6 Things That Would Vastly Improve Manchester

Manchester getting a bit exuberant

No jokes about dropping the atom bomb. We don’t want the fallout here in Cheshire.

We do want Manchester to be better though, but our nearest big City doesn’t have much pull. We need to confront a truth that we aren’t very good at cities these days.  No British city ever gets in those lists of the most livable. We don’t even get one in at the bottom.

To me that’s like never getting even a bronze in the whole history of the Olympics. We have poor air quality, expensive and unreliable public transport, clogged roads, characterless chain-stored-to-death centres (and then same again on the edge of town), uber car-centric infrastructure, and nowhere to hang out where you don’t feel some pressure to spend money.

1. Get Your Portici On.  

Awnings – they are perfect for a city with rain issues. Mancunians are sick of being reminded, especially by Londoners, that this city gets a lot of weather. This city seems to live in denial about being the first place Atlantic cloud systems dump their loads.

Manchester is such a [relatively] young city. You’d have thought the vast cotton industry wealth would have been ample to cover (literally) some city centre innovations to keep people dry and central when the sky is weeping.

A typical street in Bologna with porticoes.

A typical street in Bologna with porticoes.

There are examples to look at all over Europe, but check out Bologna. The whole city centre is lined with streets like these (24 miles-worth in fact), where people can walk under the cover of porticoes.

They can do business, hang out, shop etc. while staying out of either the scorching sun or the rain. And a bonus for city-dwellers is everyone living on the first floor and upwards gets an extra 15×20 feet of living space.

In Bologna that might be used for an extra long family dinner table and a shrine to Padre Pio. In Manchester that could mean room for an even bigger telly and a little indoor pot farm.

2. Canals as Cycle Routes.

Cycling by them, not in them. Again, hardly a secret in Europe as all canals lead to Rome, or the city centre. Except the ones in Manchester which weirdly get less cycle-able the nearer you get to the middle. It’s almost as if they want to keep cyclists out.

Bridgewater Canal

Bridgewater Canal

Take a canal ride from Sale to Stretford, for example, and you get a ten foot wide surfaced path, with honking geese, joggers, spring flowers and cheery old folk on longboats living off camping-stove bacon and tinned beer.

Continue on past Trafford Park and the same stretch of canal (see above) suddenly turns into a foot-wide strip of mud, with occasional moody-looking dopers to weave around.

The final stretch into the city centre is often simply blocked.

Bridgewater Canal for cyclists

Bridgewater Canal for cyclists

Manchester’s canals could combine the poetry of a gritty Northern heritage with a little Dutch-style romance, if only these routes were spruced up, optimised, made a feature of and embraced as a green and free way to commute.

3. The City Square. Piccadilly Gardens.

I can’t think of a worse city square that I’ve ever seen, anywhere. It’s the only square in the world that would actually be cheered up by the arrival of a column of Chinese tanks.

Piccadilly Gardens: The Beating Heart of Manchester

Piccadilly Gardens: The Beating Heart of Manchester

Not that its the job of architecture to be perpetually cheery, but it is the job of a city square to not be depressing. The job of the square is that of communal meeting space; it should be agreeable, it should require you to spend no money.

Trying to find something positive to say about Tadao Ando’s concrete pavilion, I suppose you could stage a convincing open air production of George Orwell’s 1984 here. I’m sure it was meant to be slightly arty but mostly something that blocked views of the bus station. [A better idea might have been to build a an attractive looking bus station, like Preston.]

concrete pavilion by Tadao Ando

Concrete Pavilion by Tadao Ando and a plastic toilet

Tadao himself more or less admitted his concrete wall was all wrong for this space, but it’s not his fault it’s there. He didn’t commission it.

The trick with ‘doing a Brutalism’ – if you’re determined to have some – is to be utterly defiant and bold. The main problem with the pavilion is it’s the most small and timid example Brutalism you could possibly find, outside of a Lego convention.

The encroachment of One Piccadilly Gardens onto the square I can not fathom. It’s an office block. 25% of the UK’s office space is empty. So why build more? On a city square?

