Sensory York: Sights, sounds, smells and feelings

Smells of Hungate in early 20th century… what will York smell like in ten years’ time? Designs and Photos by Reet So.

In our research on Hungate – and drawing heavily on Van Wilson’s oral histories of the area – we found that people’s memories were bound up with its distinctive sights, sounds and smells. In designing our exhibition for the Yorktopia event we wanted use the sensory landscape of early 20th century York to prompt us all to consider what we’d like York in ten years’ time to look like, sounds like, smell like and feel like.

You can contribute your own sensory York online.

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We got a handful of responses to this during the event. This contrasted with the much more popular Census activity. This is a good reminder that participative exhibits need to be quite structured and immediately easy to undertake in crowded and noises spaces. On reflection this York Senses activity needed, perhaps, a more meditative mood. However those that did find the mental space during the event to imagine their Yorktopia sensoryscape produced really evocative and poetic responses.

Here are some samples below for inspiration or as point of resistance and disagreement:

Looks like...

‘Traditional buildings upkept. Lots more trees. No more car parks.’

‘Lots of trees, paved roads and pavements, shared sapce all through the centre, good modern buildings next to old.’

‘Sunsets + sunrises, red brick and wooden breams, smiling faces and starry nights, bright lights and clean lines, home.’

Sounds like…

‘Sounds of birds. Local musicians/buskers, supported to bring the streets alive’.

‘Quiet, only the tinkle of bicycle bells. The whirr of electric engines’.

‘Gentle folk music and sometimes heavy rock and punk protests, fireworks, laughter, and the ring pull on an can on beer, someone telling you that they love you…’.

Smells like..

‘Smell of logs burning, street vans, mulled wine, donuts, not rubbish’.

‘Clean. Grassy’.

‘Fresh coffee, cinnamon, the first raindrops on aspelt, incense, pine trees, sometimes fresh paint and petrol, freshly baked bread, apple pie’.

Feels like…

‘A small homely feel but a part of an active community in a city. This is why I choose to live in York.’

‘A place to sit an breathe, an exciting city with a buzz, safe but edgy.’

‘Clean, safe, soft, like crunchy leaves under your feet and fresh drew in the air…warm, comfortable like sinking into an arm chair by the fire’.

In the comfort of your own digital space, create your own meditative space and imagine what does you York in ten years’ time look like, sound like, smell like and feel like?

Thanks so much to all who shared their sensory hopes for York at the Yorktopia event. Card and icon designs by Ben Holden. Exhibit designs by Reet So.

Census: from 1911 to 2026

Yorktopia event, 23rd November 2016: 2026 Census activity. Designs and photos by Reet So.

At our Yorktopia event on 23rd November – promoted by 1911 Census for Hungate – we asked those walking through our exhibition to contribute to our own My Future York 2026 Census. Given the event only lasted a few hours, we were staggered when we undid the box to find 37 replies.

We have now launched an online version – what is your Census return for 2027?

The Yorktopia Census activity. A snapshop to Hungate in 1911. Designs and Photos by Reet So.

As we share the link for our new online version, here are a few reflections on the census returns contributed during the Yorktopia event.

We had an excellent age range. From those that will be in their early 30s in ten years’ time, to those that will be in the early 70s. It was especially great to get so many submissions from those in their 20s, I assume from the student group exhibiting their art work in the next room and their friends.

Work / Travel
For those that planned to be in work in ten years’ time there was a strong consensus of either working from home or living very close to work, less than 5 miles or ‘not far’ were by far the most popular answers with only one stating a long commute of 30 miles.

Over 90% of those responding imaged they would either walk or cycling to work. Of the other options bus, train, tram were popular. Two mentioned cars, as many as mentioned teleporting/brain implants…

However, it was the ‘where will you live’ census box pulled out the most differences. There was clearly a cohort of people – all of who will be in their 60s or 70s in ten years time – who were owner occupiers of their homes and didn’t really see much changing.

‘Expect to be where I live. 2 bed mid-terrace. Probably with ever more technology in the house’, will be retire by busy and aged 68.

