How are people using York’s public spaces?

By Phil Bixby and Helen Graham

What the mix of activities that make Museum Gardens a successful public space?

Last Saturday – as part of the Looking at Your City walk – we spoke to people spending time in various parts of York. We explored a variety of different types of public spaces in York – Museum Gardens, St Helen’s Square, St Sampson’s Square, Shambles Market food court area ending in King’s Square. We first give a flavour of our conversations and then draw out the questions raised for My Castle Gateway and how you can help further shape the brief.

One of the post it notes contributed to My Castle Gateway at the Guildhall Ward Committee Meeting.

Museum Gardens
A number of people in the Step 1 of the My Castle Gateway process said that we need ‘a Museum Gardens for the south of the city’ so we began our exploration of public space in the Museum Gardens we’ve already got. Why do people spend time here?

Two teenagers were collapsed, sitting on the grass after a shopping trip. They wanted to be able to sit down and they didn’t want to have to spend money on buying a drink
A woman in her 80s was sitting on a bench overlooking the park. She was there for the view and because it is peaceful.

Taking in the view in Museum Gardens

A father with two children under 8. They came to the encircled Storytelling area in Museum Gardens. They come to Museum Gardens a lot as they have York Museum Trust cards. The father saw it as a chance to escape town, which was very busy that day, and because they had time to kill. The trees offer chances for climbing and act as a natural play area. They can also, as were others in the Storytelling area at the same time, able to enjoy watching the squirrels.

A hidden space for climbing trees and watching Squirrels.

Two teenage girls had found a more secluded bench and each had food bought from MacDonalds. They just wanted somewhere to come and eat.

There was a tourist filming Museum Gardens. She waved us away as she didn’t speak English but had clearly found something she liked there.

Two friends in their 20’s were sat within sight of wedding celebrations at the Hospitium. The woman used to be a wedding planner and she was interested to see how the event was going. She’s now a teacher, and had moved from another bench when a family with kids sat down next to her – she wanted peace.

A man and a woman in their 20s were sipping take away coffee, they were looking for a quiet space to escape city centre, especially important on a Saturday.

A man in 60s was sitting on a quiet bench on his way home from the National Railway Museum to catch a bus. He had chosen the bench because of the beautiful flowers, because it was quiet and he could watch squirrels 

A couple in their 60s with a friend were there to look at the new garden developed as part of the York Art Gallery. While the man was really waiting until the point he could get to a pub, the women liked the planting and that the plants were labelled. They saw it as a green breathing space away from the City Centre. Museum Gardens – and this new part especially – acted as a destination in contrast to Tower Gardens, which, they said you just walk through. But they were also using their time in Museum Gardens as a stop on a longer circular journey through town. So while it was a destination it was also, like the man walking from the National Railway Museum, a node on a journey. In conversation they reflected on Museum Gardens as a good place to bring their grandkids. They had enjoyed the Crazy Golf behind York Art Gallery over the summer but – recognising that days out in York with their grandkids could be expensive – noted just now important the free space to play in Museum Garden’s was and that while there was a playground in the swings/slide type sense there were still stones and trees lots of things to climb. They liked the fact that plants were labelled, so they could gain ideas for planting in their garden.

Why Museum Gardens?
• Quiet breathing space away from town
• Time here combined with – a break from – shopping and being in city centre
• Natural play infrastructure (stones and trees)
• Destination to look at flowers, planting and squirrel watching
• Used as a stop off point on a longer journey
• Place to be without having to spend money or buy takeaways to eat/drink

St Helen’s Square
St Helen’s Square has three squares of benches in the centre, all were packed when we walked through with drinkers spilling out of Harkers and the Carluccio’s new tables full and buzzing.

We first met a family of three – not from York – who had been shopping, were more than a bit tired and needed a break where they were not obliged to buy a drink.

A couple from Redcar who come down to York regularly to listen to buskers. They were watching a performance in St Helen’s Sqaure, had caught another earlier and were fans of the electric violinist, Ed Alleyne-Johnson.

We met a couple who come down from Redcar especially to enjoy York’s buskers.

Why St Helen’s Square?
• Break from shopping, and central location in amongst the shops
• Place to be without having to buy a drink/food
• Watching the buskers

St Sampson’s Square
All the benches were in use in St Sampon’s square, no events or stalls currently there.

