The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Poles and street clutter in Ripon  also a problem in York. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
Poles and street clutter in Ripon  also a problem in York. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

There are two distinct ways of looking at any place – from hamlet to mega-city – when deciding on its future.

We can look back, or we can plan for the future.

The intrusion into the space by York Minsters transept  too assertive. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The intrusion into the space by York Minsters transept  too assertive. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

In looking back, we celebrate the past and the forces that worked on the settlement to shape its form and its layout, its prosperity or its stagnation.

Looking forward, we aim to improve and to set a course that will enhance it and retain its prosperity.

For many years, the two ways of looking were mutually exclusive. The ‘historical’ school would bemoan every new idea and development, would insist on keeping every last brick and inconvenient dog-leg street; the ’modernists’ would ignore the imperatives of the past in planning for a shiny future, irrespective of how much disruption this might cause.

Neither of these ways of caring for a place is sufficient by itself. Even the most historic places – Venice, Bruges, New Orleans, for example – need to look forward as well as back. And, unless you are planning a completely new settlement – perhaps one of the ‘Garden Towns’ and ‘Garden Villages’ recently approved by the government – you need to have an eye to the past, too. Indeed, the Garden Cities of the past were often linked to existing villages, and so had to adapt themselves to include what was already there – as, for example, Milton Keynes village was incorporated into the city to which it gave its name.

Piccadilly, York  a new street to relieve traffic problems  a lesson Ripon could follow. (Copyright  David Winpenny)

Piccadilly, York  a new street to relieve traffic problems  a lesson Ripon could follow. (Copyright  David Winpenny)

Some lessons on the balance between past and future can be drawn from two books on the historic city of York, written three-quarters of a century apart. The latest, published last year, is called ‘York; Changing the Face of the City.’

Published by York Civic Trust, it was written by the Trust’s Chairman, Sir Ron Cooke, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of York and a past President of the Royal Geographical Society.

The other, which appeared in 1940, is by one of Sir Ron’s academic processors, the historian John Bowes Morrell. A York man, he was twice Lord Mayor of the city. A director of the chocolate firm Rowntree and Co and chairman of Westminster Press, he founded York Conservation Trust and played a key role in the foundation of the University of York. His book is called ‘The City of our Dreams’.

Morrell’s first chapter is called ‘What we owe to the dead’ – the date of the publications suggests that it’s not just the people who built the city over almost two millennia he has in mind, but also the recent dead of the World Wars. He describes the wealth of old buildings that York retained – and mostly still retains. He notes, ‘In spite of the modernisation of the shop fronts, the old streets within the City are full of interest and an effort should be made, when alterations and rebuilding are necessary, to make the new frontages fit into the framework of the old city.’

Ron Cooke’s book begins in a similar way and, seventy-five years on, can still make the same points: ‘Each corner opens up new and unexpected vistas that uniquely reproduce the distinctive combination of features. Light and shade, and human bustle, add excitement to the experience... it is a city where detail matters.’

And, on the whole, it is detail with which Cooke’s volume deals. He looks at several areas of York and, in a chapter called ‘Sustaining the City Beautiful’, he suggests ways in which things could be improved. Much of this is the sort of thing that Ripon Civic Society has long advocated for our own city, including ‘removing the remaining clutter, resolving the A-board issue’ (City of York council has recently banned A-board advertisements in York), ‘repainting various street furniture, improving the quality of the snickleways’ (the York word for what here we usually know as ginnels or snickets).

He also has a substantial section on ‘Problems with poles’.

He deals, too, with paving and lighting, and also with open spaces, both formal and informal. This was a theme for Morrell in 1940, as well. The second section of his book is ‘What we owe to the living’, which rehearses some of the improvements made in the City in the century before he wrote, including new parks and riverside walks. There were also layout improvements, including the building of a new street, Piccadilly, to relieve traffic congestion – a lesson we might apply in Ripon by providing a new link road to save Low Skellgate from its clogging and polluting by vehicles.

Morrell’s last section, ‘What we owe to those who are not born’ is more contentious. There are some decent ideas – gardens in the moat beside part of the city walls, improvements to the riverside walks, plenty of tree planting. But he also advocates some wholesale clearance, particularly of the buildings at each side of some of the Bars – the gateways in the city wall: he writes, ‘The entrance to the City through Micklegate and Monk Bars would be very imposing if the uninteresting property on either side of the Bars was removed’, and provides an illustration that to modern eyes looks somewhat desolate, the entrance to Micklegate having lost of the historic fabric clustering around it.

Cooke doesn’t advocate anything so drastic – which would be contrary to most modern conservation thinking – but does advocate intervention into the streetscape, including the reordering of Deangate outside the south transept of York Minster; this scheme, recently carried out, is not considered entirely successful and is, perhaps, too assertive for the space it occupies.

This brief survey can offer only a glimpse into these two fascinating books, with their different views of our neighbouring city.; the lesson we need to take away above all here in Ripon is that in planning for the future we need to take care of the past, but not be enslaved by it. We should welcome the new as well as protecting the old. We should respect what our forebears left for us, and also have the vision to be radical for the sake of our descendants.

It is in this light we should see our City Plan as it sets out a future for Ripon.