be taken in York.

Chris was asked about the energy systems at Leeds – these (along with the freeholds of the houses) are collectively owned. Chris noted that control doesn’t actually shift to the occupants until the scheme is finished, but commented that there was an argument for doing this as soon as a critical mass had been reached. In response to a later question he also pointed out that the scheme has its own comms networking, so each house has superfast internet – a key consideration right now and one that helps resilience in future.

Ian was asked about the upcoming spending review and what impact this might have; he commented that the government saw housing as a priority. He was also asked about whether Homes England could apply political pressure to ensure a shift towards more sustainable development (and practically fewer cars = more housing land). He responded that exemplar schemes would be useful in demonstrating this; that he’d been successful in achieving this previously in Oxford and was hopeful about York – he noted the scheme “needs to work for fifteen years or more into the future, not for last year”.

There was a conversation about The Gatehouse – meanwhile use of the existing building on Leeman Road current leased by HE to Network Rail. Ian noted practical difficulties with getting possession of this but said he agreed it was important to get meanwhile use on the site – either in this building or in another, and he was working to make this happen.

We concluded by talking about what conversations needed to take place next. Chris said he felt a key issue in working with any partner was shared values (sustainability etc) and that there was a need to work together all the way through the process – so engaging on developing a joint brief which fitted with their approach to construction would be essential. Ian discussed the contractual basis which starts with Homes England’s standard framework (basically requiring developers to be on a register) but he said he was keen to be flexible in ways that allowed innovation. Ian said he was very open to a community coming forward with an idea for what they need and say “this solves your community-led problem and takes it to the next level”.

Phil gave a brief update on the YoCo bid for £10k start-up funding which had been successful, so the group now has some money to fund technical and legal support, fact-finding etc. We would collectively look at how to use this to move things forward. Imelda will be in touch with people about how they want to be involved.

Thanks again to everyone who took part, and to Helen for setting up the event and chairing it. We will be running a second online workshop next Tuesday 24th March at 4:00pm with Neil Murphy from TOWN and (hopefully, again) Ian Gray.

A Day In My Life – Vienna

What’s it like to live in the city voted “the worlds most liveable city” two years running? What makes life different there, to here? Nigel Tottie calls in from Vienna.

I am usually up pretty early- around 6am thanks to the cats! After feeding them and drinking a quick coffee I either cycle to work along traffic-free dedicated cycle lanes (there is a huge dedicated cycle network in Vienna), or walk to the local tram stop and take the tram to its connection with the U-Bahn, which stops right outside the front of my workplace. Public transport is excellent in Vienna- a conscious decision by the City’s Green Party implemented affordable public transport as a way of encouraging its use. With an annual pass I can travel on all buses, trams, trains and the U-Bahn system across the city for only 1 Euro per day! Perfect for a Yorkshireman.

I work at the United Nations Headquarters building in Vienna so on a normal day will have meetings with colleagues of different nationalities. There is something very humbling about sitting in a meeting with my female colleague who switches effortlessly between English, French, Russian and Romanian depending on who she’s talking to! I have enough trouble getting some nationalities to understand my Yorkshire-accented English!

After work, and another cycle or tram ride home, we might go for a wander through the local vineyards to a Heurige, or take the tram into the City for a drink and some food. Austrians are very good at meeting over lunch and eating out – it seems like the whole place eats out in Summer! The city in summer is very lively – the Rathausplatz has events on all year round, from the Christmas markets, to ice skating in Jan and Feb (the biggest ice skating area I’ve ever seen!), Easter market, food festivals, film festivals etc! People are more indoors in winter, just because it gets cold, but still the Austrians are happy standing out on a December evening eating Langos and drinking Gluhwein.

In summer I will head out of the city on my bike on a couple of evenings and get in a loop of 2-3 hours with friends. It’s easy to get out of the city onto relatively quiet roads within a few minutes and I take advantage of it whenever I can. This also makes it easy to get out on the bike with the same friends on a weekend in the summer. In winter the nearest skiing (the Austrian religion) is only an hour away so I take advantage of that when I can (it’s addictive!).

The property set up is interesting. We are currently renting, but looking at buying somewhere at the moment (we’ve reserved an apartment which will be built at the end of the year). Rented property is plentiful and, in the Altbaus, cheap, as rents are fixed by the City Council (the rents don’t seem to have changed much since the 50s!). Public Housing is everywhere and doesn’t have the stigma that it can have in the UK – it is sought after and tends to pass down through generations – once you’re on the tenancy you can add your family and pass it down. It’s the same with private housing. There isn’t much to buy apart from new builds, as families tend to keep their housing and simply pass it on to the next generation. And ‘clean’ is the word – the Austrians take pride in it – the streets tend to be spotless and everything runs on time. If a tram or train is late by even 30 seconds they are on the speakers apologizing! It’s a far cry from waiting for the No.5 Bus in Huntington (we moved there in 2014) and it simply not turning up!

