Bill Grimsey in York – a hard look at the future of our city centre

Bill Grimsey at Tempest Anderson Hall, Tuesday 26th April 2022.
Public event organised by Johnny Hayes, facilitated by Helen Graham and Phil Bixby

Bill Grimsey’s 2013 review shone a bright and often uncomfortable light on city centres in the UK, examining their decline from the vantage point of a lengthy career at the top in retail. This was no outsider management consultant – Bill was an insider who acknowledged his part in the process and used his understanding to propose a way forward – one which saw a wide range of stakeholders collaborate to repurpose the hearts of our cities. Given our fair share of vacant shop units, and recent controversy over city centre access, Bill’s perspective on the situation in York would be interesting. Which is what prompted Johnny Hayes, supported by York High Street Forum and York Cycle Campaign, to get him up here, put him on a bike (“They got me riding round on a bike with small wheels! A BRAMPTON!”) and then speak at Tempest Anderson Hall, with a lengthy Q&A.

Bill’s presentation set out his stall – from Sold Out in 2012 and the original Grimsey Review in 2013 through to the updated Grimsey Review 2 of 2018 and the recent Post-Covid Build Back Better (which he described as “localisation on steroids”). Much has changed during this period and he highlighted the impact of…

  • Brexit
  • Austerity
  • Business Rates
  • Amazon
  • COVID 19
  • Ukraine War
  • Climate Change

He set out a bit of background to the role of transport in all this – “20th Century retail oriented itself around the car. This reorientation transformed the purpose, shape and planning of towns and high streets. 21st Century retail is in the process of orienting itself around technology. This transition from a car culture to a tech driven culture coupled with Climate challenges requires bold thinking”.

He then used some examples to show where bold responses had been initiated:-

  • Stockton-on-Tees where a city-centre shopping centre is being demolished to create a new, riverside park.
  • Roeselaire in Flanders, where city centre public space was being created along with bringing people back to live in the city centre.
  • Hove, where local people are calling for a restaurant-packed road to become a pedestrian-friendly boulevard.

Bills advice – which shines bright in these examples, is:-

  • Give everyone a stake in their town centres
  • Put sustainability and the environment at the heart of everything
  • Base changes on quality of life and the experience of being in the city centre
  • Encourage joint management of risk so that all prosper

…and crucially, ensure leadership comes from the Chief Executive, rather than relying on elected politicians whose horizons may be just one election cycle. As he put it:- “Could your Chief Executive run Tesco? If not, why are you letting them loose on running a council?”. His summary of where this leadership should be going included:-

  • Coordination via a town centre commission
  • Drawing up a 20 year plan
  • Community hubs, not retail hubs
  • Embracing and incorporating technology
  • Adopting meaningful measures of success
  • Achieving zero carbon emissions
  • Creating car less town centres, which are also mobility hubs

Questions from the audience picked up on some specific York issues, and also some national ones.

On public space:- if we have more of it in city centres, how do we deal with anti-social behaviour? Bill’s response was that this wasn’t a problem with a minority, but reflected the “culture of the community”. If teenagers are bored, create places which engage them; if alcohol causes problems, reflect on that. The city centre should be able to be opened up, including the riversides (and indeed the rivers themselves).

On landlords failing to accept the need for change:- Many landlords haven’t woken up yet, but will. In York, Spark is a good example where a rich mix of uses has created an incubator for new businesses. Councils should consider taking ownership – even using compulsory purchase – to enable change.

On leadership:- it should be a paid job – someone who is prepared to think long term (twenty years or more) rather than from election to election. Elected members should be like the board – they test and question the CEO’s vision, and should demand evidence – not set direction.

On a car-less high street:- Deliveries (especially to small retailers) need to be thought through – perhaps based upon delivery hubs and using small vehicles or bikes. We can’t simply base everything on what is current norm for a big chain store.

On city centre parking:- There is understandable nervousness among existing city centre businesses, and this needs to be addressed without creating divisiveness. Proper transport strategy needs to be put in place – if the centre isn’t going to have parking then it needs to connect effectively with somewhere that does. Look at cities which have great public transport – Vienna and Prague for example. There’s a need to be bold, and avoid someone in the future asking “who the hell thought that was a good idea?”.

