Re-imagining Towns and Cities

Recently I’ve been binging on some urban design channels – mostly talking about the best way to structure and arrange a populous settlement. Today I attended a Zoom talk on that topic – the heraldry stuff for this year appearing to have run out.

I had expected today’s session to be on similar themes – housing density, cycle paths, zoning etc – but instead it was mainly focused on children’s play areas. It was hosted by Timberplay, with guest speakers Lucy Wallwork and Laura Scott-Simmons.

The consensus was a need to move away from “KFC” playgrounds (Kit, Fencing and Carpet, not Kentucky-Fried Chicken) and towards more varied, naturalistic settings. Much of the aim was to design urban environments in a child-friendly way, so that children could access communal spaces without needing to be driven around in parents’ cars (or, for that matter, being endangered by other cars passing nearby).

Another theme in the talk was the decline of high streets due to the rise of online shopping – exacerbated by the pandemic, of course. It was recommended that city centres cater to more than just retail, with outlets for religion, leisure, culture and even rewilding. It was important to avoid “clone cities” which are indistinguishable from their neighbours, and create a unique feature for each town to attract tourism.

The talk ran on for a little longer than I had expected but there was still time at the end for questions. One asked if the measures for “children” also applied to adolescents, and the speakers acknowledged that teens were often “designed out” of public spaces because of negative perceptions. (The popular industry phrase quoted earlier was “too old for the playground, too broke for the café, too young for the pub”.)

I, living most of my life in remote countryside and noticing how many of these projects had “urban” or “city” in the title, asked if the same principles of design also worked for smaller and more rural settlements. The speakers said that the basic rules still applied, and that there was sometimes a “play deficit” in rural areas because it is often assumed that people there have easy access to nature whereas really much of it is closed-off agricultural land.

FURTHER READING

Most of these were mentioned in the presentations, and it’s easier just to list the links instead of copying them out.

Restoration & Renewal with James Henderson

Today’s Zoom meeting was with the charity Transforming Communities Together, concerning the Restoration & Renewal programme for the Palace of Westminster.

James, our host, asked his small group about our reasons for joining him. I replied that I was not professionally affiliated with the project but followed politics (and occasionally architecture) as a hobby. I also referred to my father’s ownership and ongoing restoration of Paull Holme Tower.

The presentation began with a brief virtual tour of the premises and an explanation of the role of MPs. James asked us if we had ever met our member of Parliament. I responded that I had never met with my own, but had met several others – Diana Johnson, Alan Johnson, Victoria Atkins and Lia Nici.

Much of the conversation focused on ways to make Parliament more accessible to the public – with participants requesting a hearing loop and better wheelchair routes. I recalled my parents’ experience opening the tower to the public, finding that tours had to be stopped due to the unsafe medieval staircase which could not be brought up to code without substantially altering the original fabric of the building and thus rather defeating the objective. Another participant responded that it was all about money.

On a related note, it was announced on Wednesday that Parliament had launched a new website for its heritage collections. The new site provides detailed galleries and records of all the palace’s artworks, furniture and fittings. I appreciate the idea but so far I have been a little disappointed by how many items have their illustrations missing and the range of records not quite being as wide as expected, but hopefully in time that will be resolved.

Farewell to Cottingham Road

Obviously my hair is a lot longer this time, but the suit is the same.

It is a very small proportion of blogs that get serious attention. The same is true of video channels, social network profiles, books, magazines, newspapers and academic journals. For every best seller or household star, there are thousands of obscurities whose volumes fill up discount bins and whose view counts barely break out of single figures. Indeed there are many whose authors just give up or even forget about them, and sit incomplete for eternity. This one was created just shy of five years ago, and this shall be the seventy-fifth published article. A glance of WordPress’s site statistics function shows that there have been 4923 views in total. The mean view count per post is therefore a moderately impressive 66.5, but an inspection of the ranked list shows that the median is a less impressive 6. Factoring in a margin of error for me reading the site myself, I suspect that at least a dozen posts – mostly those talking about student union meetings – actually had no other readers at all. Two articles seriously inflate the mean: The runner up is Interview at Selwyn College, detailing my ill-fated application to matriculate at Cambridge. By far the winner, made just fifty-three weeks ago, is Farewell to Cottingham, discussing my time at The Lawns. Today it is time for the sequel.

All satellite accommodation having closed, the only dwellings available were those in or immediately around the campus. Once again I was slow to investigate options and was primarily concerned with minimizing the expense, so instead of the luxurious newer sites I opted for a Kexgill-owned house with three others on nearby Cottingham Road. In contrast to where I lived before, the history of this house was not well documented, though what sources I can find suggest the road itself dates back to the eighteenth century while the nearby North Hull Estate was constructed between the World Wars, but the construction date of my particular residence and the other student houses adjacent is far from clear. As is to be expected with properties of this nature, a great many fittings and furnishings have been changed over the years to types bought in bulk by the owners, thus obfuscating the property’s true vintage. Buildings like this often have subtle vestigial features which hint at grander days gone by. In our case it was a stained glass window at the top of the staircase. A few dozen metres east of us were houses that had mosaic tile art in their porches. Otherwise they were indistinct from any other undergraduate digs.