Despite so much that is great about living in Vienna, it does have its frustrations. The Austrians are incredibly bureaucratic and any interaction with city authorities or local government involves repeated visits to officials and lengthy written exchanges, all conducted in German (in my case, very bad German!). There is no NHS in Austria so the first question when visiting a doctor or dentist is always ‘how will you pay?’ And you have to love pork-based products (there are only so many Schnitzels or Wurst one man can eat in a lifetime!). So, on balance, I would recommend Vienna as a place to live to anyone who asks. But York is still home, and always will be.

Wild and Playful Streets in York Central Co-Owned

Event held at York Explore, Wednesday 12th February 2020

Nineteen of us turned up at York Explore (many thanks to Barbara Swinn for use of this excellent space – home to all sorts of creativity judging by the stuff which surrounded us) to share ideas and creative thinking about the outdoor, public bits of our proposed Co-Owned Neighbourhood. And we did it playfully.

Starting with Pictionary – we drew stuff on the tables to reflect what we’d like to see / hear / smell in the neighbourhood, and we then wrote on cards which put in words what we thought the pictures showed. We then split into groups and used these cards as tools. We spent some time thinking about less appealing stuff – what are we likely to end up with, whether we like it or not? Delivery vans, money-grabbing developers and similar stuff immediately came to mind, and was written down. We then used the cards to identify, with each issue, where we wanted to be and how we might use the good stuff to build a bridge across to this. After a lively set of discussions we came back together to talk through how those bridges would get built.

Here are the very summarised responses…

CARS:- make the place somewhere people want to be > encourage activity (jungle gyms and fun stuff) > make sure there are bikes and routes for them > FEWER CARS.

SPECULATIVE DEVELOPERS:- make gardens and bring garden love > create a bit of wildness > re-balance the private and public > cafes and the smell of baking > treehouses > DIVERSITY WHICH DOESN’T APPEAL TO SPECULATORS.

BIN LORRIES:- create secondhand swap shops > recycling and upcycling > have collective bin areas > use new, clean technologies – BIN BIKES / BIN ZEPPELINS

BIG BOX RETAIL:- ensure interesting local competition > put shops on the perimeter to reduce traffic into scheme > CREATE PEACE & QUIET IN CENTRE

SECURITY CAMERAS:- make facilities shared where possible > create camaraderie > ensure overlooking and people knowing each other > CREATE JOUISSANCE

GATED COMMUNITIES:- Crime and fear of it > natural security > mixed development and demographic so not everyone disappears during daytime > places where people naturally meet (“proper Secure by Design”) > active space and frontages with gardens > SHOPS AND COMMUNITY SPACE AT GROUND LEVEL

STORAGE AND GARAGES:- Create library of things > make it inclusive to build trust > make parking areas wild so people brush against nature > SHIFT AWAY FROM UNNECESSARY CARS

DELIVERY VEHICLES:- reduce van movements > centralised delivery spaces > REDUCE ROAD NETWORK

ROADS AND SERVICES:- bring services above ground where possible > reduce need for services (local water recycling / sustainable drainage etc) > easier for other stuff underground > HIDDEN BINS (FRENCH STYLE)

DISTRICT HEATING:- no need for gas but think about collective systems > solar panels in the best places > LOCAL ELECTRICITY NETWORK

TRAIN NOISE:- plant trees to shield visually and from noise > TREES FOR COPPICING


We then did a round of “when I go to York Central, in my suitcase I will pack…” which created a fun A-Z for our neighbourhood:-

A lot of children to make the streets busy

A BRIEFCASE full of tools

CHAIRS so I can sit outside and talk with people

A DRIVER of screws

EARS so I can hear the birdsong

A FRUIT TREE for every household

GARDEN seeds – for wildflowers

HELLO’s for the people I meet

An INTERN (well paid) to research the neighbourhood and tell others

JAMJARS so I can make use of the fruit from the trees

A KAYAK for my river commute to work

LOADS of chocolate

MUSIC of all kinds

NUMEROUS ideas to turn inequality on its head

ORANGES to make marmalade

PEACE and quiet

QUOSH for hot summer days




A spirit of UNITY

VIEWS of special things

The back-end of a FOX running off into the landscaping

Lots of YUMMY food

All of it being ZERO carbon

We finished off by agreeing on our next steps:-

  • Let’s get local children involved by working with schools in the area (St.Barnabas and Poppleton Road) to get their participation in shaping the place
  • We have an application submitted for Community Led Housing start-up finding – as soon as we hear more about this let’s think about what we can do with these resources
  • We’ve been looking at “meanwhile” use of The Gatehouse on Leeman Road – let’s pursue this and explore how we can build links with the local community and use the place to articulate ideas.