Met two women in 60s who had been walking between Bishopthorpe Rd for lunch and the Theatre Royal stopping regularly at benches along the way.

Why St Sampson’s Square?
• Benches are crucial in enabling long journeys on foot and links to public transport

Shambles Market
In the food stalls part of Shambles market the picnic benches were full, with many of the seats in the undercover area also being used. We noted that there were some areas that felt definitely linked to having to buy food/drink with others perhaps more open to causal non-customer seating. This more inclusive mix seemed important to the vibe.

A couple eating in the undercover area. They were visiting York and staying in an Air B&B. Shambles Market has been recommended by a friend. They said they liked the choice of food.

There was a woman on the edge of the undercover area with a walker, resting and eating a chocolate biscuit she has bought from home.

Why Shambles Market?
• Buy and eat food
• Rest on the edges of commercial space

King’s Square
When we arrived one busker had recently fished and another was about to start. What was noticeable was that every possible seating area, benches to the raised wall were full of people eating fish and chips, pasties or cookies from the shops immediately around. We didn’t want to ruin anyone’s tea – and were a bit in need of a bench ourselves at this point – so called it a day.

Questions and lines of inquiry for the My Castle Gateway Brief:

Mix of activities
The big achievement of Museum Gardens as a public space is that there are lots of different things to do there. You can sit on benches, you can sit on the grass, you can enjoy the view, or the flowers, you can bring your own food, buy fast food, buy expensive coffee, buy ice cream, climb on trees, climb on stones, visit the Yorkshire Museum, attend events (or watch events happening), walk through it to York Railway Station/National Railway Museum or to walk to Clifton, Leeman Road or Holgate. One or two people compared it with Rowntree Park, with that quality of different ‘rooms’ which serve different purposes and have different atmospheres.

This reflects the Public Space Project’s Power of 10 idea that places thrive where there are more than 10 reasons for people to be there.

How can we build on the reasons that already exist to be in different parts of Castle Gateway area and start to experiment with new reasons using ideas suggested in Step 1 (from music to history to pop up food to political debates and protests)?

Working out from what people have said they want to be able to do in Castle Gateway in the future, what infrastructure needs to be designed into the masterplan to enable a greater variety of uses? What “cues” do we need to build into spaces and surfaces to encourage different uses and activities, and how can these be multifunctional and help to create places of beauty?

How can we explore what makes public space work and how can the My Castle Gateway process enable people to visualise/experience how possible changes might feel?

Mix of people: Is it inclusive and accessible?
In all the areas we visited there were people of all ages. The sense of being able to escape town temporarily seemed important to everyone we spoke to from teenagers, families, 20-soemthings to older people. Clearly a serious bench infrastructure enables movement – a point made both by the man sitting amongst the flowers in Museum Gardens and the sisters we spoke to in St Sampson’s Square. Walking is enabled by being able to regularly sit.

Yet the other crucial element was people either deliberately not spending money or not much or were taking a break between bouts of shopping. So this “not spending money” is not disconnected to “spending money”. People had shopping bags. Or had bought take away fast food or coffees. So a place to rest and not spend money is also infrastructure for some people to then go on to do so.

How can we understand better what makes for inclusive public space? What experiments can we do as part of the My Castle Gateway process to understand this better and model approaches?

How can we understand better – and plan for – the ways in which public spaces interact with walking, retail, cafes and local business?

Is it Comfortable?
We take the idea of comfort from Projects for Public Space ‘What makes a successful place?’ blog. Museum Gardens is full of places that look comfortable. In amongst the flowers, hidden in the Storycircle, spread out on the grass or leaning back to see the view. But while the in town places we visited were packed, did they look comfortable? Maybe not quite. People were packed in, there was a sense of the stop being temporary, bound by time such as a buskers performance or by how long it took to eat fish and chips. Probably this is ok to have different levels of comfort, sometimes edginess, energy and movement might be more important. But seems like in Castle Gateway – reflecting differences expressed in a number of post its – we might ask…

How might we mix up the spaces so there are areas of movement of dynamic turn over of people and also places of comfort and to take your time?

How can we experiment now with making Castle Gateway more comfortable?

Get involved and help develop the brief:
We want to continue to understand how people already use York’s public space.

• Take a photo and share why you like a certain part of town.
• Write a bit of narrative about a part of town, what are you doing and what are other people doing
• Think of an event idea where we can try out and experiment with these ideas

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