City High Streets Fit For The Rest Of 21st Century

What does York need to do to ensure it is a successful and thriving city in thirty years time? Eliminate car-dependency and enable cycling obvs. Cycle campaigners can see this, but its not always easy to convince businesses and city leaders of the benefits that cycling can bring, so it was really refreshing to hear veteran retailer and High Street campaigner Bill Grimsey make the case for cycling when he came to talk to the citizens of York last Tuesday about how to revive our high streets. 

Earlier in the day I took Bill out for a cycle tour of York, on a Brompton kindly lent to him by Cycle Heaven. We enjoyed the pleasure of cycling side by side along the river, diced with death on Skeldergate Bridge, saw how easy it is to visit businesses on Bishy Rd, and how difficult it is to get to anywhere on Coney Street.

That evening Bill shared what he thinks are the crucial ingredients for successful 21st Century high streets:

  • Localism – places where the local community are welcome and involved
  • Strong and visionary leadership from Mayors and Council chief execs
  • Fewer cars and more green spaces

He shared examples of places that are leading the way such as Roeselare in Belgian where the mayor closed a car park in order to create an open park and food market that “lifts the community instead of draining it.” Meanwhile, Stockton on Tees are going one step further, bulldozing an entire shopping centre and grassing over a dual carriageway to create a vast riverside public realm.

Bill loves York but thinks we need to be bolder too. “The plans to open up the riverside behind Coney Street are great but you’ve got to blow up Boots and create a green space that links the river to the city,” he said. And when it comes to moving around the age of the car is finished as Bill is concerned. “You will not have cars in this town by 2050 and that’s what you need to work towards.”

But that doesn’t just mean banning cars and hoping for the best; Bill was clear that a comprehensive and holistic transport strategy is required that is centred around the vision for 21st Century York – a city that people go to to work, visit and play. And this won’t happen overnight. When business owners understandably raised concerns about the potential impact of car-free York on their businesses Bill was clear that if the data showed that York needs car parks in the short term then this needs to be accommodated – though not on land with prime potential to be public realm like St George’s Fields: “building a car park there is just bonkers,” he said. As for getting goods into town Bill reckons delivery hubs are the answer to this – offloading goods from large lorries onto small vehicles and cargo-cycles for the final few miles.

And having bounced around York on a Brompton with me earlier in the day he was enthusiastic about the potential for cycling, noting that distances shrink when you use pedal power, but he was horrified at the inadequacy of the current cycle offering in York. “It ain’t safe riding a bike across those bridges, that’s for sure,” he said. A sentiment that I think all of us can agree with.           

A recording of the event is available to view on YouTube.

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