ReImagining York: Young Town Planners

16th August 2019


York charity New Visuality are set to exhibit the artwork of young people who have reimagined the city’s heritage, traffic system and modern architecture.

Funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund, the project, ‘ReImagining York: Young Town Planners’, engaged with 40 children and teenagers in and around the city. It was an ambitious programme of creative outreach sessions which saw double the amount of anticipated participants, but success was made possible by rigorous scheduling and energetic guidance. Says New Visuality artist and teacher Arran Leith, "The idea was great from the kick off - imagine giving a group of York young people who have never visited York’s cultural hotspots carte blanche to reimagine the city. That’s a provocative an idea as it sounds. We visited major landmarks, we made sketches and took photos, we discussed them at BootCamp sessions, and then we completely wiped the board clean.

York Minster is an absolute icon, but how will that change in an increasingly secular world? Stonebow House is universally loathed, but why is that so, when it so successfully harnesses the brutalist objectives of its genre? Clifford’s Tower and the surrounding area is the site of the city’s darkest chapters, but how best to commemorate that - with sombre stone monoliths or a sense of energy? York is a fascinating city, in that its heritage weighs more than its forward looking vision, but there’s a cohort of young people who might not necessarily prioritise history in the way we have grown used to. This group was fascinating in that none of them had ever been to York Minster or Clifford’s Tower before. For a variety of reasons, they felt excluded. This made their responses to compiling the city’s cultural landscape more fascinating."


The numbers and pace of the project was larger than previously wielded by New Visuality, and though, according to charity director Greg McGee it was ‘a pleasure from start to finish’, the success was down to the calibre of volunteers. "We’ve always been well served, but there was something about this project that caught the imagination of young interns happy to help. Young people from All Saints School, Milthorpe School, Ripon Grammar, York Steiner School, York College rolled up their sleeves and got stuck into a sensitive and energetic riff of activities. Their generosity and intuition pretty much helped shape the activities and the trips."

Over 11 months, groups of 40 youngsters visited York’s high profile landmarks, meeting with the staff, and taking photos. The brief was simple and the creative responses were anything but. A day in Acomb had many questioning why the area has such negative stereotypes - "it’s really peaceful", "I love the hot chocolates in here", "I come back to this library all the time" - indeed it was the local library, Acomb Explore, that saw the group design Acomb’s skyline as a futuristic sky-scraping metropolis. "It deserves more than just people peddling the wrong reputation", says 18 year old participant Carter, "So we thought let’s really go to town and get ambitious. When you look at the area’s history, it’s world class." So successful were the trips to Acomb, that 15 of the young participants returned to Acomb Explore to exhibit their ‘Acomb ReDesigned’ artwork and even sign up for the Summer Reading Challenge.


York Minster is an absolute icon, but how will that change in an increasingly secular world? Stonebow House is universally loathed, but why is that so, when it so successfully harnesses the brutalist objectives of its genre?

After recruiting young members of the Chinese Community and making a trip to nearby Castle Howard, the group set up at Bishopthorpe Road’s churches to begin their redesign of the Clifford’s Tower area. This proved to be the hardest part as the Castle area has such a dark history, with the shadow of historical executions and the 1190 Jewish Massacre looming large over discussions. Says Greg, "It wasn’t until our young artists met Phil Bixby and Helen Graham, leaders of My Castle Gateway, that we felt liberated to go back to the drawing board." Phil was happy to help guide the creative responses, “Through My Castle Gateway we’re working on developing an open brief for the area – setting out what’s important about the different places here and what people want to be able to do. We’ve had a lot of input – and there’s more to come over the summer – and we’ll be shaping this with help from New Visuality and the public. Sometimes there’s a caution about handling heritage – a “wooooahh – we can’t touch this” – and it’s great to have ideas from young people who have less of that reluctance, and feel less of that burden of history. Ideas which challenge, or surprise, or even shock, are essential for prompting fresh questions”.

The results are visually impressive and are doubtlessly provocative, but artist Arran Leith, who based his final photo montages on the art created by the young participants, hopes the spirit of commemorative respect leaves the biggest impression. "York Minster would benefit massively from VR. Clifford’s Tower and the Castle Area are a different proposition for obvious reasons, but we ultimately thought this was a chance to play with ideas and see how much traction they get. We have installed a Cable Car to continue York’s ‘Transport Revolution’ focusing especially on the recent comments made by Councillor Dave Taylor. Traffic around the Tower and parking anywhere in York city centre is a nightmare and this is a radical and achievable alternative.

We have designed a Log Flume option. Our young artists were very keen on the idea of fun, colour and activity commemorating the area’s darker history. The young artists were very clear on this. Dark times don’t always have to be respected through dark monoliths. Fun is simply a more effective celebration of loved ones than hushed, sombre awe, which sometimes has the effect of paralysing discussion on what actually happened."

The real elephant in the room was disability access, with Clifford’s Tower set to remain instantly inaccessible for wheelchair users for the foreseeable future. "So we thought, let’s have a go at that", says Arran, It’s only through innovation that we can truly harness inclusivity. If it’s going to take discreet escalators alongside existing staircases or radical wheel chair friendly Cable Cars, then that’s what we’ll have to think about."


Lastly, the young artists agreed that a return to the moat that once surrounded the Tower was a good talking point.

"Gondoliers at Clifford’s Tower!", laughs Arran, "There’s a disembarking point at the foot of the design, with free service for Wheel Chair users. This extends the ideas around York’s ‘Transport Revolution’, with gondoliers and even ferries thrown into the discussion. Obviously the intersection of water vehicles and swimmers from the Log Flume would need a lot of thought - perhaps a separate moat round the back of the Tower for gondoliers? - but I thought it best to include a visual hook in the poster to show that the idea is in the mix." The resulting artwork is a fascinating snapshot of creative responses from young people who had not previously experienced the rich heritage of York. "It’s been the most satisfying project we’ve worked on, with twice the number of projected participants involved, and with new partnerships forged with Castle Howard, local libraries, schools, and heritage landmarks," says Greg, "The quality of the artwork vindicates the hard work of everyone involved."

ReImagining York: Young Town Planners launches with an event this Sunday, 18 August, 1 - 3pm, at According to McGee gallery, opposite Clifford’s Tower, York. Contact [email protected] for more details.

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