In 1981 the City Council ordered an assessment of the potential of the site for housing or industrial development. In 1985 there was local concern over the high levels of methane gas and the possible risk of underground fires. Soil tests revealed that some parts of the tip had toxicity levels well above the nationally recognised danger level.
In 1988 York Natural Environment Trust (YNET) was formed and started to explore the possibility of promoting St Nicholas Fields as a nature reserve. In 1989 the Foss Islands area was surveyed with a view to development for industry or housing. St Nicholas Fields was found to be unsuitable for either of these uses mainly due to foundation problems. Following this the site was surveyed as part of the York Green Sites Survey completed by York and District Field Naturalists: 178 different species of plants were identified as well as many species of birds and insects. YNET launched a local campaign to keep St Nicholas Fields as open green space and develop it as an urban nature reserve. A petition with 1012 signatures was delivered to the City Council who agreed to the proposal. The future looked secure.
From Urban Nature Park to a Local Nature Reserve
The transition from unofficial wild space to Urban Nature Park was not easy. Before the Council could formally open the land as public open space, the refuse, with all its health and safety hazards, had to be sealed under a thick capping layer of clay. In 1992 the Friends of St Nicholas Fields was formed to represent the views of local residents in negotiations over the development of the park. When work on capping the site began in 1994 the Friends were able to identify and mark significant trees and shrubs to be preserved.
During 1994 50,000 cubic metres of clay, from Clifton Moor, was spread over the Fields. The City Council were also responsible for installing a basic network of paths and the distinctive entrance archways. While this work was under way, negotiations were taking place, between the Friends of St Nicholas Fields and York Council Leisure Services, over the future management of the park. It was agreed that the Friends should manage and maintain the park on behalf of the City Council.
The new Urban Nature Park was a rather bleak place. Over much of the site the few remaining trees and shrubs were isolated in a sea of sticky clay. The new paths were stark ribbons of tarmac snaking across this wasteland. There was a lot of work to be done. Since then the Friends of St Nicholas Fields and other local volunteers have planted several thousand trees and shrubs, sown wildflower meadows, constructed new pathways and cleared tons of rubbish.
Come and see the difference for yourself. The site has changed so much so that in February 2004 St Nicholas Fields was designated a Local Nature Reserve in order to help protect its thriving habitats.