Rhubarb and Revolution – how do we connect local action and urban strategy?

A response from Chris Bailey to our bonus screening of the Life Sized City visit to Medellin, Colombia

‘How is it that the pioneers of a new urban politics are always planting kale and rhubarb?’, asked architecture critic Justin McGuirk in a Guardian article in which he tackled the problem of ‘scaling up’ in urban development. Is being hyperlocal at odds with being properly strategic?

This challenge faces every community activist, and it defeats many. In York we often talk about better ‘connectedness’ being part of the solution, and that is true. Theory of Change workshops can help us identify connections and the wider conditions that contribute to, or are influenced by, your project. But, however valued they make participants feel, they often fall short of showing how pools of brilliance connect to form a grid, providing illumination across the city.

Seeing Mikael Colville Andersen’s Life-Sized City episode about Medellin for a second time drove home for me many of the lessons from the other cities, and from the panel discussion the previous week. It’s not just a case of life being better for some of the city’s population, in Medellin the worst of the nightmare era of civil war and gangsterism is over for all. Proving cause and effect in this field is impossible but there is general agreement that the decline in the murder rate from a high of 381 for every 100,000 inhabitants of Medellin, to just 20 per 100,000 in 2015, has much to do with the city’s decision to spend money on social programmes at neighbourhood level. There are still social problems of immense complexity to deal with, but if these are overcome, as the city’s Mayor declared many times, it is because the people have regained their self-respect.

The hard road to recovery began 25 years ago. In The Life-Sized City, we heard how, back then, the city government decided to devote 40% of the city’s budget to education and culture, with music and media making up the majority of projects, and with programmes taking place in every neighbourhood. In his book, Radical Cities, McGuirk devotes a chapter to Medellin, in which he attributes the transformation, not to education and the development of personal skills, but to innovative architectural design, and specifically to the stunning series of libraries and squares in barrios around the city. How do these approaches, one responding to need at the most local level, the other focused on complex capital projects, relate? In the context of Medellin and its revival, both are important, and neither is more important than the other.

Imagine that your child, brought up in the barrio, is just about to perform for the first time in one of the city’s superb community youth orchestras. The contribution made by the space, as an environment, not just for you, but for your family, friends and the community, is considerable. These distinct forms of benefit, social and cultural, interact to improve personal wellbeing. Urban change, which puts a contribution to wellbeing at its core, can be translated into action which is both strategic, and which responds to the individual character of each neighbourhood. In another, literally brilliant, example, Colville Andersen introduced us to Paza Luz (‘peaceful light’), in the Granizal neighbourhood high up in the hills. This was started by a telephone engineer, and spreads DIY street light to help people feel safer, with the additional benefit that the glow can also be seen from the wealthier city down below, making the barrio visible, and increasingly visitable.

York is one tenth the size of Medellin, and with less dramatic problems. Are the same ideas applicable? We’ve talked about what a fantasy Life Sized City episode about our city would include. I know if he was here 120 years ago Colville Andersen would certainly want to talk to local chocolate manufacturer, Joseph Rowntree, about his radical plan for a new settlement on the outskirts of decrepit, medieval/Georgian York.

Writing forty years before the Welfare State came fully into being, when public provision for the common good was regarded with suspicion, Joseph Rowntree said about his vision for New Earswick, that ‘I do not want to establish communities bearing the stamp of charity, but rather of rightly-ordered and self-governing communities’.

While ‘rightly ordered’ might sound paternalistic, it meant in practice providing opportunities for educational, physical and cultural development of citizens; the sports fields, the school and the remarkable Folk Hall. But ‘self-governing’ is the truly radical idea, requiring devolution to councils at local level. It reflects the spirit of the influential little book that so inspired Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree, Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow. When it first appeared it was entitled Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform, and it showed how the violent overthrow of the state can be avoided, by providing people with the means to manage their own lives.