I suspect Britain’s massively corrupt construction industry combined with Britain’s massively corruptible city councils came together here in a towering show of what’s possible with the right level of dim-witted, spineless opportunism, bent and secretive procurement processes and some shameless land-grabbing greed.

One Piccadilly Gardens

One Piccadilly Gardens

A lot of cities would love a big open space like this. Put some plinths up. Dozens of them. Take the cue from Trafalgar Square and run with it. Get rid of the grim grey wall. Put up a big glass awning.

4. A Greater Manchester Travel Card.

A one-day travel card, designed to let you explore your region, from Ramsbottom to Macclesfield, Wilmslow to Saddleworth. Why on earth not? The Toronto TTC day pass is a good example to follow. They actively encourage you to give the ticket to someone else when your done with it. Friendly Canadians.

5. Goodbye to Balconies.

Since the mid Blair-years, Britain has gone utterly bonkers spec-building ‘Luxury Apartments’. Nowhere more so than central Manchester. These are tiny one and two bed flats, smaller than the legally allowed smallness of last century’s Glasgow tenements.

Most of them were so flimsily-built you could, of an evening, sit down and listen to your neighbours blinking. These flats could accommodate  two people, they could accommodate the stuff two people might own, but they could not  accommodate  both.

The rusting balconies of Manchester

The rusting balconies of Manchester

What sold everyone on the idea of the balcony? I believe the clever spec-builders had twigged that the British – after decades of Spanish package holidays, presumably – equated a balcony with summer sun, good times and luxury.

One of Manchester's crap balconies (temporarily dry)

One of Manchester’s crap balconies (temporarily dry)

Manchester has gone balcony-building mad. They seemed to think building them would force the sun to come out. It didn’t. Nowadays we see leaking luxury apartments and balconies covered in rust.

6. Not so Central Park.

Manchester really needs to wrestle Pomona Docks away from Peel Holdings. Peel have been allowed to rule this part of the world for too long. They are not democratic. They don’t care about community. They are tax-dodging money grubbers who are happy to push elected leaders around. They want to turn this important bit of green space into (guess what?) yet more (yawn) luxury flats.

Pomona Docks, closest thing Manchester has to a city park

Pomona Docks, closest thing Manchester has to a city park

Manchester needs to keep this land as a water-fronted park and a place of natural wonders. But not a park as city councillors, town hall accountants and other assorted dullards think of parks. We don’t need formal rose beds and a statue of the King.

Push the boundaries of what a park can be. Keep it rough and wild, maybe. Look at what Paris did with Parc de la Villette in the 80s. What would an avant-garde Mancunian park-designer do in 2014?

[The above picture is one of a series and comes from an excellent study of the Pomona Docks area by Skyliner. Every thinking Mancunian and urban explorer should take a look at it.]

31 thoughts on “6 Things That Would Vastly Improve Manchester

  1. Hi, that’s my photo you’ve used in the last point (I’m from Skyliner), appreciate a link back or a credit. Thanks! (by the way, I know the MEN didn’t credit me either so I know you’ve not done it on purpose, but it’s from my Pomona Palace article on theskyliner.org)

    • Apologies Skyliner. To add to my shame I did read your Pomona Palace article and enjoyed it very much. I will make amends now with a few hasty edits.

  2. This is all very true. I’m loving the Bridgewater Canal mockup. It’s madness the way it whittles away to nothing as you head north, and the same goes for the path along the ship canal / Irwell which almost disappears altogether as it nears Spinningfields (?!).

    Another potential improvement. It’s a tragedy that the site of the old BBC building is now a scruffy carpark, and even when it does get developed my understanding is that it’ll be more mini-supermarkets etc which Oxford Road already has too many of.

    Make it a park. Simple as that.

    Perhaps that would go some way to compensating Oxford Road for the loss of the Cornerhouse (very sad – “Home” my arse), and for the fact that St Peters Square can only look forward to being a mess of tramlines sitting in the oppressive shadow of the new 1 St Peter’s Square building – it’s 1 Piccadilly all over again. It’s obvious who the council are serving here and it ain’t the residents.

