Life Sized York Central – second session, Milan – Phil Bixby

The second of the Screenings and Conversations took place on 13th Jan, drawing inspiration from Milan and the Life Sized City film presented by Mikael Colville-Anderson. This is a brief blog noting some of the issues which the film raised, and some of the discussion which followed.

Milan was in many ways a contrast with Copenhagen – a city with lots of heritage (Colville-Anderson imagines it as an operatic Diva) but also the remains of now-vanished industry, along with a location which makes it a focus for the movement of refugees. Oh – and streets full of Italian driving (and parking), too.

The initial picture was of a city of contrasts – new and old with a clear dividing line – where the new comprised massive gated developments designed by “Starchitects”. The argument was put forward that the old somehow “anchored” the new, although it became clear that behind this there was a substantial process of public engagement. The film looked at upcoming development on former railway land (we’ve been here before, folks) and the tension between upmarket development (an adjacent Prada office) and community wishes – for about 60% open space, 30% housing (including social housing) and intermediate social/cultural space. The local speaker touched on interesting ideas of how local communities needed to sometimes push things they didn’t want, as a way of enabling the greater plan – a subject we returned to in discussion afterwards in relation to protest and opposition.

There were a number of wonderful projects which worked with food as the fuel which drove them – the Recup food recycling project working in local markets (and oh, how many markets, too) to make available unwanted food, the Brektivists who came together from a Facebook project (initially a local discussion group which “went physical”) and turned into regular breakfasts in a roadside square – apparently in defiance of public regulation. And a community-run kitchen working with local refugee camps to put on meals – bringing together the food of a range of cultures along with understanding and dignity. Interestingly (for me anyway) all of these projects had a “founder” – none were municipally organised and all simply relied on someone – a local resident – making them happen. All raised questions – what makes good public space (does it even have to be publicly owned – or simply made available by a willing and imaginative host?) and – in our discussion afterwards – how do we shape thinking about new public space by developing the activities we want to share? And – now – how do we do this with ongoing restrictions on gathering due to Covid?

The subject of movement and cars was a recurring theme, as it was in Copenhagen. Milan historically had a network of canals, many of which were filled in to provide more road space, but where the city is now planning on opening up at least an initial 8km to re-connect waterways to the north (where there is flooding) and south (where agricultural land suffers drought). There was a lovely project called 12m2 where a group of people took over an urban square – astroturfing over the parking spaces to provide things which responded to local needs – bike repair, plants. They talked of meeting with local residents and a process of gentle discussion – an exchange, rather than “taking away”. We talked afterwards of the need to break down the tribalism that infects much UK (and York) discussion of movement and public realm – people being “drivers” or “cyclists” and reference to the Dutch mentality which is much more nuanced about this – bringing realism and humour.

All of which led to a personal favourite of the film – where a mother had got frustrated by the dangers of cycling her primary-school-age kids to school, so she joined with other parents, set up a gathering place and time, and organised (and piloted, with much shouting) a kind of kids’ Critical Mass ride to school, filling the road with smiling, pedalling kids. Just slightly chaotic – especially near the school gates – but probably less so than the cars of a typical UK school run. As we discussed afterwards, York has a proud history of filling the roads with cyclists (the carriageworks and chocolate factories) – can we revisit that?

Our next screening and conversation will visit Montreal on 20th January. Before then, please email or tweet us your comments to give us a starting point to build upon, and some key points to carry into the fourth session and our focus on York Central. Even better, write us a blog on some aspect of the film (or indeed this blog) that you’d like to respond to or pose questions around.

Thoughts on Copenhagen – Chris Bailey

There’s ‘listening’ and there’s really listening …

A short way into the Copenhagen episode of his series on Liveable Cities, Mikael Colville-Andersen emphasises the importance of listening in creating good spaces. But as we all know, human interaction is a bit more subtle than that. There’s ‘listening’ (as in “I hear what you say …”) and there is real listening, which results in taking account and in change.

Listening, often managed through a consultation process bringing together experts and the representatives of the public, is an inevitable, but often unsatisfactory, part, of the planning and development processes. All too often the default model is the kind of consumer study carried out by large manufacturers in the heyday of mass consumption. The departmentalised structures within these companies bred a culture where each specialised group performed a task on a product, then pushed it ‘over the wall’ to the next team to deal with. Only in the lofty realms of management was a complete picture available. The public response in focus groups or surveys was just part of the process. ‘Listening’ took place, but there it ended. Expertise went unchallenged, and there was no accountability.