This intensely practical little book, with its sensible proposals about reservoirs, was actually about how industrialisation, and the living conditions forced on working people in both town and country, were causing poverty, unemployment, illness and criminality. The key to the ‘social city’ of Howard’s vision is securing the land value for the benefit of the community, and setting up the means to govern it. This was not about maintaining the status quo. The goal was, ‘a stepping stone to a higher and better form of industrial life’.

If you see the same media headlines I do, then the current convergence of acute economic, social and cultural problems seems not so different from York in 1900, or even Medellin in 1990. Facing challenges on this scale, the veteran urban sociologist, Richard Sennett, sees the positive side of the response to the pandemic. In his essay in a recently published book, Everything Must Change! The World After COVID19, he identifies, within the popular movement to counter the virus, the spontaneous seeds of a new community spirit, ‘a localised sociability’ that can be encouraged by redesigning cities with the principle of decentralised ‘walking density’; recreating village-style communities that have all the amenities, from grocery stores to schools to gyms, allowing people ‘not to take public transport’. He even imagines Zoom could be de-privatised as a public good, using technology to ‘build solidarity’, crafting society anew from the bottom up.

Sennett, like others, sees dangers if we do not take the opportunity to ‘rekindle democracy’, by prescribing similar approaches, a respectful dialogue, as between equals, of civil society, private sector and government, such as enabled activists to turn commitments into reality in Colombia.

Back in 2009, Jorge Melguizo, who was then Secretary for Education and Culture in Medellin, reflected on this merging of local leadership and civic vision.

“They ask us what our ‘creative idea’ is. We answer it is not that much what we created, but rather what we believe in. In other words, our creativity lies in our commitments and in our passion for making our dreams come true. We believed it was possible to change our way of doing politics and governing the city. And we’ve made it happen through a civic movement – independent, made of people coming from NGOs, the civil society, the community organisations, the universities and the private corporations, with no experience whatsoever in politics. We won the last two elections against the traditional parties and everything they represented. We were told we were insane, but we believed it was possible. It took us five and a half years governing the second city of the country, putting budgetary focus on public education and culture. Once again we were told we would fail. We were told people expect their local governments to give immediate results, while culture and education pay off in the long term. We believed it was possible to offer short term results and the evidences of it are all around the city. Especially, it goes without saying, in the poorest areas, those recurrently abandoned by the State.”

We should accept that, unless we resort to violence, the alternative to politics is also politics. However different it may look, it is still about winning the right to decide how to use common resources for the common good. Solidarity is a craft, and rhubarb can lead to revolution!

Chris Bailey
22 February 2021



Everything Must Change! The World After COVID19, https://www.orbooks.com/catalog/everything-must-change/

Justin McGuirk, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jun/15/urban-common-radical-community-gardens

Jorge Melguizo, https://creativecitysouth.org/blog-1/2018/3/29/medellin-a-creative-city

Paza Luz project, Medellin, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6y-XxVVfbQ

Cormac Russell, Rekindling Democracy, http://rekindlingdemocracy.net/

Francois Matarasso https://parliamentofdreams.com/2020/05/21/the-road-to-reconstruction/

Justin McGuirk, Radical Cities, https://www.versobooks.com/books/2011-radical-cities


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next steps

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


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

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


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

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

Children & young people

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

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

Ownership, Economy and Governance

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

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

…and two final but important things:-

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

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


Community-Led Development in High-Value Areas – Imelda Havers

At the fourth of The Life Sized City screenings and conversations, we asked Imelda Havers “How can economic systems and land ownership be manipulated in order to allow neighbourhoods to function well according to their own chosen priorities, and how can this be made to work in areas of high land values?”

There is a lot in that question, so it is probably helpful to break it down into two parts:

  • Land: Genuine access to this is critical to the success of York Central
  • Economic systems: How do we share prosperity equitably?

Without tackling both, the development of York Central will not be sustainable. We need to face these questions head on, but the good news is we are not starting from scratch: A lot of work has been done in the UK, with the Scottish government doing some innovative work on developing a new approach to land ownership.