‘Still in our three bedroom townhouse (me and husband) but probably thinking of downsizing’, will be ‘still working’ aged 65.

‘With my husband in our present house. Semi-detached. 5 beds. Paid for. Or my mother’s house opposite. 2 beds also paid for’, will be aged 71.

Of the other strand of older respondents innovative future lifestyle and living arrangements were imagined, suggesting that future housing also needs to taking into account of future approaches to sex and domestic relationships:

‘Large purpose built intentional community for polyamourous. York. Ecobuild’, will be seeking to retire and aged 60

‘I will be in a commune with my long term lover and his wife’, will be a volunteer and aged 82

‘Off grid, Commune of family, friends and strangers’, will be a carer and aged 65

For those who will be in their late 30s and early 40s in ten years there was a trend towards a certain sense of accumulative confidence, the four bedroom house seemed to be a marker:

‘4 bed house with family. Owned by us’, will be a University Lecturer and aged 48.

‘4 bed. With my love and her boys. I own it!’, will be self employed and aged 49.

‘3-4 bedrooms. Semi-detached house. Garden. Private off street parking. Owned by myself and mortaged’, will be a project manager aged 37.

‘3 bed town house, Mortgage paid. Living with wife’ will be a Programme Manager and aged 52

‘4 bed. York or Leeds. Victorian. Owned. No garden but near a park’, will be a civil servant and aged 50.

For younger people – those who will be in their 30s in ten years’ time – a note of modesty and a tone of realism featured:

‘Probably renting. It is a beautiful city but people my age can’t afford to stay’, will be a travel writer aged 36

‘I will live in a moderately priced house / flat with my boyfriend Jay and our tortoise Murray’, will be Film maker / painter / artists / sales assistant and aged 31.

‘Apartment 2 rooms. With partner or friend. Small balcony. Owned by me (probably not realistic)’, will be a writer and aged 30

‘A little cottage with a bunny. 2 bedroom.’, will be a nursed and aged 38.

‘Own an ‘eco-home’ / flat of some sort / with garden space / not too many bedrooms’, will be a parent and/or involved in chemical regulation and be 40.

Our snapshot census for 2026 reflects the typical type of audience attracted to contemporary art event – a mixture of arts students and affluent 30+. Yet it also points very clearly to an issue of life phases and periods of certainty and uncertainty which need to be taken into account in city planning.

In this snapshot there appears to be a group of economically secure people and a time in people’s lives (35-60) where there is a sense of certainty in your trajectory – you expect that you will be doing the same job or a better version of it, you will own the same house or a bigger one.

Yet in the Yorktopia respondents at both ends of our age spectrum there was more uncertainty. At the 70+ end of our age range, for some there was a sense that things would be changing, you might downsize, you might seek out a small place to live, you might join an intentional community or a commune. For those earlier in their lives, it was expected that these next ten years would also see a lot of change. Yet it was notable that the sense of confidence and possibility that pervaded the contributions from those who will be in their 70s was much less in evidence for those who will be in their 30s.

It will be interested to see how the online versions of the Census activity nuances and deepened these snapshot findings as the sample increases and diversifies. However, there are already concrete things to draw out here in terms of the familiar but crucial story of generational inequality as well as of the need to consider type, tenure of housing and the kinds of social relations our future housing might need to enable.

With many thanks to all who contributed.

Yorktopia: looking back to look forwards

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On 23rd November My Future York collaborated with Vespertine and York St John University to look back to the histories of the Hungate area to provoke debate and discussion about York in ten years’ time.

In our exhibition we invited people to look at floor plans of a Hungate house, demolished in 1936, the houses of the new Tang Hall estate and those being built the new Hungate development.

A plan of a two bedroom house in Hungate. Designs by Reet So.

We then invited ideas for a utopian dwelling. We also invite people to listen to record excerpts from Day In My Life stories we’ve already collected.

An ideal dwelling for York in ten years’ time.

