Gillian Darley finds herself confounded by the city’s planners

Gillian Darley index

Ancient walled cities and vehicular traffic were never meant to meet, whether in Rome or Sandwich. The title of the first chapter in Otto Saumarez-Smith’s Boom Cityis Optimism, Traffic and the Historic City in Post-war British Planning, but that optimism came to mean widely different things to different people. Fifty years on, benighted medieval city centres, pedestrianised within an inch of their lives and then menaced by the excluded traffic, fuming at the gates, offer a pessimistic picture – the freedoms offered by new technologies, new ideas and a revolutionary future seem as distant now as then.

Nowhere suffers more than York. Lionel Brett’s conservation report for the town was one of four commissioned by the government minister Richard Crossman in 1966 for important cathedral cities. “The main object of the exercise,” he wrote, “is to make the walled city liveable again.”

Saumarez-Smith offers Brett (aka Lord Esher) as a model modernist preservationist, while noting his subsequent disillusionment with the exercise and its irreconcilable objectives, leading him to retreat into an attitude of “quietist restraint”.

Traffic management that followed the recommendations in Colin Buchanan’s Traffic in Townsled to extremes and economic shrinkage, for “trade is strangled without accessibility”. As Brett declared firmly, “[A] city is not a work of art”, nor is it “a mere arrangement of streets and buildings”.

I turned to his words as I struggled in and out of York on public transport last week. In reality, York has a diminutive pedestrianised core, anchored by the splendid minster and an assertive river, wrapped by spreading residential and industrial outskirts.

Soon after the publication of Brett’s report (1968), Ian Nairn worked himself into an almighty lather when he compared York and Durham on film, the latter winning hands down with its strong emphasis on the modern as a frame for the ancient, notably Arup’s Kingsgate bridge.

York’s city fathers had missed every opportunity on offer; putting poorly designed multi-storey car parks and housing in the wrong place, keeping its higher education at arm’s length, and, until recently, not even according its art gallery much prestige in terms of site, expenditure or programme (all is forgiven on that front now). But I must admit to getting into a similar lather. The medieval streets may be a momentary delight as they frame townscape-like vistas of the minster, but the jostling of people and traffic around the city is made an unnecessary torture.

On foot, a simple route out of the back of the station and across a convenient footbridge (currently being smartened up) and to Bootham, is kept secret. Only those already privy to its existence will ever find it – even my phone ignored the option.

On public transport, motor traffic is forced to wind around, along and under the ancient York walls, circumnavigating the entire historic centre, and in the process often going back on itself to do so.

I was subjected to this exasperating trail several times on different routes coming into and out of town, to and from the northern suburbs. Adding injury, or at least a lot of wasted time, to insult many of the buses are those old familiars, the accursed bendy bus, in this incarnation run by Firstbus and serving a park-and-ride scheme but still required to snake as close to the centre as they can.

Never was there a less suitable vehicle for a convoluted ancient city. In fact never was there a less suitable ancient city for modern life than York. And if in half a century the planners have failed to crack the dilemma, it is hard to muster much optimism at all.