York Central Co-Owned – 13th January 2020 Blog

Our workshop on Monday 13th January in the Cinder Building comprised four inter-related sections; the first was simply getting there – high winds and driving rain put a fair few people off and one or two abandoned on the way there, soaked and disorientated. Twelve participants made it, plus Phil & Helen, and Steph Hiscott from Homes England – more about her input in a moment.

The next main chunk of the session was doing some initial thinking about an outline brief – what do we want this place to be, and to do?

Phil started this process rolling by outlining the progress made so far – starting with the Big Ideas from the My York Central public engagement…

  • Homes for living, not investment – forever affordable housing
  • Exploiting the benefits of high density
  • A community made through exchange

…and the questions which emerged from discussions around them…

  • How can we create an intergenerational circular economy?
  • How can people downsize and use capital to invest in stuff which enriches neighbourhood and their lives?
  • How can we make use of York’s inequality for good; How can we help York’s hidden creative industries flourish?
  • How might the mixed-use neighbourhood of the future be more like the past than the present?

He then set out some initial steps to draw out some physical scale to this. How big a project are we thinking of? We had had discussions with York Central Partnership a year or so ago, where we put a red line around an area which had various positive features:-

  • It was next to The Gatehouse building – still being pursued as a “meanwhile” use to get a community presence on the site
  • It was next to the Foundry buildings – identified in the outline consent as being for possible community or educational use
  • It was close to the edge of the site and the existing Leeman Road and St.Peter’s Quarter communities
  • It was – it turned out – next to the area initially identified as being a likely first phase of development.

The area is shown red-lined below:-

He then outlined some basic thinking from David Sim’s book Soft City (based on very extensive work done by urban design practice Gehl Associates on urban components which work well) on perimeter blocks comprising walk-up mixed use buildings around a space where privacy/access can be controlled by those buildings.

He then described the constraints on building height set out in the parameter plans – part of the approved outline consent. These restrict building height in this area to around 17.5m – realistically around five storeys maximum (allowing a 4m floor-to-floor ground floor and 3m floor-to-floor for the storeys above. So – four or five-storey walk-up buildings would fit.

He then described measuring the perimeter of the red-lined site, which gives around 300m of frontage. Divide this by (say) 10m between dividing walls, multiply by 5 floors, and you get around 150 units which could be one or two-floor apartments, workshops, offices, shops, café’s etc.

This is a very rough figure, but gives some starting point for thinking about the scale of what we’re shaping.

Using this as a starting point, we then asked “what would a day be like here? Living or working, what would you do here, what would it feel like, what would the place need to provide you with?” These were the narratives which came out (via Post-Its, obviously)…

“I’ve got a mezzanine live/work apartment but the neighbourhood is important to me too. There’s a community nursery with outside space and a forest school. for me there’s a shared “natter” and hobby space and a studio to do yoga. And as a treat for after there the York Central bakehouse which does the best sourdough in town. Plenty of activity – the public spaces are properly wild so there’s a Saturday morning Park Run through the streets, but also public art and playspaces. There’s off-road trail bike terrain and a climbing wall, plus a lake for wild swimming (and for people who want hotter water there’s a sauna).”

“The central, convenient location is important to me – I can hop onto my bike, head off to Bishopthorpe off road or walk into the city centre avoiding the roads. I can cycle back into town and almost to my door along the riverside, just making a detour to call into our local shop for milk. I’ve got secure cycle parking close to home, and I’m already in a good mood as I get home to change and go meet friends.”

“I love the pleasures of this place. There’s the social – I can walk to work along a green route and use bikeshare to cycle home, but either way I’ll likely say hello to neighbours as the places is designed so you meet people. There’s good stuff in the neighbourhood too – getting to the cinema and pub is easy, and there’s a tapas bar and a patisserie.”

“This is a mixed neighbourhood – there are all sorts of ages, and while some people need a bit of care, others are happy to give it. It’s a place where public health has been thought of, and made positive – there’s a rooftop infinity swimming pool with fantastic views. The streets have been designed for people – children can play there as they’re car-free, and there are places to linger where you know you’ll meet people – there’s no reason to be lonely.”

