It seems that last week, the resistance that has been mounted against plans to glaze Manchester’s Library Walk were – to the frustration and disappointment of many – practically dismissed out of hand by Manchester City Council. This public walkway, which curves beautifully between Central Library and the Town Hall Extension (both Grade 2* listed buildings) looks set to be closed off from public use, and glazed as a walkway from one building to the other, rather than a route between the two.
The popularity of Library Walk is evident from the Friends of Library Walk website, the crowds that gathered for a Celebrate Library Walk event earlier this month, and the petition which, to date, has over 1200 signatures. One of the organisers of the campaign to save Library Walk, Morag Rose, attended the council’s latest discussion of the subject, in which council representatives claimed that many of the people signing this petition were not people who actually used this space, using this as a reason to dismiss the campaign as of little relevance to the planning process. Unsurprisingly, as a fan of architecture and a firm believer in the importance of truly public space, I take issue with this. Two issues, in fact. Firstly, does the council have evidence that those signing the petition do not make use of the Walk? I, for one, may have signed the petition from Sheffield, but this does not mean that the seven years I spent in Manchester, using that space at least once a week, can be discounted. Furthermore, one does not have to use a space to campaign for the right of others to use it by its continuing existence as a public walkway.
And it is this second point that surely should not be ignored; Library Walk is clearly not an accidental, leftover space. Architect E Vincent Harris, who designed both Central Library and, a short while later, the adjacent Town Hall Extension, evidently had a real feel for the two buildings working in synergy with one another, and this is what makes Library Walk so popular amongst its supporters.
Next week I am due to start teaching on an undergraduate course module on Urban Design. For their first task, the students have been asked to bring along their own examples of what they understand to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design. Naturally, I have chosen my own examples to share with the class, and Library Walk is – without question – my example of good urban design. That short sweep of paving, cutting perfectly between two buildings of majestic civic grandeur, makes that area, just off St Peter’s Square, my favourite streetscape – not my favourite in Manchester, simply my favourite. By privatising this walkway you not only damage the visual impact of the walkway and the buildings either side, you send a dangerous message to the city: public spaces mean less that private convenience.