My Castle Gateway: The Power of the Dark Side

After dark: view from the Foss Basin to the remain York Castle walls behind the Castle Museum. Could / should these be better lit?

By Gareth Wilce, Senior Communications Manager for Economy and Place, City of York Council
Two brave groups of York residents stayed up past their bed-time one Wednesday in August for possibly the most different event of this very different approach to public engagement. 
For those of you who don’t know, My Castle Gateway is designed to engage people in shaping the plans rather than responding to proposed developments for the future of a huge area of the city centre.
A series of different events and online conversations have been asking people what is important about Castle Gateway, and what they’d like to see happen there in the future.
The after-dark guided walks were added to find out how nightfall changes Castle Gateway – who uses it, how they use it and ultimately what we’d like to be doing there after the sun has gone down in the future. 
And the groups contained a range of insights and often conflicting perspectives including young professionals, a business owner looking to relocate to the area, young professionals, neighbourhood police, a man who had experience of street homelessness and a woman who is partially-sighted and would ‘never otherwise visit the city at night’.
Below is a quick version of the guided walk. At each of these places the walk leaders Phil Bixby and Helen Graham from My Castle Gateway asked:
1. What is important to you about this area? 
2. How does it change after dark?
3. In five years time, what things would you like to be doing here after dark?

The Eye of York 
Our first stop provided a stark example of how an area is transformed after dark. The Eye of York does everything it can to attract and entertain visitors during the day. But at night a high-pitched whining noise is broadcast, which the neighbourhood police say has brought an end to anti-social behaviour – including speeding cars, rough sleepers, litter and the area being used as a toilet. This is perfect example of how night-time use has been restricted to protect the picture-postcard heritage for day-time use. But should this always be the case? The group discussed whether their ideas for other uses of the area might have a positive influence such as more lighting to enjoy the heritage, a pleasant place to walk through and create a calm evening place to sit away from the louder city centre.
Castle Car Park
This car park has received a huge amount of attention, most of it negative, throughout the consultation. The Opening Up Castle Gateway tours emphasise the fact that it Castle Car Park’s focal point is Clifford’s Tower, but turning around presents an often overlooked river view. Asked what they’d like to do here after dark in 10 years, our group said: a drink by the Foss, walk to places, catch a boat. The conversation then moved on to music performances and seats to enjoy Clifford’s Tower before one member of the group made ‘the case for city centre parking, especially for blue badge parking which we’ve lost so much of in the city centre’, presenting another potential conflict in how people want to use and access York. The group agreed that people wanted to be able to park nearby during the evening and if it wasn’t in Castle Car Park it would have to be somewhere else.
Tower Gardens
Crossing Tower Street brings a new atmosphere as people bring more life; a jogger, dog-walkers and groups of young people sitting talking on the benches. This was a familiar sight for a couple of our group, who commented that this had often been ‘a place for a chat after the pubs have shut’ for them.  A myriad of other themes crop up – from the rights of geese to praise for the Arts Barge further down the river. Inevitably on a night walk, personal safety dominates and the perceptions are very different within the group. The neighbourhood police officer who joined us pointed out York’s safety record: York is the safest tourist city in Europe in the safest county in UK. But only about half would feel safe walking home through the park after dark, while a partially-sighted member of the group said, without greater street lighting, it was simply too dark for them.
St George’s Field Car Park
The car park over the road from Castle is far less busy, and is more familiar to the group as the venue for the annual fairground – something which most group members were indifferent to. Imagining a different future prompts a more passionate conversation. Talk turns to creating a more convenient pedestrian route into town, while its position as a confluence of Foss and Ouse might provide an opportunity for some information or educational installations about floods and the work to prevent them.
New Walk & Foss Basin
A short walk provides two very different sides to York’s riverside – with the well-lit, residential Georgian promenade contrasting with the dark, almost unlit and ‘working’ feel of the Foss Basin. For more people who use the area, the group suggested more lights to better view some of the important historic aspects of the basin to appreciate the views of the bridge and the remaining walls of York Castle (the back of the York Castle Museum). In some quarters of the group the darkness was welcomed, viewed as a scarce resource in an increasingly bright city and sky prompting the challenging and unanswered question: How do you make a place feel safe without lighting being the primary means to do it?
Leaving the Foss Basin showed another difficulty with the area and a constant theme of My Castle Gateway – moving around. Steep flights of steps feed pedestrians straight onto a corner section of the narrow pavement of the dual-carriage road. The group welcomed the idea to open up a route for cyclists and pedestrians to go under rather than join or cross the busy road.  The group saw many advantages – opening up the route to Piccadilly would be safer and help businesses by increasing footfall into town along that stretch. 

The Foss Basin after dark. The lights of the Foss Barrier guide the way.

We then stood in the car park of the much-maligned Ryedale building and heard about the changing face of Piccadilly; an area which used to make things, which has now become ‘car park city’ but is showing signs of more evolution. Small business activity is returning to the area through Spark! and Fossgate and Walmgate beyond, something which the group felt could be encouraged in the future. The group imagined Piccadilly as an area which could accommodate more contemporary architecture, home for digital and tech companies, and more independent businesses but – importantly for the after dark theme – probably not more bars or cafes.

Many of the group did, then, however go for a drink on Fossgate!

Get involved in exploring these issues further:

The A Darker Castle Gateway walk – along with all the other events we’ve ran – feed into the draft Brief, which is currently open for comment.

We are also aiming to keep the question of after dark use in play as we look at the My Castle Gateway Challenges. See our forthcoming My Castle Gateway events.

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