“It’s a place where once you get outside, you hear birdsong. The public spaces are green, and not just at ground level – go up to the rooftops and there are gardens linked by walkways; the streets aren’t the only way to get around. You can see the distant skies, but there is lots to do; people are neighbourly and impromptu stuff is going on all the time. There are places for public play too – ping pong and stuff like that, or you can just hang out and enjoy the views.”

“It’s a great place to live if you do things on the spur of the moment – there are local facilities including useful shops. It’s social too – you can walk the dog on local streets and spaces to meet and chat with people, and if you want to go further afield there’s direct access to the riverside too.”

“For me I appreciate being close to the station – I can walk there for my commute to Sheffield and the local car club is handy for more awkward journeys. But when I’m home I just love the views – a place to read and be online but immediately return to reality to watch the sunset. There’s secure communal bike parking at the foot of the building, and a shared workshop where you can repair stuff or work on your own stuff. The neighbourhood brings people in too – there are classes, singing groups, and the best bakery.”

“The neighbourhood offers so much – an easy walk into town, maybe through the park or alongside the river. It’s convenient for cycling too (and there’s a shared repair shop!). Stuff to do – art classes – and local shops selling useful stuff – groceries and a bakery. My home’s lovely too – I can use the roof terrace for a glass of wine or a coffee with friends.”

“Surrounded by a lazy river, the neighbourhood is made by its gardens and green space (and the gardens are made by local people – there’s plenty of opportunity to get your hands dirty). In fact it’s the people that drive everything – the place is set up so it’s easy to get involved and to share things, to meet people, though it’s still your own space behind your own front door). The things people need are shared, and places are designed to bring people together – a natural amphitheatre to eat lunch in, and shops and bars on bridges that connect us to the rest of the city. Good walking routes and public transport means the place isn’t dominated by private cars, and there are well-lit places for dog-walking after work too.”

“It’s the collective space that makes it special – there are skill share repair workshops for everything from bike maintenance to electronics repair. There’s a hack space for being creative too. And if you want to simply people-watch or see the world go by then there’s the café upstairs.”

“It’s a real focus for community-led stuff; James came over yesterday and stayed over as we had a morning meeting today with various co-ops and groups within York Central. There’s always food involved and lunch came from our local food co-op – bread baked locally, food grown locally! In the afternoon we had a meeting with members of our housing co-op – we’re one of three on York Central and are finalising plans to build a local strawbale hub building.”

“I’ve got a top-floor apartment and have a short walk to work in a co-owned workspace on the ground floor of my building. Temptingly, among the many local social enterprises, next door is a cooperative coffee shop – and for something stronger there’s a community pub just down the way. If I manage to tear myself away from the neighbourhood it’s an easy walk into town to the cinema. But coming home is good too – I can have a swim in our rooftop pool before bed.”

“The streets are places where people can meet their neighbours – unlike most streets you feel comfortable there, conversations and encounters are unhurried. It works well for all ages too – kids can mix, play – and explore too. Some of the public space feels wild, but safe.”

The third part of the evening was a brief presentation by Steph (on behalf of the unavoidably absent Helen Fielding from the regional Homes England office) and Tim Moon (York’s Community and Self-Build Housing Officer) on ways in which Homes England was working with development partners and communities to provide affordable (in the widest sense) housing. Steph noted that key aims were to increase community-led housing provision, and to secure 130,000 affordable housing starts in the region. Tim pointed out the council’s commitment to 5% of housing on York Central being custom or self-build – which (assuming 2500 overall) sets that requirement at around 125 homes. All of this would be on top of the requirement for 20% Affordable housing – of which 80% would be social rented. Steph’s presentation is available here as a PDF.

Lastly James Newton talked about the role of Yorspace – the community housing group that has been successful in getting a co-housing scheme included within the Lowfields Green development, and is working more broadly to support and enable community-led housing across York. Yorspace is committed to supporting community-led housing on York Central (with any exact relationship between this project and Yorspace to be decided further down the line) and with that in mind James offered to assist in putting together an initial funding application – for up to £10k of reasonably readily-available funding – to support bringing a group together, fleshing out some initial questions about what sort of legal body would be most appropriate, and gathering information by contact with other projects which have experience to pass on. There was general support for this next step.

The session closed, having made good progress and consumed plenty of cake (thanks to Caroline Lewis (Twitter’s @singingfoodie) for maintaining the tradition of cake-fuelled meetings). Thanks also to York Central project director Ian Gray for arranging the venue.

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


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 to & opylegislate to find Post-Its looking at the council and legislation, or 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.