So much to answer for: Development and disregard for public space in Manchester

Despite having spent just seven months of the last three years living in Manchester, the combination of it being the first city I fell for and the city I spend my days writing about in my PhD means I still feel pretty connected to the goings-on of the place. I often find myself extolling the virtues of Manchester, primarily in terms of the sheer amount going there but also because I still honestly believe it to be a welcoming and friendly place. And yet, repeatedly across the course of 2014, I’ve had reason to despair at where the city is headed. From the covering of Library Walk, to the disregard for Pomona, to the proliferation of bland hotels reaching breaking point now that the Cornerhouse is set to fall victim to this fate.

It’s no secret that Manchester’s administration has long been tuned in to the benefits of attracting businesses and tourists through economic regeneration imperatives, and in a sense, all three of the scenarios mentioned above fit this model. The covering of Library Walk, as part of the wider redevelopment of St Peter’s Square, has faced a great deal of opposition over recent years, in particular from Friends of Library Walk and the Twentieth Century Society, and at present despite the new glass covering having been installed, Manchester City Council are unable to install the doors that will see this public right of way blocked from 10pm to 7am as they do not have a stopping up order. Whilst many – myself included – have seen these plans as objectionable from a subjective, aesthetic point of view (I know I’m not the only one who considered the sweep of Library Walk to be their favourite street in the city), it is this question of access that forms the greater crux of the matter, and indeed the connection to the other examples given here.

Library Walk

Library Walk

Pomona sits in the hinterland between Manchester and Salford, not far from the city centre yet seemingly detached. Hayley Flynn of the excellent Skyliner blog gives a whole history of the site here which is well worth a read, giving a considered perspective on this area that most simply gaze at from the tram. One of the things that’s always frustrated me about Manchester is the lack of green space within the city, and the poor quality of what is available (hi there, Piccadilly Gardens). With its proximity to the city centre, Pomona could – indeed should – be valued as open public space, not least due to its ecological importance as a home of bee orchids. Instead, it is unsurprising to find that the plans for this area are for flats, offices and hotels to be built upon this supposed wasteland – labelled as hostile and dangerous by the Council.

Pomona - Photograph © Hayley Flynn, Skyliner

Pomona – Photograph © Hayley Flynn, Skyliner

The move of the Cornerhouse cinema to new premises at Home has – unsurprisingly – attracted derision. The cinema, arts centre, bar and restaurant, established in 1985, is viewed by many as a go-to meeting spot, not least for its Oxford Road people-watching potential. The combining of Cornerhouse with the Library Theatre at Home’s hub on First Street will no doubt lead to some interesting creative work within the city, but what of the current Cornerhouse site? With a pattern emerging here, it is due to become a new complex of offices and hotels. As part of development plans for ‘The Corridor’ (the area stretching from St Peter’s Square along Oxford Road towards Whitworth Park), the focus here is, once again, on boosting the economy (see the ‘vision’ for The Corridor here). As with the proliferation of one- and two-bed flats developed within the city prior to the recession of 2008, we are now seeing increasing plans for hotel development that threaten for supply to outstrip demand; it’s questionable whether the huge levels of hotel and office development plans currently underway across the city can be viable.

Viability aside, however, what draws these three examples together is an attitude towards public space, and a display of who and what is considered important by MCC. Both Library Walk and Pomona are examples of the privatisation of public space, whilst the redevelopment of the Cornerhouse site shares with Pomona the attribute of being geared towards investment in the attraction of visitors and the money they can bring over and above the value of spaces to local residents. These identikit developments threaten to create a city landscape that is increasingly monotonous and lacking in character, not to mention less permeable to residents and visitors alike. Manchester’s gearing towards economic regeneration as opposed to its social or cultural counterparts has created a number of successes for the city, but this trend towards increased privatisation instills in me a fear that the city centre may feel ever more alienating to those who live and work within it, making their lives there.

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