I am writing after an unforgettable early evening exploration of the piece of “wasteland” by York station known as “York Central” or the teardrop site. It is maybe unknown to many, maybe most of York’s people, but one thing is certain; it has been the focus of much planning, hopes and disappointments for the whole of my adult life. For at least three decades this place (it has been named and renamed so many times) has remained simply…there – a strange wilderness of tracks and trees and urban wasteland just across from platform 13.
I went to one of my fitness/dancing groups a few weeks ago; and at the end of our session we went for a drink together to celebrate the end of the summer term. The other eight women, all from different walks of life and ages had heard nothing, absolutely nothing of this place, despite council consultations, local plans, internationally known architects visiting “the ones from Kings Cross!”. The teardrop site remains, for many completely off the radar.
But for me this site could be life-changing; with my family in my adopted city, with friends, familiar memories and importantly a home fit for purpose and a community which is constructive and forward looking, in an unbeatable location which allows me to travel across the country and beyond to carry on working in my later years. I have nicknamed this teardrop site/York Central “the trailblazer” as if well developed it will be a beacon for other similar sites across the country showing the way rather than following the way.
So, what is stopping this happen?
First; land values.
My recently sold home in York (an incredibly small terrace) needed work, had very narrow stairs, was not fully accessible and could not provide what I now need after 14 years of making do as a single parent and grandparent working full – time.
I simply decided to sell it and release the equity so that I can invest in something, I use the phrase again, “fit for purpose”. Have looked and looked again in York for the following; 2 beds, lots of light for my work, a balcony if an apartment (my practice involves writing, clay and biophilia “humans natural love of nature”), trees nearby and space where my grandchildren can stay play and roam a bit. And a lift. I don’t need it now, but in the future, I may do and I know lots of people who would need this access to see me.
This type of “fit for purpose” living is what others seek too but the flats I have seen in York and in other cities are luxury and high end and after a long time as a single grand/parent my budget will not reach to these homes. And now too, the early chest conditions I had as a child make life in cities tough with the air quality ever poorer. Battling this pollution is a daily challenge but I want to stay with the life I know and have made, within a city environment I care deeply for.
And all these things I share with so many others. Its been proven over and over that we seek to be mobile, to live with a community we know, to have a fabric of a home which is light and airy, enjoy nature and be able to get to work…and whilst doing this hear the birds sing in the early morning and experience that old-fashioned idea of evensong, watch the butterflies. Watch the children.
And so, when we talk of developing this site I look for what we can achieve:
A mix of ages, work in our creative sectors, a joy in the heritage of the railways which grew from this space and was a centre for developing ideas to fruition. This teardrop site takes in everything our contemporary planners talk about; part of one of our most beautiful medieval cities, so well connected the Romans chose it as a key stronghold; here is the opportunity for us to create a high quality of life; work, travel, play, and really strong relationships between the people living there…the people of York.
The opportunity is there for the taking but with all this earlier thoughts about what is stopping it happen?. Yes, we need to consider land values and finding a different work around for the people of York, rather than investors, to make homes and work…but there is another three-letter word which has remained a consistent barrier over three decades.
And if this one word with three letters slips into this development all the possibilities that I have written of become impossible.
Children penned in to avoid a main road running through and next to the newly developed park, health problems caused by pollution and noise, less investment from the new generation who have climate change at the top of their agenda, a same old, same old approach that creates a soulless environment to live in, and the birds, the birds tend to fly away from this three-letter word.
The word we all know. There are many who share my vision, many eager to invest and stay put and make a trailblazing site – not only for ourselves but our grandchildren’s grandchildren.
For me, if York central “the teardrop site” goes ahead without this word there will be tears of joy – otherwise its probably another city for me where I can carry on working – most likely in Europe, far away from family and kin where they are taking this word out of their vocabulary! Let’s do the same….
On 5th July My York Central held a drop-in afternoon / evening workshop to develop a brief for a Hub or Exchange on York central. The event was to develop further two of the My York Central Big Ideas:
6) A community made through exchange: York has enormous wealth, socially, culturally and financially. Use York Central to build a community that can build links between people to address inequalities through sharing and exchange.
7) A hub that catalyses York’s creativity and innovation: Amazing things are happening in York from media, science and technology and heritage. Develop a showcase and learning hub that challenges perceptions and fuels new ideas and networks.