Listening properly challenges both the experts and the elected representatives charged with governing the process. It can be painful for specialists to hear ‘non-experts’ suggesting other ways, and generally having to accept the status of equal in the dialogue. Politicians, having received a mandate from a majority of electors to get on and deliver manifesto commitments, might also struggle to deal with conflicting views from diverse communities, regarding them as something to be overcome in pursuit of an objective, when in reality they are part of a process of shaping it. One of the biggest flaws in the Government’s recent White Paper on the planning process is that the creation of a new local plan, however much debate is entailed, marks the end of the consultation with the people who will live with the consequences, rather than its beginning.

Having declared a climate emergency in 2019 York has set itself the task of becoming both more liveable and to emit net zero carbon by 2030. The urgency of the issue has focused some truly impressive brainpower on the situation, as the recent York Climate Change Commission report shows. Writing the report involved a ‘citizen jury’ to give their views on priorities, the stated purpose of which is to secure ‘licence’ for the actions recommended. There listening might end, unless a genuinely mutual partnership emerges that monitors, shapes, and helps govern York’s progress towards that utterly vital target.

In what we must hope is a sign of a better year to come, the UN has declared 2021 the Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development. As you would expect of a UNESCO Creative City, My Future York is only one of several models of good practice in partnership and co-production. York is part of a national programme, Enabling Social Action, that promotes ways of working with communities to commission council services. In York the Local Area Coordinators ‘walk alongside’ members of their community, sharing their stories, and helping them to find support, whether that is medical, social or cultural. They are not just being consulted; they are co-producing their own support. The ‘ladder of co-production’ – seven steps we can take to enable people to be fully and properly involved in shaping their surroundings – is transferable to the process of making cities more sustainable.

We could ask ourselves ‘How far up the ladder are we with York Central?’ and feel somewhat depressed. But I reflect on my single experience of Copenhagen, around twenty years ago. Then Christiania was not in such good shape, even for a hippy commune. It had yet to recover from the economic and ideological pasting it got from the Danish government, which was always keener on Thatcherite dogma than their Scandinavian neighbours. Although Stroget was already a stroller’s paradise, even in the bitterest depths of winter, it was at what Jan Gehl called an early stage of pedestrianisation, devoted to conspicuous consumption rather than sociability. I saw very few bikes back then, and I was not surprised to learn that 20% of the growth in cycle usage has happened since 2006.

In twenty years, in other words, Copenhagen has been ‘Copenhagenized’. It’s wrong to think of that as a planning prescription, for bike lanes, play spaces or any single ‘solution’. The result, which is never finished, owes its richness and vitality to layer upon layer of listening, dialogue, changes of mind and direction. Two decades in a city’s life is not such a long time, provided you are constantly trying new things, learning from mistakes, and making things stick.

Chris Bailey
10 January 2021

Life Sized York Central – first session, Copenhagen – Phil Bixby

The first of our Screenings and Conversations took place on 6th Jan, drawing inspiration from Copenhagen and the Life Sized City film presented by Mikael Colville-Anderson. This is a brief blog noting some of the issues which the film raised, and some of the discussion which followed.

The film looked at a number of factors that have shaped the city:- movement, the relationship between citizens and administration, and the failures of the development process.

Copenhagen is well known as a city where cycling dominates local transport – far more journeys are made by bike than by car, and there are 40,000 cargo bikes in the city, showing the broad use of bikes for a range of purposes. Two interesting points were made – people cycle because it’s quicker, not for health or to save the planet (a point proved by testing a suburb-to-centre journey – eighteen minutes by bike, twenty-four by car) and cycle infrastructure was built by the city because it was cheap – the entire infrastructure (safe routes linking the centre with the periphery) cost less than a handful of kilometres of ring road.

The film looked at the process of planning and development – how having a mayor allowed bold decisions to be implemented but also how good democratic process ensured grass-roots ideas get heard and form the basis for policy. And they don’t always get it right – their “finger” plan for Transport Oriented Development has resulted in a major development which has failed, where economics of building transport infrastructure have driven the building of a huge shopping mall – now largely dead, and surrounded by only partly built and occupied development, many years behind programme.

Children and young people, and their role in the city, was touched upon – the film visits a school where the kids get to explore the building of furniture using a clever kit of bits, and explore how they can influence their surroundings. When asked what they like about their home city – this is where Colville-Anderson lives, and where his Copenhagenize design practice operates – his kids both say it’s how they can cycle around the place easily and safely. They have mobility and with it, independence.