The desks, cupboards, wardrobes, drawers and shelves were the same plywood varieties that were seen in the old halls, while the white goods often had panels that were turning yellow. Very little of the flooring in any room was truly flat and very few of the walls were truly straight. In particular my bedroom window had sagged a little on its hinges and did not properly line up with the frame. Full closure required a lot of brute force to lift it up at the same time as pulling it in, the strain of which eventually caused the handle to come off in my hand. The main problem which we experienced in the early months was the cold – even in September it was apparent that there was a sudden drop in temperature upon entering the house. The contract said that Kexgill remotely controlled the central heating for all their properties and so for a while it was assumed that they were leaving it as late as possible before switching it on to save money. As nights got longer and longer we eventually complained and were issued space heaters for our bedrooms. The house was advertised as containing a living room, but on viewing it was clearly a downstairs bedroom with the bed removed. Very little socialising occurred in my time but when it did it was invariably in the kitchen instead. The living room, whose only unique feature was an ironing board (but no iron) was mostly used for storing laundry.

It wasn’t all bad: We had a normal washing machine in the kitchen between four of us, rather than having to use an overstretched institutional launderette with a needlessly complex card payment system. The dryer was less of a boon, as it warped one of my old jumpers until it would have better fitted Mr Tickle. It broke in the spring and a new one was dragged in. The kitchen had further problems: In mid-October the lights broke, forcing me to cook dinner wearing a head torch for a few days. In April the radiator sprang a leak. It was dumped in the bush in the rear garden and a brand new one was fitted in its place. There were also signs of rot or mould having infected one of the storage cupboards. Supposedly this had been treated by spraying the area with bleach, the smell of which lingered for the whole academic year.

The main benefit of the place was that it was barely a two minute walk away from the university’s premises. The result was that I could pop home between lectures, and even access the library at night, without having to carry all the day’s necessary items on an arduous walk or an uncertain bus ride. It was also very close to a large number of food shops, which was especially handy in the last few months.

The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 caused a great upheaval, of course. At a stroke it negated the benefit of proximity to campus, as the university’s physical presence was closed and teaching became purely virtual. From then on the house might as well have been in the next county. The ensuing national lockdown reinforced how little space there was in the property – we had front and rear gardens, but they were a far cry from the large open space at The Lawns. With no access to the library, the lecture theatres or the student union, our house became our whole world – a billet for which it was obviously not prepared. Thankfully I had earlier taken a few steps to alleviate the drabness of the off-white walls, which eased my sanity during the long period of isolation: in October, when the university’s photocopiers were still available, I had printed off family portraits and hung them in my bedroom. In November I bought several rolls of robin-themed Christmas wrap and made wallpaper out of it. Constantly having to adjust the shifting blu-tack was a pain but if I squinted I could almost convince myself that I inhabited a place of greater splendour.

As mentioned on this blog many times before, there is often a lengthy wrap-up period in May-June when academic courses have concluded and students scuttle off home. This time around it started abnormally early due to lockdown, and two of my three housemates jumped ship straight away, returning only briefly weeks later to collect their belongings. In terms of practical space the departure of one’s co-residents is a benefit, as each remaining person controls a greater share of the communal areas. On a theoretical level, though, the space actually diminishes: their rooms disappearing from the map as the doors are forever closed. They also revert to being identified by number rather than by name.

The depersonalisation culminated today in my own departure. It was with heavy heart that I dismantled the decorations I had spent so long erecting, decanted the contents of my shelves into a pile of plastic bags and scrubbed away at the various empty surfaces they uncovered. By the end, as in all such cases, it was as if I had never existed, just like all of those before me.

The future of these houses, as with so much else in 2020, cannot be predicted with confidence. During my stay our rooms were measured for refits, so it is likely that, even if a new cohort eventually move in, they will not inhabit quite the same home that I did. On some level, therefore, the pattern continues.

UPDATE (April 2022)

Having been in the area for other purposes, I had a look around the house to see if anything had changed. Obviously I didn’t have the key anymore, and the place was deserted again due to the Easter holiday. The tattoo parlour next door is now a dog grooming salon. The curtains were drawn on the front of the house and through the frosted front door the hallway looked barren. The back garden is still accessible. The blinds are drawn on what had been the kitchen window. Those on the lounge window were open, and inside it looked to have been converted into a second kitchen. Cereal boxes on the counter implied someone was living there recently, but there was no other sign of life.

Farewell to Cottingham

Compared to other students who live in far off regions of the country, or indeed the world, university was no great distance away for me. Even so, the years I spent getting up at the crack of dawn for school and college convinced me that moving closer to campus would still be preferable to more long commutes.

