A Healthy Heart to the City, Pt 1

In present day Coney Street, there isn’t a lot of greenery or even open spaces to be found. But looking at surviving historic maps, it is clear that the street—and people’s experience of it—will have been very different in the past.

Our earliest surviving map that shows Coney Street in detail is from the 1680s.

An extract of Archer's c.1680 map of York in black and white, showing Coney Street.
Archer’s ‘Plan of the Great, and famous Citty of York’ (c.1680). From York Explore Archives, Antiente MAP/1

On this we can trace open space on the eastern side of the street (opposite the river), where rows and rows of trees are carefully sketched out. These look a lot like orchards, whose apples were perhaps used to make cider which people on the street drank. Likewise, down to the river there is big open space up to the buildings along the bank.

Over the following years and centuries, this all changed. The yards on the east side of the street got eaten into by buildings, and by the early twentieth century, only small, separate yards remained. However, some greenery down towards the river was retained for a longtime. The area around St Martin’s Church in particular seems to have once been full of luscious gardens.

An extract of the 1852 Ordnance Survey map of York showing Coney Street.
Ordinance Map Office, Map of York (1852)

In this map from 1852, we can see that stretching all the way from the Guildhall to the George Inn, we can find rather elaborate and grand gardens, with paths, trees, and maybe even water features, marked out.

An extract from Whittock's bird's eye view of York from 1856.
Nathaniel Whittock’s Bird’s-eye view of the city of York (1856). From York Explore Archives, HMU/N/8/9.
Despite efforts to determine copyright on this image, the copyright holder could not be determined at the time of publication. Please contact us if you are aware of the identity of the copyright holder.
A view of the River Ouse on a sunny day.
A view of the River Ouse.

We get a further sense of this greenery from a Bird’s eye view of York painted at around the same time as the map was made. We see green spaces with trees and bushes going all the way down to the river. This is very different to our current experience of the riverside of the street.

Although some greenery has survived (mostly notably actually in the backyard of the StreetLife Hub) it is quite clear that Coney Street needs a more environmentally sustainable future. For this, we have to be ambitious, and project our thinking into 30 to 40 years’ time. With this mindset, three main options become apparent in our research.

The first is riverside deliveries. The Ouse could be used as a greener and smarter way of bringing deliveries into the city centre for businesses and individuals, perhaps in conjunction with collection hubs. Not only is this pleasing in the way that it evokes past successful practices in historic York, but it is also based in present day policies in London.

Again in London, there are recommendations to reactivate the piers, wharves and rail-road interchanges as alternatives to road freight and a way to combat vehicle emissions. The Ouse could also be used in this way. Recent construction work at the Guildhall (as well as that done at City Screen twenty years ago) used river transport and wharves. 

Our next option for a sustainable future centres around responsible practices around managing historic buildings. When considering carbon emissions, the embodied carbon of an existing building should be considered, not just its operational emissions. When these numbers are crunched, it can emerge that knocking down buildings and rebuilding them (particularly if that new building only lasts a couple of decades) is not very environmentally friendly at all.

With this in mind, and with a view to Coney Street in particular, more sustainable options can emerge from keeping our historic buildings, and to continue using and reusing them, with, if necessary, sympathetic and responsible retrofitting. 

Finally, and particularly when reflecting on its past, we need more greenery on the street. Current practices in other British cities tell us that planting trees, de-paving parts of the street, making green and blue roofs, and installing living walls can all contribute to making Coney Street a healthier heart to the city. 

Where on Coney Street would you add greenery? We posed this question, and others, to the participants in our third workshop. To see some of their suggestions, check out A Healthy Heart to the City, Pt 2.