Copenhagen is regularly in the top ten global “most liveable cities” but this popularity brings problems – it’s an expensive place to live, and marginalises many. The Christiania project was explored as a response – raising questions about ownership and finance; how can collective ownership work in an area of high demand and high land value?

There was wide-ranging discussion, with views from inside the council and one or two other major York bodies and from people involved with YoCo as well as interested residents of York and elsewhere. There was a mix of frustration – York isn’t Copenhagen either in terms of its current reality or its apparent current capacity for positive change – but as many pointed out, we have opportunities in York as a result of the various bodies active in the city and some valuable work to date. Copenhagen was described as imperfect but “work in progress” – a question for York is “are we in progress, and if so in what direction”? And fundamentally – if we’re to build city-wide citizen engagement to push for bold future vision, how do we do this?

There was discussion around ownership – or lack of it – and how that shaped places; what was the difference between mutual / co-ownership and no-ownership, and how might this guide thinking around YoCo’s proposals? How do you avoid what one participant called “developmentitis” – the perils of development for its own economic purposes, and the potential of that to fail to fit the needs of people, and to hence fail to take on any life? What makes good public space and what leaves dead routes linking dead places? And for York Central – given the council’s limited leverage over the shape of development beyond the constraints of the planning process, how do the people of York exercise some control?

Our next screening and conversation will visit Milan on 13th January. Before then, please email or tweet us your comments to give us a starting point to build upon, and some key points to carry into the fourth session and our focus on York Central.

Life Sized York Central – a January series of screenings & conversations about building good places.

Organised by YoCo in partnership with My Future York

January 6th, 13th, 20th and 27th at 7:00-9:00pm on Zoom

Eventbrite booking:-

January 6th, Copenhagen –

January 13th, Milan –

January 20th, Montreal –

January 27th, lessons for York Central –

The Life Sized City was originally a documentary series made in 2017 and fronted by urban planning pioneer Mikael Colville-Andersen, very much the public face of the Copenhagenize design practice. Made in response to Colville-Andersen’s young daughter’s question “when is my city going to fit me, Daddy?” the series looked at six very different cities and found in each examples where the city did, despite challenges, fit its citizens. We showed the first series as part of The Festival of York Central in 2018, and were delighted with the way in which each example prompted questions and thoughts about our own city. When a second series was filmed in 2018 it was an obvious choice to prompt further conversation.

The first three of this four-event series will combine screening of one episode of The Life Sized City Season Two, followed by open discussion of the issues it raises and how these are reflected in the design decisions yet to be made on York Central. We’ll look at Copenhagen, Milan and Montreal – each with a distinctive character and each exploring creative responses to the need for change. Sit back and enjoy each episode (and have your tea) and then bring your thoughts to the Zoom room and help identify key issues we should be relating to York Central. (The Life Sized City is not currently available for viewing elsewhere in the UK!)

Watch the trailer here.

The fourth event will be a panel discussion, with a number of key players in the York Central development and will be your chance to hear their responses to the issues raised, and to take part in a lively discussion on how these can shape YoCo (York Central Co-Owned) and York Central as a whole. We will blog the events to ensure nothing gets lost or buried, and will ensure that our collective vision for this key development is a little richer for this experience. Please sign up via Eventbrite – we’d love your company for all the screenings and the final discussion.

Want to know more about YoCo? Click here and if you want to get involved click here!

Want to find out more of the background to the public vision for York Central? Click here and if you want to join the My York Central mailing list click here!


Playing with Movement: From Democratic Desire to Communicating for Change

Playing with Movement. Image by Owen Turner, United By Design.

30th October, 4-5pm

As part of York Design Week, we collaborated with Owen Turner of United by Design to develop a playful workshop seeking to expand the repertoires through which we can think about, talk about and imagine the future of movement in York.

The blurb for the event stated:

York’s conversation about transport is stuck. There is a danger we circle back time and time again to the same debate that is always in danger of becoming reduced to cars v bikes. New thinking is needed – and we need your help.

In this fast paced and playful workshop we’ll generate a creative archive of ideas, images and feelings from people of all ages that can be drawn on in future public engagement processes in order to change the dynamics of transport conversation.

We’ll work with what is shared – that people who live in York want movement around the city to be quick, feel like freedom, to be safe, to be easy and convenient and to give us a feeling of being in control. Expanding these ideas we’ll use colour, drawing, emojis, photographs and objects collating them as we go along into a public online archive.