In recent years Hull has constructed much new and lavish accommodation for its undergraduates, which it is keen to advertise to new applicants. There are also several private companies dotted around the campus offering homes to students. Since I accepted my offer at short notice it quickly became apparent that all of the more prestigious lodgings had been taken. In a fraught telephone exchange I was told that I could be offered a temporary dwelling on a camp bed until a space opened up somewhere else. A day later I was contacted again to say that a vacancy had been found at Ferens Hall. Through quick research online (mostly on The Student Room), I discovered that this was generally considered the least desirable of The Lawns’s buildings, the few compliments being reserved specifically for the recently-refurbished M block which I did not occupy.

In fact, my room turned out to be the perfect location, as I was opposite a bathroom and beside a kitchenette, as well as having one of the shortest walks to either the dining hall or the main road. Each shopping trip might have been up to ten minutes shorter than that endured by a resident of Grant Hall at the other end of the complex. Most importantly, for an undergraduate at least, it must have been some of the cheapest student accommodation in Britain.

One notable anecdote is of Christmas 2017 when Colin Colborn, the hall’s warden, invited residents to a film quiz. I was partnered with his daughter, and we were the winning team, which I found surprising given that I haven’t been to a cinema for about a decade.

That said, there were certain issues: The dining facilities comprised a small kitchenette on the first and second floor of each block, plus a proper kitchen directly under my bedroom which was apparently shared with two neighbouring blocks. This arrangement proved woefully inefficient as a cooked meal had often had to be carried back to one’s own room for lack of sitting space. We also had persistent problems with stiff windows that either jammed open in winter or closed in summer. Then there was the time that part of a ceiling spontaneously collapsed, though luckily few people were in the building at the time.

That hall was removed from the options list after 2018, as the university planned to sell it off. In the event it still ended up being used for temporary accommodation in the first few weeks of this academic year because some of the newer buildings on campus were not finished on time. By the winter it had become a ghost hall, with all the rooms empty but, for some reason, many lights left on, including new desktop lamps which projected ghostly white spots into the night.

For my second year I went to Lambert Hall. I chose it specifically because it was the one closest to where I had been before. In the autumn of 2018 there were several occasions on which I absentmindedly wandered back to my old door at Ferens and wondered why the key didn’t fit.

The experience here has been different, as it is easier to establish a sense of community with split levels and wide landings instead on discrete floors and narrow corridors. Whereas Ferens was built in the traditional quadrangle shape, the others are built in a more experimental design. Another distinction is that nearly every room has a small balcony, which sometimes gives the impression of being in a holiday camp. The much larger kitchen provisions also helped.

In my earlier posts I have noted the transitory presence which a student body constitutes, and how this is particularly true of Hull due to its major reorganisations and redevelopments in the last few years. Threads and discussions from as late as 2013 can already feel like archives from a lifetime ago, and therefore public records can be seriously out of date. In particular I noticed references to the use of lounges and common rooms in the individual halls, but I would never experience this in my own time. During my term at Ferens I took every opportunity to sneak into all the other blocks in search of the place I had seen pictured on Wikimedia Commons from ten years before my arrival. I never found it. I can only assume that it was obliterated long ago. For the other halls the common rooms can be seen but not accessed. Through the windows I often saw that they were being used for storage of spare bedding. Opposite can be seen other locked doors with faded signage marking them as the entrance to laundry rooms, and next to them are empty post racks. All of these facilities have been transferred to The Lawns Centre. Notably I have often seen the lights on at Reckitt Hall’s common room as well as reasonably modern-looking books on the shelves, but never anybody in there.

Throughout the last few years the university has been focusing all of its efforts, and the students all their demands, on the central campus. This means that the satellite facilities have suffered a slow death. Returning last September, I and my fellow residents observed that our little commune was much quieter than it had been the previous year, with several blocks across the site being unoccupied. One could walk by the other halls and peer through the windows to see bare shelves and uncovered blue mattresses. This spring we received letters to tell us that, since only a small handful of students had applied to live here in the 2019-2020 term, the whole site would be closed down and sold off. This follows the closure of nearby Needler Hall in 2016 (I witnessed it being demolished and rebuilt as an Aldi.) and Thwaite Hall in 2017 (still sitting there, boarded up and waiting for sale). The secondary campus in Scarborough appears to have suffered a similar fate. I have the odd distinction of being the last occupant of my hall two years in a row.

I have stayed on later than most other students, the majority of whom were quick to depart once their examinations concluded. For the last fortnight I have continually seen parents driving in to collect their offspring, and trudging past my window with suitcases whose tiny wheels dragged noisily over the undulated path. Eventually I found myself all alone in a house and park strewn with other people’s abandoned leftovers. Still, I got my money’s worth out of it.

UPDATE (June 2020)

This post is by far the most popular of any on the blog, so I thought I’d write a sequel.

EXTERNAL LINKS