In England, we are a little way behind in terms of government policy but have some good research and practical examples emerging across the country. York Central needs to build on these, in a way that answers local needs and priorities.

The Land Question

To gain genuine access to land, whether for building or open space, we need to make it affordable as well as available – not an easy task in this high value area. Our economy has for decades been dependent on the monetarisation of land and property as a foundation for wealth creation. In the process, it has become increasingly unequal, with wealth creating wealth, squeezing out those who have no wealth, creating generations of renters.

If we are to reverse this, we must replace the common assumption that land ownership and value is fixed, with a new land narrative. Central to this is seeing land as something which we all have a right to, to add to everyone’s quality of life, not simply as an investment opportunity for a privileged few. Having acquired it, we must develop for living and not just for profit, securing affordability for future generations. A new narrative will allow us to talk about owning and managing space mutually, for the benefit of all. If we can do that, we will be free to move forward with the land reform we need.

The Community Land Trust movement – see www.communitylandtrusts.org.uk provides national examples of community-owned developments. A good local example is the excellent co-owned housing work being done by www.yorspace.org. A recent Life-Sized Cities session featured an ambitious “co-op of co-ops” in Montreal, offering accessible and affordable housing to diverse communities. The book “Who Owns England?” by Guy Shrubsole provides an excellent insight into past and present patterns of land ownership, and some tangible ideas for radical change. The think tank www.sharedassets.org.uk specialises in researching alternative land use models. They have recently teamed up with www.futurenarrativeslab.org to explore new narratives around land. Their report can be requested at Power in place: understanding our land narrative – Future Narratives Lab

 New Economic Models

This area is perhaps more evolved than the land question, with successive governments offering alternatives to private enterprise. The York Central development provides a golden opportunity to challenge the failed trickle-down economics provided by corporate investment. Community organisations and small businesses need to be part of the design and delivery process, not an add-on or an afterthought. York needs a genuine mix of enterprises, meeting local needs and creating wealth locally. An excellent source of ideas can be found at www.cles.org.uk

Developing a granular neighbourhood, flexible enough to evolve over time for the people living and working there, needs a healthy eco-system of small independent businesses and non-profit enterprises which can become more than the sum of their parts. That is not to say there should be no larger businesses, rather that a healthy balance must be struck between large, medium and small enterprises, and between those for profit and those for the common good.

The events of the past year have starkly demonstrated the rabbit hole our economy has led us down – creating large office blocks in urban centres, which we spend hours commuting to from suburbs and faraway towns. We have, through Covid lockdown, become much more aware of the value of local neighbourhoods, and the attraction of having everything we need within a short distance of where we live. Covid, eventually, will go away, but the neighbourhood genie is now out of the bottle. York Central needs to capitalise on this new mood in the country.

Innovation – outside the Ivory Tower

It is welcome to learn that the University of York supports the idea of an innovation hub on York Central, in which the local community and small business can play an important part. A collective ideas lab involving the universities, small businesses and community organisations alongside local innovators like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation would be a refreshing collaborative springboard for innovation which the wider City and other cities can learn from.

Be Brave!

To go forward we need courage, collaboration  and co-operative spirit from all parties. York already has innovators and leaders who are doing great things to meet the challenges we face. York Central offers a canvas on which we can bring it all together and build somewhere future generations will really want to live and work in.

Life Sized York Central – third session, Montreal – Phil Bixby

The third of our Screenings and Conversations took place on 20th Jan, drawing inspiration from Montreal 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.

Montreal is a huge city – population over 4m across the whole metropolitan area, and so much bigger than York, but it’s formed of distinct neighbourhoods with their own character – and their own mayor. Change can be radical with the right person in charge, it appeared, although the kind of conflict that might bring in its wake was only hinted at. Public space was a key part of this, including the creation of large municipal public space – “places to meet the city” as they were described.