We opened up the discussions by asking: What makes good movement? In three words.

A variety of responses where shared from with a group of people who wanted movement to be ‘easy’, ‘nippy’ and ‘efficient’ and crucially appropriate the journey. And others who were interested in ‘calm’, wanted to be able to make ‘spontaneous’ choices or event be ‘slow’ and ‘inefficient’. The ideas of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ recurred, which had also figured in discussions in My Castle Gateway and My York Central.

A word cloud of responses to the question: What makes good movement? In three words.

Reimagine Ideas

We then went on to reimagine five very common ideas about movement. Spending five minutes on each and moving on quickly but with the aim of gather everything together so we can see what we’ve all contributed at the end.

You can browse the archive ideas we produced here.

Idea 1: Quick and Slow

We asked: What colour is quick? What colour is slow?

What colours are quick?
What colours are slow?

Ideas 2: Free

We asked: In one line, describe a time you felt free…

Summer – always summer – walking in France or even just the fields around York

On Eday (island), Orkney, with limited options to get off!

Letting go of everyday cares because there’s nothing you can do about them. 

Walking in open countryside

Walking in the middle of the North York Moors – no extraneous noise, no light pollution

Laying on my back in an upland French field beneath the blue sky

Camping on the commons, owning the space

Surfing in the North Sea
Snowboarding and looking out to snow capped mountains, blue sky, fresh cold air
Running through the city or countryside (exploring)

Descending an Alp, crossing countries by bike, under pedal power alone

Wild swimming in France

Idea 3: Safe

We asked: Draw how being safe feels.

How being safe feels…

Idea 4: Easy / Convenient

We asked: Pick an emoji that represents ‘easy’ or ‘convenient’

Idea 5: In control

We asked: Find an object that makes you feel in control.

An object that makes you feel in control.

Final Reflections

While the aim of the workshop was to rapidly expand our ways of making sense of movement rather than synthesis or drawing things together neatly, we ended the workshop by asking… 

  • If there was anything that surprises you?
  • If you think there is anything here that will be useful for developing the conversation about movement in York?

Part of what was important about the workshop was using the occasion of York Design Week to try something new in terms of workshop format. In particular to collaborate with Owen Turner to explore practically how to reimagine the conversation about transport in terms of the York Design Week themes of ‘play’ and ‘make space’.

A couple of weeks on from the workshop we reflected on what we’d taken away from the experience.

Helen Graham:

Talking about transport in York usually happens in very particular and often polarising ways. What worked was very rapidly expanding and extending what movement is to include colours, feelings, images and memories. The power lay in approaching something you think is very familiar from many different directions and through different people’s eyes and finding it might not be the same thing at all. What I’d be keen to do next is think how this method might work with different people and linked directly to our ongoing work in My Castle Gateway and My York Central. Big thanks to Owen for the inspiration, prompts and creative energy.

Phil Bixby:

I get around a lot by walking, and also riding a bike – which I do for pleasure as well as utility. I love buses and (used to) use them often, and I also drive when I need to – I’m a double-car-user as I own a car but am also member of a car club. So when people start arguing about conflict between modes of travel, I’m riding a lot of horses at the same time. We need to draw the discussion back to a more wide-angle view of what we want in our cities and how those cities enable us to have these things – interaction, health, activity, utility, joy. We won’t get there by arguing over detail of any one mode of transport – including the downsides of cars. Can we look more at the qualities of experience, at the words we use to build narrative? Can we do this in a way which is loose, and fun, and accepts it’s part of a long-term conversation? Nice work Owen, in nudging us (and all the participants too, probably) out of our comfort zone.

Owen Turner:

Having the opportunity of working on new things is always really exciting. Working with incredibly experienced and wise people also is really satisfying. Being able to collaborate on an area of work that is open to change and new ways of working to develop new outputs from familiar starting points to give insightful perspectives and views from a range of individuals. Working with Helen and Phil on the workshop was a wonderful experience around a topic that we can all feed into and have an impact on – making it as accessible as possible. Thinking differently, using playfulness, creativity and strategy to a workshop scenario was so very satisfying! 



Thinking York from the Villages – York Design Week 2020

Five walks and an online workshop as part of York Design Week 2020 – Phil Bixby & Helen Graham

It is often said that York’s city centre and suburbs face different issues to York’s villages – and that those that live in town rarely understand what matters to people living out of town. Yet the biggest issues we face – whether housing and movement – can only be addressed by building mutual understanding between people who live in rural and urban York. We asked: How do the biggest issues York faces look from the perspective of York’s villages? How can we use these conversations to think about designing deliberative systems that facilitate and link deep and informed conversations across York?