On living in the city centre:- Space above shops needs to be recognised as potential homes, with people living there as neighbours for public infrastructure.

On distinctiveness:- cities need to be different (or better) – there needs to be a reason to be there, a “because”.

People were then invited to think long-term – having heard Bill’s thoughts…

  • What do you hope York’s city centre will be like in 2042 – in twenty years?
  • What are the big issues that need to be addressed to get there?
  • Who needs to be involved in making these changes?

The responses to these questions can be found on the My Future York Flickr archive here. To search them for specific issues, go to the tag list here and simply click on one of the tags beginning with “grimsey” to see responses which relate to that issue.

The event ended with an invitation to be involved, and many people left their contact details. If you missed the event but would like to be part of the ongoing thinking about York’s city centre (or were at the event but missed out on leaving your details) then contact the High Street Forum via their website here.

For more info on Bill Grimsey’s work, go to and/or follow Bill on Twitter – @BillGrimsey

The event was filmed and can be viewed on YouTube here.

The event was covered by York Mix and their report on it is here.

York Environment Week 2021 – What if we solved the climate crisis? What would York look like?

This event was a walk around the city centre, co-created with York resident and Environment Forum member Debby Cobbett. Debby wanted to take a positive look at the city centre and imagine it when we’ve made the changes needed to address the climate crisis – using ideas from the Environment Forum’s vision for the city (published some years ago and written by the Forum’s then chair Kate Lock) and ideas brought on the walk by participants.

For us, it was a chance to ask how our environment reflects and responds to our priorities and agendas. We talk of York as a place with heritage – its structure has been created over a long period of time. The fact that it still works as a focus for our lives is a result of how existing fabric has been adapted and new fabric inserted – right up to the present day. What can we learn from looking at the evidence of this process and what can it tell us as we take an optimistic look at a future York? How will this future city – one which has responded to climate change (both in seeking to minimise it and in responding to that climate change which is inevitable) – look and function?

After introductions, we walked and talked. Everyone had a clipboard and Post-Its and ideas, questions and comments were all noted and are recorded in our Flickr archive here. What follows are some very brief comments on interesting issues which came up.

  • We can’t just consider the city centre in isolation – the reasons for people coming into the city centre will depend in part on what their own neighbourhood contains, and the means of transport the use will depend on what is easiest / most reliable / most affordable / safest – a range of considerations (and work we have done previously suggests that many issues in the surrounding villages match those in the city centre). Likewise responses to flooding on our two rivers need to consider a wide catchment – slowing the flow upstream could have major benefits but requires new engagement between the city and people who live and work the land some way distant.
  • We are uncertain about the types of transport which are likely to become the norm in the city centre, and indeed uncertain about what would be best. Walking and cycling will need to be key, but what else? Are trams a good solution, or do we need to think more of “mobility as a service” and flexible, on-demand modes of sustainable transport? Do the Tier scooters and e-bikes point the way, or will we see shuttles similar to airports? How are wheelchair users accommodated, both in accessing the centre and then moving around it?
  • How can we green the city centre, given the requirements for emergency access and the network of services beneath the ground? How can we use rooftops for more than simply keeping the rain out of buildings?
  • What will the city centre be used for? If we think of re-purposing city centre car park space, what do we want there instead – public space and landscape, or more housing to create city centre residential community?
  • How do we reconcile challenges – for example the wish to encourage variety and local economy and discourage multi-nationals with the realities of life? For example McDonalds is frequently quoted by young people as one of very few city centre indoor spaces where they are welcomed, feel safe and find affordable.
  • How do we create the sort of welcoming permeability – routes that people want to use – to connect new and existing spaces (for example the new public realm which will replace the Castle Car Park) with the broader city centre?
  • There are connections between the local/physical (what are building frontages like and how do they relate to public space; what activities do they provide) and the economic (what is profitable and how do we alongside that create places which do not demand that people spend money). How does the overall city economy thrive and cope with changes without empty units being a consequence?