There was some discussion over whether physical facilities should be one building (with opportunities for cross-fertilisation between activities) or a network of smaller buildings within a dense, walkable neighbourhood. Or indeed both with boundaries between the distributed and the centralised approaches being noted as topic for further discussion.
Below are some key ideas to form the beginnings of an open brief for an Exchange on York Central. Download a PDF.
Spaces – for activities and connection
Many people contributed ideas for specific spaces that would enable particular kinds of activity. How can a space be designed for multiple uses and different activities, and what is the right mix of dedicated and multi-use space?
Also, is there a way we can establish meanwhile use on York Central to start to explore these multiple activities? Can we learn from the experience of Spark and similar projects, and avoid having to necessarily get it exactly right first time (which would be a big ask with such a new idea)?
Governance: How to use the power of the city’s big players but in a way that is also community-engaged?
Questions were raised about how such a space should be run and who by, whether it is via community-led governance or by one or more of the city’s big players. More work needs to be done on this but – like the My York Central Big Ideas – there was a sense that money made should be reinvested in the community. This could mean the Exchange renting out co-working and meetings space or community-owned retail. There was a feeling among some that there was a big demand from specific sectors (creative/software industries for example) for clustered space which suited their needs and that this could be an income-generator.
Importance of places that make social connections
The point of living in a city is lots and lots of potential connections – but making these connections can be hard. How can we design a place where you want to spend time, you know something interesting is always going on and that facilitates the connections that otherwise are only serendipitous? How can we create opportunity for meeting and connecting? How can we use mix of use, ease of movement (on foot and bike) and communication of all sorts (via the net, via social and cultural interaction and by physical signposting) to create an urban climate where this process of exchange is actively enabled?
The power of the intergenerational
There was a clear wish to positively address the nature of an intergenerational society, one where people of all ages had something to contribute and where participation in the process of exchange – of skills, time, money etc – wasn’t restricted by simple boundaries of education, work and retirement. Mirroring suggestions for the broader development on York Central, there were suggestions that the Exchange should not just work for all, but should encourage intergenerational links and value them.
Digital… + engineering + heritage + the environment
The Exchange should be interdisciplinary and refuse old binaries of art or science; past or future; digital or analogue and make the post of York’s strengths in media, science, railway engineering and heritage. It should encourage the crossing of boundaries – both for economic benefit and for the simple joy of city life bringing surprises.
There is a challenge in moving beyond simplistic responses in heritage and the environment – brick-arched “railway-ish” buildings and simple peppering with solar panels – and there was a view that making connections between issues was the key to unlocking a richer and more successful form of development, of which this building could be at the heart.
Connect in with – and build on – what is already going on
The Council, CVS and York Timebank already are facilitating a lot of people to connect up with other people and activities – how can all this activity be better signposted to each other and ensure that any new Exchange builds on and compliments this activity rather than reinvents the wheel. It also raised the question of whether ‘volunteering’ and ‘service’ are the same as reciprocal exchange?
We need a further discussion about these different ideas and what they might mean for the York Central Exchange. In pragmatic terms this means more events where professionals working on these schemes and individuals interested in such networks can work together to co-design what it is.
Robert Powell (former Beam Director and RIBA Honorary Fellow 2018) and Hazel Colquhoun (York Curiouser and independent consultant) introduce the real possibilities for arts, culture and making a brilliant place in York Central.
Robert introduce the cultural wellbeing policy with the local plan.
Hazel gave a series of inspiring and thought-provoking examples of how arts can be used in developments and make new places.
We then opened up for discussion, the aim of the quotes below are to give a real favour of the discuss they’ve been roughly grouped to identify key themes:
York, Heritage, Tourism and Contemporary Culture
‘What kind of culture are we talking about, heritage or contemporary? I am from York and I left. York is dead and that’s why I left. Heritage has it place. But we’ve been kicked over the head by it. The heritage offering is for visitors has been done to death and that is the monolithic overarching problem. There is nothing for me’.
‘Here we house 850 years of the archives of the city and this holds the stories of people of York. The people make the story and make our heritage real. It’s not just about monuments and buildings, we have the stories of the people of York. We have invited artists and creatives to research the rich stories in the archives and to re-tell the story in different and exciting ways. Bringing artists, creatives, digital makers and heritage together to create something new. For example, through our Explore Labs we have worked with young people, hacking stories and creating something else. Both inspirational and aspirational – who knows where it will lead. Explore Labs challenges the imagination – it’s where, artists, tech, heritage and stories collide’.