To experiment as part of York Design Week, we ran small socially-distanced walks and conversations in York’s villages and then invited everyone involved – together with interested urban dwellers – to meet online to draw out the issues and reflect on how to design deliberative systems that can link us together. Over the weekend of 24th/25th October we did walks in Strensall, Haxby, New Earswick, Dunnington and Bishopthorpe (a sixth in Wheldrake was cancelled due to lack of support) and the following Saturday we ran a Zoom workshop.

So, the walks and what came out of them:-

Housing was a major concern – the shortage of affordable housing and the impact on infrastructure that new housing would have. The impact of commuting was clear – in the absence of local employment, people drive to work door to door and there is little interaction and little opportunity for social cohesion to be built. This is compounded by large areas of similar housing creating large blocks of similar demographic – swathes of bungalows occupied by older people.

The social and cultural impacts of this were discussed; the role of libraries (where they exist) in creating collective activity, and churches too – although it was noted that this doesn’t suit everyone. Places often have large numbers of single-activity groups and clubs; often they are competing for funding but sometimes can come together successfully to collaborate. Bored young people can be seen as a nuisance – where they are local personal connections can defuse this to some extent, but the lack of opportunity remains. Parish councils have a difficult role – sometimes working strategically to create Neighbourhood Plans, but often mired in complaints, development control comments and struggling to get support from the city council. The big connectors? Schools and dog-walking.

We touched on the Green Belt and other surrounding countryside, which was seen as important in preserving each village’s identity by preventing it merging with others, or preventing wholesale change in character by large-scale development. In many of the villages though opportunity to use the countryside as an amenity are few – public rights of way out from the villages are rare. Cycling out is possible, but…

…the roads outside and between villages are often perilous on a bike, due to high traffic speeds and or volume. In general, transport and movement is a key area of concern. Traffic has an impact on all of the village centres – pedestrian safety is a concern and parking is problematic – because of lack of it or the related problem of dangerous and/or selfish parking, including pavement parking. There is also the issue of “unofficial Park & Ride” – people driving to use better bus routes – which we returned to during the online workshop. Buses were a common topic, with people noting that they often weren’t quick or convenient or affordable – taking circuitous routes or with pricing that made driving and parking much cheaper. While village to city routes were relatively plentiful, village to village routes were very rare.

Lastly economy and development was discussed. In almost all cases the villages had lost shops and other facilities, and had ageing populations which related to diminishing employment and rising costs of housing. Issues of housing and employment and transport are all related, and can span across wide geographic areas – big developments in Stamford Bridge / Pocklington have had an impact on traffic in and around Dunnington, for example.

Having thawed out from the walks (which took most of a week) we fired up Zoom and engaged with a mixture of city dwellers and participants in the walks, to look at how common issues to both might be addressed. The aim of the session was to:-

  • Share themes from the walks
  • Dive into one specific issue that kept coming up in different ways in all five of the conversations and think systemically about it
  • Think about how it can be unstuck and positive change enabled.

The issue that we chose to dive into was “unofficial Park & Ride” (or “Park & Go” as the urban equivalent was often people parking as close as possible to the city centre and then completing their commute on foot). This was one of a range of issues under the broad heading of “people’s home lives being screwed up by other people’s movement”. We asked people to discuss this as a group, articulating it and looking for common factors across the village to city context. What we got was:-

…which largely flagged up failings in bus provision; for example that routes and frequency were poor meaning it was worth driving to park and pick up better routes, or that fare structures mean commuters find it more affordable to drive, park and walk. The former is mainly a village issue, the latter a city issue – and the two are just different facets of a common pattern of behaviour.

This led to our final discussion around deliberative systems; how might we how we might connect issues, ideas and people in ways which:-

  • Connect across everyday talk, community-led action with empowered decision-making spaces (such as government and local government). This is about going where people are – pubs, places of worship, skateboard parks – meeting on their own terms and linking up people and perspectives not usually heard within public sphere conversations.
  • Make it deliberative not assertion-based – instead of “have your say” (a cliché of public engagement) which leads to untested assertion, we need to create different routes into an informed and creative conversation, one that can – through multiple perspectives – can make visible and deal with complexity and systemic effects
  • Be responsive to action and change at all scales in making places – change is about the council but also about all of us and businesses and organisations of various shapes and sizes.