One aim – not surprisingly given the focus of the My Future York project – was to invite people to contribute their own ideas. Two of our participatory exhibits seemed to work well and to entice people to think about their and York’s future. Thinking of the event as a prototyping process we’ve now developed these ideas into online versions.

The first was a quick Census activity. Based on 1911 Census in Hungate but asking people to image their own Census for ten years’ time. We got 37 responses in the short period of the event. The new online version will only take 5 minutes to complete.

The second was a York Senses activity. From oral histories and archive photography we gathered images of the sights, smells and sounds of Hunagte in early 20th century. From Chicory to the slaughter house. The online version of York Senses will take between 5-10 minutes to complete.

Smells of Hungate in early 20th century… what will York smell like in ten years’ time? Designs and Photos by Reet So.

The event finished with an array of signers and poets sharing their visions, hopes and fears for York’s future such as Henry Raby’s contribution of a battle-scarred York.

A big thanks to Veserptine and York St John’s for working with us on the event and to Reet So for being brilliant designers and collaborators.

Guest post Henry Raby: York in ten years’ time

A school trip, ten years’ time: ‘I stand and listen in. Hear my history replayed like this young man, all said with the certainty I wish I had. He regales all the old battles I don’t remember as battles, the events I don’t remember as being so important. He misses out details that fix hard in my mind. He speaks without fear like a good person. I give a cough absent-mindedly and a parade of eyes swivel towards me. I instantly fumble for my identification, but before I’ve had chance to grasp it from my pocket, the eyes have returned to the tour guide and I realise my heart is thundering. I’m no threat. Nothing to fear’. Photo credit: Catherine Sotheran.

At the Vespertine Yorktopia event in November York-based poets and signers imagined York in ten years’ time. York performance poet and writer Henry Raby brought the event to a close with this piece. Henry describes York after a battle has been lost, a time when emotions and histories have been stablized and contained, where hope lies in not in visions or plans but half memories and feelings that creep up on you.

A contribution by Henry Raby

We are not allowed to be afraid. If you’re afraid, you’ve lost. The sign at the train station reads: Never Fear.

White sign with deep red letters like thick scars. Hissed with a splash of graffiti in cutting black paint.

School trip clog up my route. No braying noises, these children are fixed and focused. Their teachers, tall men and women, solid and dependable. The children demur, showing a reverence that belies their tiny age. The children of 2020, born to the smell of diesel, sounds of gunshots, ticking of lists, dazzle of streetlights. They grew up knowing they cannot Fear.

Never Fear.

Their tour guide, a thin gentleman as standard as you’d ever likely to find. A smiling character. He points out the great holes in the City Walls. I can recall when the walls were complete, or at least walkable. But these gaping absences suit the walls. Make them look battle-hardened. Like Vikings learnt how to use rocket launchers. He tells the class

“Like the Romans before, and the Vikings, and the Siege of York in 1644, these walls stood to defend the city from oppression, this time from inside the city of course.”
The class nod. They note it down in their memory. They are good students. They are 6.
“And the Walls biggest challenge occurred 6 years ago. Gosh, when you were all born”
The class nod. They know this. This is not new information.
“But York stood up to that test. York survived, as it always does. The rest, as they used to say, is history”.

The children don’t seem to enjoy their history lesson. I think they’ve been taught it all before. I forgot it all. Faces pinky in the winter chill, their cheeks puffing tiny clouds almost beautiful in the crisp air. No one notices their breath, they are all upright. Attentive. Competitively so.

I stand and listen in. Hear my history replayed like this young man, all said with the certainty I wish I had. He regales all the old battles I don’t remember as battles, the events I don’t remember as being so important. He misses out details that fix hard in my mind. He speaks without fear like a good person.
I give a cough absent-mindedly and a parade of eyes swivel towards me. I instantly fumble for my identification, but before I’ve had chance to grasp it from my pocket, the eyes have returned to the tour guide and I realise my heart is thundering. I’m no threat. Nothing to fear.

