Review of the Resilient York conference 2016

Conservation and Flood Resiliency in York: an analysis of the 2016 Resilient York conference

By Lottie Adcock (MA student in Conservation Studies (Historic Buildings), University of York) – pdf download.

The Resilient York conference, organised by York Civic Trust, York Conservation Alumni Association and the Department of Archaeology at York University, and held at King’s Manor on 4 November 2016, was a chance for academics, students and locals to discuss the recent flooding in York and how best we can prepare for the future where global warming poses a great threat to our historic buildings.

There were interesting case studies to begin the day focusing on the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall and the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, and St. Michael’s Church in Mytholmroyd. These case studies looked at buildings that had been affected by flooding and the plans for the future of these buildings post-flooding. The leading conclusion from these examples was that the historic fabric of buildings tends to survive flooding whilst it is the modern intrusions in the building cause problems. This highlights what we already knew: that using appropriate materials in our repairs is highly important not just for the general maintenance of the buildings but also for survival in these extreme cases.

The reason our historic buildings can withstand flooding was effectively described by Dr. Neil Macdonald, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography at Liverpool University, who presented his research into the long-term historic flooding of York. His data revealed that York has historically been flood-rich, with a cluster of events in the 1600s having been more severe than our modern-day flooding experience. This explains why York’s buildings were built to withstand the intrusion of water, as historically there was an awareness of the flood-risks associated with building in York and an expectation that the historic fabric may be routinely flooded. Macdonald also observed that flooding patterns in England have seasonally changed from occurring in summer to wintertime, which bring the additional risks of snowmelt flooding. Finally, he concluded that as no large-scale flood events occurred in York between 1831 and 1982, this led to a deficiency in public knowledge and preparation by the end of the twentieth century. This was something also addressed by Alessandra Sprega, a York University PhD candidate and alumni of the MA in Conservation Studies course at York, who was presenting her research paper looking at local flood culture in York and considering potential options for adaptation and protection. One of her main points was the discussion of documentation of buildings through GIS technology, which allows conservation historians to test possible interventions into the fabric. Her argument was that understanding the properties of materials traditionally used to combat flooding was vital in providing an effective scheme for protecting our buildings in the future.

Dr. Neil Macdonald presenting his paper at the Resilient York conference

Neil Redfern, representing Historic England, talked about this organisation’s stance on dealing with global warming as an increasing threat to our historic environment. He discussed the need to stop knee-jerk reactions to ‘sensationalised’ flooding events and instead plan ahead and consider preventative measures to ensure we are not further damaging our buildings. We need to, he argued, start considering ‘resilience’ as a commonplace term rather than a reactionary measure once disaster has occurred. The solution is not removing water but trying to manage it as has been done historically with measures such as vegetation management and keeping up-to-date with essential site maintenance. Our responsibility as conservation historians is to protect the buildings we treasure as best we can. However, Redfern also reminded us that we must also respond to inevitable loss, for example coastal sites, such as Whitby Abbey, and raised this as an issue that requires serious consultation at a national level regarding how we will respond to this eventual loss. Ultimately, he concluded that loss is not necessarily negative; after all, our current structures often only exist because something before them was lost. His conclusion was to call for the need to discuss our response to disaster in a new way, moving beyond the merely reactionary to the pre-emptive consideration of flood management in a new era where global warming has amplified our relationships with natural disasters.

Redfern also discussed the concepts of resilient communities. Those he cited were areas such as the shops on Fossgate or homes alongside the Ouse and Foss in York which got back to normality within a few days. Heather Shepherd of the National Flood Forum expanded on the personal impact a flood can have on those who live through it, including the disposal of possessions that might otherwise have been saved and repaired if such quick-fix solutions (which are often unsatisfactory and the long-lasting trauma) had been avoided. Shepherd remarked that there is often a guiding philosophy of demolition over preservation in a time of crisis, often resulting in further damage being caused to buildings and their residents. She highlighted the need for community empowerment and general education for those dealing with historic houses and flood risks.

Conference discussions over lunchtime refreshments

The conference then finished with a group discussion about how York Civic Trust, York Conservation Alumni Association and the University of York could move forward with the issues discussed to create a useful resource for future flood management in York. Within this discussion, five main issues were identified. Firstly, the matter of how to be strategic whilst also being locally sensitive was raised and a solution was that work could be done to identify the areas of York that have historically been prone to flooding.

Secondly we discussed the issues with social media. Although this can be a great tool for communication, the response on social media to the 2015 Boxing Day floods highlighted some issues with this medium. Although it is a great way disseminate information, the sheer volume made it difficult for the authorities to stay abreast of the vast amounts of incoming information. This made it difficult to control and therefore a clear media policy needs to be implemented with separate information areas set up.

We also discussed the need for better education for insurers, who currently have a very destructive attitude towards buildings suffering flood damage, which often results in destruction of historic fabric rather than its restoration or conservation. The needs of communities affected by flooding was broached and we discussed the way that people think about recovering from a flood and identified that education is also needed to empower people and include them in making decisions about their own home. It was felt that although the immediate response is very inclusive, there was insufficient long-term help and support after the immediate response.

Finally, we looked at what the York Civic Trust, York Conservation Alumni Association and the University of York could do to help. We discussed the possibility of drawing up a pre-approved action plan for listed buildings to be individually implemented per site immediately after a flood. We could also look at making guidance provided by Historic England more user-friendly and easier to understand. This could include information to help understand the processes that occur post-flooding and discuss the pros and cons of the various options available. It was noted that this information could be building or street specific. The issue was raised about how frustrating it can be to identify useful information in a market that is flooded with advice. We considered that bespoke guides covering flood plans for museums already exist and this could be extended to cover domestic housing and historic buildings that could sit beside the more general advice for flooding.

To conclude, the Resilient York partner organisations intend to create a resource to help prepare residents for any future flooding that may occur. It was decided something along the lines of a laminated manual could be produced, which would work alongside online media content, and potentially even drop-in surgeries and conferences. These guides could give advice by relating to first-person accounts from victims of flooding, Emergency Services personnel, historic environment professionals and healthcare professionals, who could all give specific professional advice. It was felt that this information should help establish confidence pre-flooding, whilst also providing education and guidance and addressing the importance of post-flood emergency response. A great many practical and interesting ideas came out of this conference and it achieved its objective in creating a workable idea to take forward to help future investment in flood management in York. I look forward to seeing what is eventually produced and where these preventative measures will lead in the future.