Due to time constraints we only really touched upon this. We identified that many of the behaviours identified were simply people solving their own problems (the “best” route to a destination/activity) in a way which then has unintended consequences for others. The question from this was how might we use the same problem-solving approach but collectively? Is there an opportunity for this to be an approach to Neighbourhood Planning, or to shaping the Local Plan or Local Transport Plan?

One idea that came from the discussion was to focus creatively on positive issues – rather than the negativity that is associated with movement. The example given was food and this was seen as a way of potentially sustaining a conversation between villages. (And this links to the idea of “Food Lines” which came out of an earlier workshop we ran looking at building mixed communities – routes we take and why we take them):-

With the Planning White Paper very much on our minds, could better public engagement in the shaping of Local Plans address these more complex issues? Instead of simply focusing on where housing or employment goes, can good public engagement unlock thinking about radical solutions which really address their concerns about what is important in their neighbourhoods? Would a real, long-term background conversation about what we want our city to be like, allow the villages and the city to come together to propose positive change?

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 the 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 not 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 mean.
  • 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 meet with Town

24th March 2020

This event held as an online session due to Coronavirus – many thanks to all who took part.  Many thanks especially to Neil Murphy, managing director of TOWN, and to Ian Gray, Project Director, for Network Rail and Homes England who are the master developers of the York Central.

Here are some notes which summarise today’s discussion. The event ran on the same format as with Chris Thompson from Citu on 21st March.

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.

Ian Gray then outlined his thinking in key areas:

  • Investment models: The master developers are looking for ‘patient capital’, long-term investment. Through the procurement of partners who will view the project over a 40-50 year timescale.
  • Ownership models: are exploring leasehold models to enable this long-term investment.
  • Community-led: Too often developments ignore community-led and only give it a little leftover space at the end. The aim is to use the planning requirements set out in the outline masterplan for custom and self-build homes and to go further.
  • Timescale: Ian then briefly outlined his thinking on the early stages of the development of York Central. There would be Phase 1 Commercial (near the station) of around 300-400,000 sq ft and Phase 1 Residential (near Leeman Yard). 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. The aim would be for these to be advanced by the end of 2020.
  • Sustainability: Scope for a much more innovative approach going beyond the illustrative York Central masterplan.
  • Archaeology: Interested in getting a big community dig going once land near the station becomes available.

Neil Murphy introduced the work TOWN have been involved in recently:

Marmalade Lane

  • Residents: importance of residents themselves building the community they wanted. This had an impact on the wider local area, despite happening at the tail-end of the overall development. Earlier community input gives more impact.
  • Cars: Much less use of cars and need for parking than predicted, so parking space allocated has been repurposed as share space. Car shares have been set up.
  • Different models of community-led – non speculative development: Not only the scope to start with a group but for developers to form a group. This enables non-speculative housing development. In a speculative model, there is a leakage of value. There is so much risk management in speculative approaches that quality is cut unnecessarily. Bringing together development-led and community-led means you can do non-speculative development. You don’t need a ‘tribe’ in advance, you can build a ‘tribe’.
  • Pioneers to get through development period: There is going to be a 15 year period before the York Central site is finished. You need people who want to be urban pioneers involved in the early phases, building the place and the community.

Open discussion

Procurement: It is noted that an open procurement process will be needed beyond the current process. Homes England are currently reviewing DPP3 and other frameworks to have a Dynamic Purchasing System. However, the Master Developers need a process that works for both Homes England and Network Rail.

Regional Planning: Is there a danger that without better regional planning, York Central remains just a pilot. Others responded there is real power in having a very strong pilot in terms of beyond 5% custom build and community led and sustainability standards.

Building a community-led vision: Real encouragement not to assume things won’t be possible – build a vision and stick to it.

COVID-19: How do we ensure the lesson being learnt now – the different ways of living lives – can be responded to in the planning York Central?

Community Land Trusts and Leaseholds: It is useful to think what is the problem to which Community Land Trusts are the solution? There might be no benefit in a community land trust if a leasehold process was set up well with community involvement in management.

Next steps:

  • YoCo: Imelda Havers (Yorspace) to facilitate the process of developing a group and vison for the YoCo site.
  • Wider site: Phil Bixby to continue keeping in touch with other agencies – such as JRHT – with a full recognition that this might be about other sites on YC not the YoCo site.
  • My York Central: News of when this wider conversation will begin again will be shared as soon as it is confirmed by City of York Council.


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.