Community Plan for York Central

Phil Bixby and Helen Graham – as My Future York – facilitated a large scale public engagement process called My York Central in 2018. This generated Big Ideas, a Vision and Principles for York Central. Some of these ideas made their way into the masterplan and are reflect in the outline planning consent granted in 2019 but many did not or where not foreclosed.

Out of My York Central came York Central Co-Owned (YoCo), a community group that aims to carry forward the ideas from the public engagement process and develop a co-owned neighbourhood on York Central as a model for the rest of the site.

In order to develop the ideas, networks, profile and momentum to really ensure York Central is what the people of York want and need it to be we have set up a collaboration with Demos we’re calling Crowdsourcing a Community Plan for York Central, using an approach they call Combined Choice to manage a processes of community action to develop alternative plans and – through a digital platform – the ability for a large number of people (up to 10,000) to express preferences/vote/comment on the emerging plans.

Crowdsourcing a Community Plan for York Central launches on 2nd October 2021 and will run for two months.

To find out more or get involved see the YoCo website or come to the launch or one of our Meet Up events.

York Environment Week 2021 – Moving from Listening to Change

York Environment Week – a group walk 18th September 2021

This walk was organised as part of York Environment Week, specifically exploring how neigbourhood action could link to action on climate change and the council’s aim for the city to become zero carbon by 2030. Our starting point was that:-

  • That the majority of people do not, generally, have a shared agenda of changes in behaviour to address climate change and…
  • That the best way to engage with a diverse population is to work at neighbourhood level, to become participants in the various existing conversations on the key issues of people’s lives – money, health, comfort, family, home – and build bridges between these conversations and both climate change issues and actions, and the democratic processes and structures which might assist these actions.

The walk aimed to prompt conversations about existing local agendas and how we might engage with them (as Local Area Coordinators (LAC’s) are doing) and to use this engagement to connect local agendas to broader city-wide/national/global agendas around climate change. We had six participants including Marie Addy, LAC for the area, and Rachel Melly, ward councillor.

Conversation and Issues as we Walked

Public space. Small gardens make public space important. This is expressed through various ways – there are food growing beds which have been set up with help from Edible York, but are very much tended and protected by local people. People have in places taken on use of back alley space – for urban gardens / sitting areas; the council has no policy on this so it happens without either formal support/opposition. Councillors reported interest from residents in council weed-clearing policy and use of chemicals.

Streets, play and parking. Parking in streets appears dense, but car ownership isn’t particularly high; frontages are narrow and so available space is quickly filled. The local councillor reported that the area was well-served with play areas, and that children generally reported they were able to play outside without problems (although this contrasted with feedback at workshops carried out in local schools as part of the My York Central public engagement).

Energy performance improvements. The area is predominantly built from small Victorian terraced houses – with generally poor energy performance and challenging to both heat and improve. There are a number of homes which have had external wall insulation applied as part of a council programme, with pebbledash external finish resulting in the loss of all the front elevation original features and texture (with one example using instead brick slips to give appearance closer to original). Two issues were discussed – whether this was seen as being about energy/carbon or about comfort/health; did residents feel more comfortable and did the houses feel more homely? And secondly how is impact on the appearance of the neighbourhood dealt with – it fell as though there needed to be neighbourhood discussion and agreement in order for these sort of changes to be acceptable. There were challenges with this – there is very mixed tenure. Council development control was also discussed and described as often problematic.

Community and shared life. At one end of a street where blocking to traffic had created a pedestrian space with a sizeable tree, one resident had draped flags from buildings. She described how these were “end of lockdown” celebrations and that different times of year were marked with different flags. Carols would be sung in the pedestrian space and snowflakes were projected across the street onto the gable end opposite at Christmas, with barbeques in the street in summer. We talked about the links and differences with current practices such as street WhatsApp groups. We also discussed small-scale simple interventions – benches allowed conversation and contact but worked best in pairs and in the right environment, relying on “micro-funding” from ward budgets or similar.