I walk into York alone, relief at leaving the throng of bodies. The streets are naturally quiet, the roads quieter. If people have trod their way into the city centre, they did so long before this hour. A bus must pass through, I recall. Every couple of hours doing the rounds. Traffic lights are cracked. Road paint worn away.

I go onto autopilot, aiming for my destination like a seeking missile. The streets I walked down so often in the past, the routes so well visited, are alien to my now. Crunch through puddles, like an assailant. I feel like I’m causing trouble just by being here, breathing this air. Stealing oxygen, taking up space, walking paths which are not mine. Because I lost them.

I am furious with my memory for picking up hints of the past. Where the charity shops and cafes and pubs peppered the streets. For imagining where buskers stood, what they sounded like, where the Food Not Bombs stall would be found, where the Christmas tree would have loomed. My memory is too reliable, or these memories too solid. I wish they’d float away like my breath.

The past was ripe for taking. We plundered 50 years of music and fashion and ignored the fact beneath our borrowed culture we were scabby and rotting. We paraded the fashions of the century in the new millennium and poured the past onto our iPods and phones.

We were stagnant and remainiators. Necromantic artists obsessed with the dead, with holograms, releases and remake, fixated with mourning passing and words like ‘irreplaceable’.

I’m a cynic because I was told the future can be bright, but the past was brighter. I’m a cynic because I was told to hope with one foot in the bogs of the past.

Maybe I’d feel better if my home town was busy. But there are no shops, cafes, restaurants or bars. Just office space, windowless buildings and refurbished blocks for the business of 2026. And that’s when I come across the place I made my pilgrimage too. The wandered wrapped in scarf and gloves finds the Snickelway like a twisted corner tucked away.

I take off my glove and feel the brick work, see the dents from bullets and recall, alongside memories of gigs, hot chocolate and guitar bands the howling that came from silence. The pauses we mistook for calm which were really hot thoughts getting hotter.

It didn’t feel like our last attempt, it felt like progression. The history books are already being written, saying York was at the centre of a warzone. But it wasn’t a war, it was eradication.

I hope in my future we are allowed to be sad.

I thank thickness lodged in my throat. I want an empty stomach waiting to be filled. I want to sigh out my breath.

I want fear to tingle me. I want it to rest inside my toes at night. I want it to be the reason I turn lights on and drive slowly and walk around in groups and arrange to meet people early and keep my phone close at hand.

I want fear and sadness to be my twin guardians, one on each shoulder. Whimpering and sighing, gasping for air and holding its breath.

I don’t want instant joy, I want it to creep up on me when I least suspect it, and fill me up slowly like poison through sad veins.

I want to feel it rise like icy rainwater. I want it to flood my house and make it grumpy. I want joy to come through the door in the middle of the night and disturb my rest. I want to blame it for making me sleep in.

I knew that anger so well. I knew it inside me, and I could see it in everyone’s eyes. Harrowing and drilling, a sense that we could take the tension from our own tight fists and put it to good use on all sides. And my anger lost out, and their anger won and now all the faces are white. The only history we wanted was celebratory, bold, bright and had a flag wrapped tight around it.

So now we say, boldly, in signs and sayings and casual agreement. Never Fear. Move forwards. Don’t look back, just look to the next stage, the new wave. Because we’re building it better, they say, everything is going to be better. So stop looking backwards.

I want to go find one of the schoolchildren. Take them to this wall. Show the next generation the bullet holes. The place where we held banners and broke windows and stood in front of trucks and shouted slogans about deportations. Some light candles and wrote petitions but it wasn’t enough. There weren’t enough of us. The silence in the city is familiar. I want to show the scars where I tried to crawl into camps.
But their fathers and mothers probably worked in those camps.

So, with hours before my train to take me away, I wander around York more. Looking for gigs and curries and quiz nights and real ale and poetry nights and film screenings and theatre events and a different language. I fail.

I have found myself down by the river, all browns and grim blues. On the walls around me in thick black spraypaint, like a maddened scrawl, the words ‘Normans Go Home’ is written.