(Barbara Swinn, from York Explore)
‘We were recently voted in the Sunday Times, the best place to live in England. As far as I am concerned noblesse oblige. If you are given a title, that we have something special, fantastic and wonderful, we need to be optimistic, forward looking and positive. York Central and Castle Gateway and other developments are a fantastic opportunity. This is fantastic future’.
‘This site should be a canvass. Sometimes York is still historic and stodgy’.
‘York that is the sell, the hard tourist sell. I am sick to death of that kind of shtik. You feel like there isn’t anything for you’.
‘There is a lot going on and a lot of independent people getting up and doing things’.
‘I’ve come to York and I can’t quite get in there. York is shared space but where is my bit? I want to do various class and I want to enjoy things but there is such little space for residents. But we don’t make enough money as tax payers to take up that space’.
York Central and Railways
‘The unique thing about York Central is railways. So much of York is about looking backwards, you can combine, shame not to focus in on railways because that is unique. You can combine that heritage with something very modern and incorporating art into it. You can use rail as a motif to direct people through the site. We are looking at many people stories. Phoenix Boulevard, where I live, used to be a foundry but apart from name of the street there is to other reference to it. Before they dismantle the site, can we retain some of those icons. Railways are about travel and movement and you can look forward to what movement might be in the future’.
‘The most exciting thing in the plans is the stream train going backwards and forward’.
‘How do people feel about the railway heritage? We already have a cultural institution on it and playing a role? How do people feel about the railway heritage and can you meld this with the future looking?’
‘Challenges in York Central is to persuade people to come to York Central. Everyone goes to York. Difficulties will be making it less of a island, as there are only limited ways to get into it. One of the things that NRM could thinking about is ‘breaking out of its space’, they should they be thinking of spreading through the space in ways that that would take people further into the space. There could so some quite creative things in other parts of the site’.
‘In terms of the railway theme, there is the Highline in New York. They used a disused rail track, which is elevated. Now become a hugely important outdoors space, hosts music events, arts events, planting. Green space, involved with volunteers, friends of the highline. This would be one way of attracting people to that site. I know its talked about as Great Park but if it’s purely static I don’t think it will survive’.
‘Railway Institute gymnasium. If you go in the is a wonderful magnificent building and that is a building that needs to be retained. It is popular and much loved’.
‘One thing that’s strikes me the culture of the city was not planned and here you’re trying to plan it. I also feel calling is York Central is a misnomer because it is the connection between the city and whole has to be thought of seriously. The culture of the city which grew organically, the concern of the railway, the railway is part of the culture of the site. NRM will expand, absolutely vital but it has to be done in an imaginative way’.
How can culture be democratic?
‘These artists intervention have been about making sense of a space, in this city’s ancient monuments. One thing add, how is that going to affect our children now? With a monument, there is a danger that it is grown over. Or is it going to be something that a community can relate to?’
Hazel: ‘In Cambridge, the Art project included lots education projects. As well as making art that is about the new development, they worked as part of a new school building to link to what the children talked about. There is lots of scope for people of all age as involved. Making a place that can change and making place and spaces that can be used for something’.
‘We make buildings and then the buildings make us. Then it changes us and changes the people that come after that. It’s about having values in minds when they set out. In post-war towns, the approach was ‘build an art gallery’ and ‘build a theatre’ and we’re done. Instead think about embedding capacity for change in the longer term. It is good to have artists in resident but maybe instead of having an art gallery we need an art school!’
‘There has been some talk about digital facilities. Don’t let’s separate artists from the community. We need to encourage them to come from the community, for everyone to be able to explore their talent. If you see that happen then you are getting somewhere close to the ideas for cultural wellbeing’.
‘Picking up on the future and arts of the future, one of the ideas for York Central is the Great Park. I was struck with the Cambridge ideas and trees, the development is growing and evolving as the trees grow. So could we use this Great Park to animate the story, something that is growing and everyone could be involved in it. Because people how move there, future residents and children will grow up with the trees. I like the idea of growth and it being literal’.