But there was also a lot of grass-roots activity around re-purposing unused space – the Lande project which sought to identify and bring into public use neglected sites. As with the previous films, food was a common theme – growing, distribution – and again a major strand of this was bringing diverse people together and building dignity and shared understanding. The Panier Fute project had been started by a woman who had arrived from Algeria and discovered food poverty in her new backyard.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of repurposing of “waste public space” was the riverside project which annually repurposed the municipal snow dump as a waterside beach – Village au Pied-du-Courant puts out a call for projects each year, accommodating these on a sand-covered space, free of branding and with costs kept minimal. There was an almost shocking confidence about this willingness to renew – there was a comment about not simply rolling out an idea for repeats simply because it’s popular once. The process of re-thinking is constant.

But not every city is blessed with these surplus spaces – on York Central we’re well aware that it’s all valuable land. As Helen pointed out “these ideas all make use of the margins, the gaps inbetween – often places or circumstances of failure” and asked whether York’s inequalities still provided opportunities to redistribute wealth to create collaborative opportunity as part of a vision for the place.

One place which York Central will have though is streets. Impressive though Montreal’s parks are, perhaps the real excitement happens in the streets and back alleys. Two things seemed key to this:-

Firstly the design of homes and streets – low- to medium-rise buildings with balconies, connecting them with the street. As was pointed out in discussion, Montreal’s climate certainly isn’t “balcony-friendly” all year but certainly in summer this seems to encourage “eyes on the street”. And despite the climate, and nothing too special in terms of infrastructure, Montreal has high numbers of people cycling –  perhaps because of that “ownership” by overlooking homes and businesses – very different to what we often get here with the architecture doing hard work to separate public and private realm.

The second point was around clever thinking on land ownership. One example was a block-sized co-op of co-ops, incorporating a wide mix of housing and with tenure arrangements designed to ensure a mixed community – people entering on low/no income aren’t forced to move on if their financial means increase. Colville-Anderson attended a meal in the street – the tables vanishing into the distance down the middle of the road – and there appeared to be genuine connection between people. Another example was where the council retained ownership of front and back yards – allowing access and use but preventing them becoming closed off from the public realm, encouraging connection to collective activity.

How can we take these lessons and apply them to York Central? How can YoCo use its intended model of collective ownership to ensure that mixed community? How can public realm – streets and frontages – be designed to be animated by activity rather than simply places for car parking? And can we do “back alleys” routes which connect and can be green, but are car-free?

One of the positives from the event was the comment that wonderful though these examples are, we have many similar projects running in York – adult cycle training, public food growing, etc. (Mind you, one wonderful idea we haven’t tapped into was the Bois Public project – taking fallen Ash trees and working with trainees to turn them into imaginative public seating). How do we build on what we’re already doing? Is the key to it making better connections – working with an overall theme of Wellbeing, perhaps. There was discussion in the film of how Montreal had accepted its standing amongst bigger urban centres – it was “a happy underdog”. Perhaps reeling back on the “world class” language in York might allow us to all gather round a new sense of purpose – doing what we do, really confidently, well and imaginatively?

Our final session in this Screenings and Conversations series is on 27th January, and it will focus on York Central and the themes which we’ve identified from these three films. Before then, please email or tweet us your comments to give us a starting point to build upon, or 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.

You can book for the final session at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/life-sized-york-central-with-yoco-lessons-for-york-central-tickets-133355783739

Cycling as Normal – John and Carol Gilham

John Gilham

Normal? It used to be. Half the pupils of my secondary school in suburban London cycled to and fro in the 1960s; in York a huge number of the workforce of the carriage works, Terrys, and Rowntrees used to cycle to work. Absolutely normal!

Some people in York, asked why they don’t cycle, reply “it’s too dangerous.” No it’s not. Not more than being a pedestrian or going by car. But if you are going to use a bike as transport from A to B, from Clifton to Fulford, from Dringhouses to Heworth, you’ll need a cycling mindset to put on with your cycle-clips. Not a car-driving mindset, not a taking the bus mindset, not even a pedestrian mindset.  You will be on the road but not in a bus – you can go places buses don’t/can’t go. Not in a car – you can go places cars can’t go. Cars love wide roads and big junctions. They like the Fishergate gyratory and the fast roundabouts on the Ring Road. They don’t like back streets, roads with humps, chicanes, bollards, bike creeps, bike paths – all things that bikes love.  You have so many more choices on a bike. A cycling mindset is as important, if not more so, in cycling safely than a helmet.