Mixed-Use Neighbourhoods. The Leeman Road triangle has two shops, a takeaway and one pub (plus one empty and awaiting new use). Choice is limited, but this was not always the case – a number of end houses show past lives as shops. We discussed how this might be reversed to bring new uses back in, creating “fifteen minute neighbourhoods” where life was more walkable.

Connections to the City. “The Island” is famously isolated – it was once connected by boat and the Water End bridge is still locally referred to as “the new bridge”. The impact of flooding is still alive in memories – many residents have (or have had) older generations in the area and there are conversations about sandbagging. The connection along the riverside is important but tenuous – it floods repeatedly each winter and is narrow and not well-lit. Unsurprisingly the proposed Leeman Road closure was felt to be a major issue locally.

Space for the Community. The space in front of St.Barnabas church is well-used; the church is very community-focussed and puts on activities to bring people together irrespective of religious belief. The adjacent primary school is set back from public realm and lacks this facility. The former Jubilee pub is currently central in a possible bid for community buyout, with discussion taking place within the area over what is needed – both in terms of indoor space (for community activity, for economic use) and externally as the pub has a sizeable (if overgrown) garden.

York Central. We discussed York Central and how it related to the Leeman Road area; the work of YoCo in connecting with the existing community and the opportunities within the approved outline planning consent for finding ways in which local people could engage and become participants in the development.

Clipboards were of course deployed and Post-Its from the day are 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?

Co-Owned Neighbourhoods on York Central: Shaping a way forward

During the Festival of York Central, families worked together to imagine what their ideal future homes might be. The ideas and discussions that happened as the homes were being constructed informed the My York Central Big Ideas.

Thursday 28th November 2019
Friargate Quaker Meeting House, Lower Friargate, York, YO1 9RL
Book a place

Our York Design Week event identified a range of issues – from sharing to wildness – and collective discussion of these flagged up a number of initial steps on the path towards a community partnership that could shape York Central and create homes, work, culture and play there. This event will look at these steps and we’ll start working out…

– what sort of body should we establish to carry this process forwards?
– how can we work towards a range of types of housing and tenures on York Central?
– how can we shape wonderful, wild, open space in an urban environment?
– how do we bring on board partners who will connect York’s amazing education and culture with learning, creativity and work?
– how can we ensure the development responds to the climate emergency and zero-carbon commitments which York has made?

Come along and collectively take this forwards. An evening of sharing of ideas and knowledge, planning and setting of goals. If you’re new to York Central and the community’s vision for it, then take a look 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.

My Future York Collaborative Hustings

24th April 2019, 6-8pm

Spark York

Book a free place

Hustings are usually a combative affair. This local election season in York, can we create a more collaborative approach? Join us for the My Future York Collaborative Hustings.

In the My Future York Collaborative Hustings we plan to reframe hustings – or, in fact, tap into its more ancient meaning. While today ‘hustings’ immediately evokes a series of candidates making speeches and answering questions for an audience, its arcane use, from Old Norse, is ‘an assembly for deliberative purposes’.

For the 2019 Collaborative Hustings we have chosen a specific issue facing York: traffic congestion. While there are significant differences between political parties in how we might tackle traffic congestion, there is cross-party and wide spread public recognition that congestion is an urgent issue. It’s also an issue with only the vaguest of boundaries, touching on transport, urban planning, environmental issues and the nature of our city centre – it’s much broader than a single manifesto issue.

Traffic congestion is also an issue that cannot be fully understood or simply fixed top down by politicians. It is linked into everyday experiences, actions and choices made by all of us who live in York. It is, therefore, an issue that we need to address collaboratively.

We’ll start the hustings by collectively identifying the key issues which contribute to creating traffic congestion and then coming together to map out the issues, seeing how they might connect and identifying where the leverage points for change might be. We’ll then ask candidates from all parties to talk about how they might respond to these issues and leverage points and look for the commonalities in approach. We will then work together – councillors-to-be and citizens –  to set out how all of us can contribute to putting a long term collective approach into practice.