Dr. Neil Macdonald presenting his paper at the Resilient York conference, 4 November 2016
Written by Sean Rawling, MA student in Conservation Studies (Historic Buildings)
Resilient York was held at the University of York on Friday 4th November 2016. This one-day conference brought together a vast and varied array of national experts aiming to discuss the effects of York’s 2015 Boxing Day floods and how the city can be better prepared to deal with them in the future.
The day’s talks were split into three categories and, following an introduction from Dr. Jane Grenville and Dr. David Fraser’s exploration of the historic flooding of the city, began with an in-depth insight into three case studies, two in York and one for comparative good measure in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire.
Capt. Stephen Upright, R.N., started, discussing how the historic fabric of York’s medieval Merchant Adventurers Hall proved to be extremely resilient to flooding, especially in comparison to its recent, twentieth-century modifications, which fared considerably worse, and overall the hall was closed for only a short period. This insight was later echoed by Richard Storah of Storah Architecture when outlining his project of post-flood restoration at St Michael’s Church in Mytholmroyd. Interestingly, Ian Panter of York Archaeological Trust explained how the flooding has allowed them, with the assistance of insurance, to make a positive impact on the Jorvik Viking Centre. Through the closure of the visitor attraction the trust has been able to undertake a series of improvements that they ordinarily would not have been able to accomplish.
The second section of the day considered scholarly research into flooding and its management in York. Alessandra Sprega of the University of York and Prof. Dina D’Ayala of UCL discussed their current research projects. The former used the flooding of Cumberland House in York to demonstrate how new scientific methodologies, including the use of GIS software, can test the resilience of traditional building materials to flood damage. Prof. D’Ayala explained the finds of UCL’s Parnassus Project, which provided environmental monitoring to quantify moisture ingress from climatic impact of flooding and wind-driven rain on historic buildings. Stephen Wragg of the City of York Council explained the Council’s work in further protecting York from future flooding. His message that it is important to consider all of York’s communities in flood defence and the need for joined-up thinking between York and the city’s wider river catchment areas was especially welcome. Neil Redfern of Historic England spoke brilliantly on national perspectives of flooding, exclaiming that in York we need to move beyond flood prevention and instead talk of flood management; flooding ‘will’ happen. From this, he challenged axioms by suggesting historic structures such as bridges are by their nature and purpose prone to sufficient damage from occasional flooding so as to require complete replacing, but also conceded that ‘the small things matter’ when it comes to a building’s resilience, such as affective guttering.
The conference’s final session of talks looked at community and specialist responses with Tim Godson of the Department of Communities and Local Government’s Resilience Team discussing the Government’s operating framework regarding flooding. This offered a great fly-on- the-wall insight into the inner workings and decision-making process of their flood response team. This was followed by Dr. Lorraine Youds of the University of York outlining her research with the York City Environment Observatory project, and how York can become a leading driver in resilient urban development, and, consequently, it being a pioneering project that has potential to be transferable elsewhere in the UK and abroad. Dr. Neil Macdonald of the University of Liverpool introduced his fascinating research into historical patterns of flooding, explaining York’s ‘low flood period’ between 1831-1982 and how it has shaped people’s expectations and response during the current ‘high flood period’. Heather Shepherd of The National Flood forum ended the day’s presentations by providing a chilling reminder of the effect that flooding has on people and communities by exploring the human dimension that arises when communities are flooded. She relayed wretched tales of heirlooms lost, historic homes damaged, ill health and even deaths resulting as much from bad post-flood advice and lack of support after flooding as during the immediate flooding.
Heather’s talk cleverly led into the final part of the day, a roundtable discussion of the findings of the talks. This involved the speakers and guests discussing how everyone associated with the conference could assist to make York more resilient to flooding in the future. Many possible avenues were discussed such as community awareness groups and an information pack that could be provided to communities in the city’s flood risk areas.
The day was a wonderful advertisement for how leading conservation and heritage practitioners can influence such an important subject that directly affected the lives of so many of York’s residents. It will be interesting to see the detail of how the roundtable discussion becomes implemented over the coming months. Gratitude must be extended to the York Conservation Alumni Association, the University of York’s Centre for Conservation Studies and York Civic Trust, and for the assistance of the Two Ridings Community foundation, for enabling such an impressive and effective event.
Presentations from the Resilient York Conference can be downloaded here.