A bike mindset doesn’t come naturally.  A child brought up in the average car-owning family, if they notice where they are being taken at all, will know car routes, maybe some bus routes too. No wonder they hesitate to get on a bike to visit their friends, go to the shops or the library. Cycling is for a fine afternoon with Mum and Dad, maybe out to Naburn on the Selby cycle track.

Or maybe the bike is freedom (and of course it does bring freedom) to be expressed by riding on the pavement, through red lights, on the wrong side of the road, no signals, no lights, doing a wheelie down Blossom Street. “It’s not dangerous? Let’s make it so.”

How to make A to B cycling normal and safe for children?  If it’s three generations since the family always had a family car, the parents aren’t unlikely to have the cycling skills to pass on. Normal cycling isn’t just sitting on the saddle and heading down the street.  The National Cycling Proficiency scheme was brilliant, succeeded by Bikeability, training offered by City of York Council and others.  This should be offered free to all schoolchildren but also to adults.  Could this be done at York Central?  Volunteer trainers maybe?

But there’s more to the cycling mindset than knowing where to position yourself on the road, how to signal and turn, especially turning right, and basic information on how the bike works and simple maintenance.  As I’ve hinted above, it’s about route planning, finding the back doubles and the cycle paths, not using a GPS designed for cars, and avoiding points of potential conflict with motor traffic, like the Fishergate gyratory or those Ring Road roundabouts.

Do I know what I’m talking about? Have I lived the dream?  My wife, Carol, and I have lived in York since 1976, first within the walls in Bishophill then on Scarcroft Road (which is the last gasp of the A59, incidentally). We have never owned a car and do not drive. Bikes are our main form of local transport, for shopping, work and leisure. And throughout the 80s and 90s, for getting our three children where they needed to go. School was two miles away, off Fulford Road near where Aldi is now, and there was no Millennium Bridge. I would take them on the way to work in the morning, Carol would bring them home. Friends’ houses and extracurricular activities were all over the city. Using some child bike seats and at various times a tag-along, an adult tricycle with two child seats, a tandem and a hierarchy of children’s bikes which they could ride themselves they learned to ride confidently on roads, through traffic, and on bike routes and short cuts. They, and their own children, all still cycle for transport, though each family does have a car, mostly for work purposes.

How did I manage work without a car? I worked for nearly 30 years for a small company which built and managed social housing, mostly in York but also across the East Riding and parts of North Yorkshire.  I managed the build programme, liaising with local authorities, agencies, architects and builders. In those days before Zoom it involved face-to-face meetings and site visits. It could all be done using public transport and a folding bike. Not normal, maybe, but possible. Note: leisure rides further afield are facilitated by taking the folder on the bus or train to start and/or finish – e.g. Malton to Bishop Burton, or Pocklington to Seamer.  The X46 York-Hull bus also takes full size-bikes.  Not normal, maybe, but possible.

Same applies to family shopping, mostly in the local community, using panniers; occasionally a bigger shop using a marvellous contraption called a bike-hod. Huge capacity.

Full disclosure: the only time in my life I have regretted not having a car is during this pandemic. Advice against using public transport means we can’t join the car-borne taking the virus to distant beauty spots on fine days, Filey, Scarborough, the Moors, Barnard Castle. Hard cheese, bike boy!

Carol Gilham

Although I was raised in a second generation car owning family, I was only too pleased to live without one. For me, it was about independence as a young woman—I didn’t need to earn enough to buy and run a car, I never needed to look for a parking spot, I got to know York’s back roads and byways, neighbourhoods, outer villages and surrounding countryside and I could experience the thrill of swooping around the Minster and over one of the bridges on a late summer evening, a glorious sky overhead. These still apply now I am a grandmother.