‘Language is exclusionary. Particular vocabulary and discourse and if you do not have the way to understand that framework – and therefore it’s not accessible to a lot of people. Topics, complicated not quite able to understand them on an immediate level of what will affect me. We often forget the immediate – the cup of tea – the immediate point of entry, plain English directly, this is how it will hit you. Then I’d be very concerned about the cultural wellbeing plan for York central. I’d worry that you are disenfranchising people right away’.
‘Planning system you do not understand without specialist knowledge but this is how we are going to hit home for you’.
A cultural hub/lab?
‘What if we had an Explore Lab on York Central that could enable artists, creatives, digital/tech and our heritage to collide – re-imagining the stories our history.
An example from our Explore Labs – an 11 year old boy, developed a holder on a 3D printer that could be attached to the base of a takeaway coffee cup – this would be made of biodegradable material and filled with wild flower seeds that would grow and attract pollinators. Who knows where this will lead? We could connect with those young people using the digital labs and ask them what they would like to see and re-visit 20 years later – they could be the very ones using the space in York central – It could be a dynamic and living space. As they grow it grows’.
(Barbara Swinn, York Explore)
How to start to build culture on York Central now?
‘Something mobile or pop up maybe? Could one of the buildings can be used ‘meantime’ to explore making and digital making?’
‘It would be easy to do something tame and has been done before. We are allowed to be risky even if we are York. We’re allowed to think about the future even if we are historic. We have strong roots and therefore we can grow’.
‘But It will be water down if we don’t pull our fingers out’.
‘There are somethings (in Hazel’s presentation) about process and becoming. There were also some things that were something physical in the space. Some of those interventions were about ownership, my brick, my windmill, that’s for them. But there needs to be a longer-term plan too. The cultural plan can have a process, what do we do while it is become, what do we want to become’.
‘We need the process of becoming. But as a community we need that feeling it is ongoing. We also need buildings that can stand the test of time. Good opportunity to have all of them – but we might just get a Windmill!’
‘It is about retaining people and bringing people back. It is about providing space for artists. In Bristol, they have turned themselves around and provide space for artists as a permeant feature. E.g Watershed. We need a place for start ups. If that was in conjunction with the regeneration and the museum itself so much the better. It could be a way of melding old and new, earning a living and stay. That will do well for our native population as well as retain graduates’.
‘Often there is a sense that it’s Leeds you go to for an exiting place to see art. But what about forward thinking art that involves the community. Including communities that are not always wanting to get involved in art’.
‘Retain the element of what it was and what was there and forward looking, NRM is trying to do’.
‘You are talking about people taking ownership over a part of that site, time to box clever to get ongoing funding, that helps to pay for that activity on to the future’.
‘In the Highline in New York, they have kept the essence of what it was I the past, It has sculptural pieces and some of old buildings have been retained and the city has taken ownership over it definitely’.
‘In Birmingham Wharf people can make things. Entrepreneurs can try things out, there are great big tunnels thinking about transport in things at high speed, a place where people can understand things not like a museum, some kind of makers environment where you are doing things because without artists being about to prototype something and try something out. There is a space to prototype then that’s very difficult’.
‘I keep reading your cultural wellbeing plan. You should have a cultural infrastructure plan wellbeing in the result, cultural infrastructure is what underpins it. Physical as well as social. Infrastructure is not just bricks and mortar it’s social. Whatever that infrastructure is it will set the foundation for what follows on. Whatever form it takes it will influences what happens next. Principle area part of an infrastructure and can change – but can give you an infrastructure’.
‘Lots of old building, factories, on the site, I hope there is no suggestions that they should be cleared away as they could be excellent for start of space for artists. Convert them in workshop spaces’.
‘I complete understand its lovely when an arty people get together. But what do you need on a day to day basis is to eat and be outside. I liked the fruit trees idea from Cambridge. As people use the path, they might think about Newton. Railways signify innovation but not everyone will be a maker. They might just wat an apple to immediately take away’.
‘Looking at other tools to describe the space, it uses one kind of language, architectures to tell stories, how people describe, storytelling other way of giving people a chance of places for them’.
‘We can be active with the cultural plan, we want that building for arts and we want to take that. We should be pushing now, to start to use somewhere like the Bullnose Building’.
• Keep in touch: sign up for further discussions about culture and York Central – within the view of starting to make some of these ideas happen?
• Develop ideas about a hub?
• Meantime use of buildings on York Central?
• Arts Council bid to being arts to York Central placemaking?