    • Had completely missed that news about The Cornerhouse / HOME. Thanks for pointing that out. Need to do my homework there but looks like Danny Boyle is a fan. I think gentrification has a habit of crushing the life out of any ‘scene’.

      As for 1 St Peter’s Square – it just makes me feel like I’m living in one of those mobile phone / car commercials, with their generic yellow-tinted European cityscapes.

      1 Piccadilly Gardens (sigh) might not have been such an utterly terrible intrusion if they’d at least built it on stilts, so the ground level space was still a public space. Could have been skateboarder territory for example.

      • As Mr Savage said in an article about the Cornerhouse:
        “[HOME] to my mind, is a horrible focus-grouped name created by marketing people. It feels impersonal and corporate and completely fails to do the same thing as the name it’s replacing. Just because you call something a home doesn’t mean it feels like it. ”

        The new facility looks very swanky, but I’m sure Cornerhouse will lose some of its slightly eccentric home-grown vibe, and I love the Oxford Road site – First Street isn’t as handy for meeting up and I’m sure they’ll lose passing trade. It’s a shame they couldn’t keep the current site and expand into the new building.

      • Completely agree. You can’t manufacture a scene or a vibe, as existed at the Cornerhouse. And these things so often materialise in the parts of town where the Corps saw no potential. People like them because the Corps aren’t overtly visible. Cities (or maybe it’s just estate agents?) seem to constantly price sub-cultures and scenes out through their property deals, and then try to recreate them on their own terms. Most recently the so-called Silicon Roundabout in East London has come and gone in that cycle. I read that things survive longer in ‘hip’ Berlin because of rent controls and a general awareness of how these things work.

  3. Canals as cycle paths: it’s being done. Have a look at the ‘velocity 2025’ project which includes, amongst other things, sorting the Bridgewater and Ashton canals into the city centre.

    Greater Manchester Travelcard. It already exists. Google System One Travel or GM Wayfarer. A smart card is also on the way: the wierdly named ‘ Get Me There’.

    Pomona is in Trafford. They might get upset if Manchester tried to snaffle it…

    • With the travelcard I assumed the post referred to a Manchester equivalent of a London travelcard.
      Neither of System One or the “Get Me There” is quite the same thing. I hadn’t heard of the Wayfarer, and it seems to be closest so thanks for the heads up, although it doesn’t appear to be quite as flexible. The Manchester equivalent of an Oyster card is well overdue (as are other basics like electronic displays at bus stops displaying waiting times). Hopefully TfGM’s implementation of the “get me there” won’t be as dodgy as its name. 🙂

      The velocity* funding is good news and I did attend a consultation (regarding some of the proposed work along Oxford Road) the other day. I notice the mocked up canal path picture on here looks infinitely superior to the improvements Sustrans made between Sale and Trafford – not knocking Sustrans since they are just a charity, but that path is pretty narrow and rough for people cycling, running and fishing at the same time, considering it has the potential to be a busy commuter route. I hope any work done with the cycling ambition money will be to the higher standard.

      As for distinctions between Trafford and Manchester – I think that could appear pedantic to some. Of course the councils differ but the distinctions don’t help people who live in Stretford and are commuting into town (for instance). I notice that this Sunday is the (greater) Manchester Marathon (in trafford).

      *I also get McAfee siteadvisor whinging at me about the velocity pages. I have no idea why but I strongly suspect it’s because siteadvisor is rubbish. I think the TfGM pages contain more info than the creativeconcern site – ie the full proposal doc. Basically last year the Velocity bid got Manchester awarded the largest share of a government grant for cycling projects. Obviously this is a good start, but the money was a bit late in being allocated and needs to be spent by July 2015 (I think). Also it will be spread across the eight spokes, so it won’t go that far, and TfGM are still deciding how best to spend it. Sorry, I’ve blathered on again…

  4. Some good ideas, however the porticos are more or less impossible due to the existing structures in and Round the city centre?! Also, there is a day ticket available, in fact there are quite a few! Namely the Wayfarer, let’s you travel in bus train and tram for 11quid and the boundary extends way further than Greater Manchester. A little more research was required for this article methinks

    • I do think porticos could have made an appearance. There are afterall huge swathes of Manchester that have been entirely re-built from scratch. And the rebuilding continues.