Was it always dry and sunny? No, but I have a serious collection of waterproof garments and do not mind the rain, as long as I can get dry clothes on back at home.

And now I have an electric bike, which increases my range as I get older. I still can’t keep up with my grandchildren, but that is mostly because they are recklessly speedy and I am not.

Our focus on cycling was also about giving our children independence. They did not need to wait to be taken somewhere or be collected—they could learn to go further and further afield as they grew more confident and competent. And we didn’t need to wait up for the phone call asking to be collected—they returned under their own steam after a night out, often bringing a collection of friends. It made for a very sociable household, and our children knew each other’s friends and looked out for each other.  I’ve strayed a bit—but the wider social implications are as important as pushing the pedals. The invention of bicycles (and bloomers!) is credited with empowering the Suffragettes.

The Power of Food – Imelda Havers

Food brings us together

It’s not hard to understand the power of food in bringing communities together, whether through growing with Incredible Edible Incredible Edible – If you eat, you’re in , The Real Junk Food Project Welcome to The Real Junk Food Project – TRJFP or any of the many other great food initiatives worldwide. There’s something about creating food and meals together which draws everyone in, whatever their culture, age, or economic situation. There’s a kindness there, which shows us at our best, whoever we are with and whatever the circumstances.

The Life-Sized City

This was brilliantly demonstrated at a session I attended recently about Life Sized Cities, organised by York-based community engagement team My Future York and community-led neighbourhood project www.yoco.uk. More on that here Life Sized York Central – second session, Milan – Phil Bixby – My Future York. It was part of a short series of films and discussions looking at examples of neighbourhood-level rebuilding in various parts of the world. We considered how these grassroots actions could influence the nascent York Central development, one of the biggest brownfield sites in Europe, adjacent to York City Centre. Unsurprisingly, food featured strongly in the film and in the discussion which followed.

Reviving Heritage through Food

This reminded me of a project I and a small group of others started in 2014 in a long disused C15 building in York called the Red Tower Red Tower York – York Community Hub.

Having surmised that the local council owned the building and would welcome a community use for it, we got a key and just let ourselves in. Working on the basis that waiting for permission would have potentially stymied the whole idea, we simply just cracked on with opening and using the space. Fortunately, the council was happy to turn a blind eye, trusting us not to burn it to the ground (we didn’t!).

Not letting the lack of running water or electricity put us off, we opened a very rough and ready community café on random days when we could be around to organise it. Over homemade cake (there’s ALWAYS cake!) and flasks of tea, we gathered thoughts and ideas from dozens of local people about what they thought the building and surrounding garden area could be used for. Food, naturally, was a big part of the conversation – affordable, local, and readily available.

Creating an edible garden – and a new future for the Tower

The first task was to create a growing area, so, thanks to a proactive local funder and donations of materials and skills from local people, we had created a raised bed in no time. This was used to grow herbs which were free for anyone to pick and use. It has since become a welcome feature all year round, with barbeques and a regular community café making good use of the indoor and outdoor space.

This was around five years ago, and the Red Tower has since gone from strength to strength. Having raised the money for a revamp, winning a design award in the process, we formally reopened the building in 2018. It now hosts a regular pay as you feel community café and zero waste store, an advice hub for the local community, and a great space to hire for meetings, parties, and cultural events. It just goes to show the power of food to bring a community together while breathing new life into an important heritage building in York. If it can work here, and in Milan, surely it can work in York Central?

Imelda Havers is a York-based community activist at www.bluefishregen.com


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 – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/life-sized-york-central-with-yoco-learning-from-copenhagen-tickets-133351125807

January 13th, Milan – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/life-sized-york-central-with-yoco-learning-from-milan-tickets-133355392569

January 20th, Montreal – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/life-sized-york-central-with-yoco-learning-from-montreal-tickets-133355545025

January 27th, lessons for York Central – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/life-sized-york-central-with-yoco-lessons-for-york-central-tickets-133355783739

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!