One of the things that always has–and continues to–shape people’s experience of Coney Street is its status as a thoroughfare. Owing to its position between two bridges, it is a key way that vehicles and people move across the city. These people, and the ways that they use it differently, have shaped the street across the centuries, and continue to inform its possible futures.
In the first of our York Civic Trust workshops, we looked at the street over a 24 hours period in order to better understand the different uses and users the street has today, and how this might compare to the past.
Morning on the street today starts with streams of trucks and vans delivering goods to the businesses on the street. To an extent, this is similar to how it’s been in the past. Before lorries, other vehicles would have been on the street delivering their goods, including boats arriving at jetties on the Ouse. Moreover, 250 years ago it would have also been a common sight to see horses and carriages being packed up and setting off from one of the street’s coaching inns, such as The Black Swan.
After the morning traffic, at lunchtime we find a new kind of bustle and busyness, with a steady stream of people moving along the street, and visiting its shop. Again, this is a similar scene to one we might have found in the past. Coney Street was always a place for shopping. In the nineteenth century it was a key destination for clothes and fashion, underpinned by the great department store Leak and Thorp.
At nighttime, we find another different use and experience of the street. Today, people come to visit the bars or cinema off the street — although nothing has quite filled the gap for cheesy music and dancing since The Willow’s closure in 2015. The street has a deep tradition as a place for nighttime entertainment: dance halls were in the basement of several buildings, music concerts were held in St Martin’s Church, and there was a huge cinema at what is now Boots, seating 1,000 people and showing the latest films. And, from the mid 1800s to the outbreak of the Second World War, every Sunday night Coney Street was overtaken by throngs of young working class people taking part in the “Monkey Runs” - a type of orchestrated promenading, and one of the main ways in which young people would meet potential romantic partners.
While today the street’s different users are coexisting, we can’t help but feel that people’s experience of Coney Street is not as good as it could be. Our research suggested two central aspects of the public realm design that could make the street a more positive destination.
The first of these is making better use of ‘stuff’ on the street — by this we mean items or furniture introduced into the public realm. In particular, there are few places to stop and pause on the street. Providing specific areas for people to pause would help to improve their experience on the street, as well as encouraging them to dwell longer.
In turn, new lighting could help to improve the feeling of the street. This isn’t just about providing brighter illumination for safety: recent research has revealed how subtler tones of light can encourage certain behaviours and feelings. For example, we might need different types of light at different points of night and evening.
Beyond ‘stuff’, our research suggested that people’s experience of the street could also be improved by finding ways to more proudly celebrate the street’s distinctive character.
Walking along Coney Street you can move from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century timber-framed houses to twenty-first century shop fronts, taking in every other century of architecture as you go. Distinctiveness, and clear historic character, is a key trait of a successful high street, and can help to differentiate it from other competing locations, and develop a national—and even international—brand. We only have to look as far as The Shambles to see this already in action.
Coney Street has distinctiveness in abundance, and if properly celebrated and conserved, this has the potential to contribute to both the character and economies of the street throughout the day.
We used our research into the street’s public realm, and its different uses and users, to help frame the discussions in our first workshop, in which we heard from our participants how they might like to experience Coney Street differently. To read some of their suggestions, check out 24 Hours in the Life of Coney Street, Pt 2.