      Sadly these areas were not redeveloped with any sort of progressive thinking about urban life. They were rebuilt using the same tired old principles we’ve seen in almost all UK town and city centres; the highest of these principles being that the only real measure of a town’s success is citizens arriving in comfort at cash registers. If the shopping is good, the city is good, that always seems to be the thinking.

  5. All very true, and very well put. I’ve thought that the council should back a scheme to put awnings through the city center, with colour coding for different areas, that businesses could personalise into patterns or designs that would feature the predominant colour of the area.

    If only we had a council that worried about the city as a whole rather than sorting out those residents who vote them in time after time.

    • Many thanks francesbell, perhaps need to eat my words on this one. I’d never heard of it. Is it popular? Do you know people who use it? I wonder if, like many similar travel cards, it’s priced just a little too high to allow it to be popular and commonly used.

      “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation,” Gustavo Petro, Mayor of Bogota

      • I don’t know how many people use the Wayfarer but it’s a good deal, and I know my local station, Macclesfield, offer it to me as cheaper option for some fares. I have just come back from Barcelona (that has an excellent integrated public transport system) and the difference there is that good deals focused on city journeys – the Wayfarer gives most benefit to those on the periphery. As you gave similar examples, I think a bit of word=eating may be in order;)
        I absolutely agree about building poorly constructed, tiny flats (not all like that) – they will be the slums of the future.

      • It looks the Wayfarer could be a reasonable deal if you want to travel from Macclesfield to Burnley for instance. As you say, the periphery. Good grief, it goes to Crich; what’s that about?

        But the distance could be a bit of a red herring. The Crich Tram museum is cool, but it would be a hell of a job to get there and back by train and bus from Manchester as a day trip.

        And if you just want to get around Manchester itself? Well the area inside the M60 is about 11 miles across, similar to London’s zone 2, but a daily adult travelcard for zones 1 and 2 in London is actually cheaper than the Wayfarer.

  6. Some good points made but also missing much of what Manchester does have to offer. The picture you use of the rusting balconies, this is a complex in old trafford that I used to live in, they are lovely apartments inside and very spacious and accommodated 2 of us with all of our belongings for 5 years, with a good number of parties! The rusting you note there is a longstanding dispute with the original company that completed the conversion from office space, they treated the balconies with the wrong paint! The owners of the apartments don’t own the balconies and can do noting about their condition! It’s a catch 22 situation as the multiple freeholders involved have been insolvent, rather than a lack of desire to correct this. Just thought you may want to know the story behind you example of city centre rust!

  7. If you want to have a say in manchester then move here, contribute some council tax, and vote. Part of the reason manchester is poor is because middle class people are happy to shop and drink here but prefer to live elsewhere. We wont eat you…

    • BTW I do live here in Manchester (and have done for a number of years). And London, where my council tax and rent was actually cheaper, weirdly.

  8. Pingback: New davidnield.me post — Links of the week 11th April | Dave's Feed

  9. excellents points! towpath passed mufc now closed for about 1 mile because of hotel construction, without any clear division route. it only needed to be 300m but that would require mufc unlocking a gate :(. Wayfarer would be great if the buses ran 😦 finally do tfgm and mcc highways know what bicycles are (look at the green gutter). surely they’re just reviewers and not doers. they’ll have blown all the money on consultants before any hits the target 😦

  10. I really wish the canal cycling-path continued right into the city-centre, there’s no real excuse why the council couldn’t sort it out sharpish. If they fitted some lights along the canal that’d be good for those long winter nights, too. The canal links so many towns and villages all the way to Warrington and then via the Transpennine onward to Liverpool it’d definitely be worth it. That stretch of road in Stretford and past Old Trafford is ridiculously dangerous.

  11. Pingback: Adendum to 6 Things That Would Vastly Improve Manchester | urban crap

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