Category Archives: urban space

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.]

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Where would you rather live?

Was amused to see this advert (below) while passing through Salford’s MediaCityUK the other day. I snapped a photo on my phone in order to show you what £135,000 gets you these days.

Underneath the Salford flat image is a picture of what a Swedish prison cell looks like, just for comparison. Is it just me or do you get a lot more square feet in jail?

I would imagine you get superior laundry facilities when banged up in Sweden too and, without doubt, the food will be better.

Flat of Prison Cell sdf

Video

Jan Gehl – What happens when an architect marries a psychologist?

Jan Gerl thinks about urban living quite a lot. He has transformed Copenhagen into one of the most livable cities in the world.

No British city ever gets placed on one of those ‘livable’ lists. Seems like it’s not in the British psyche to believe in anything better than adequate.

(side factoid: Denmark is about as densely populated as the UK, yet a house in Denmark has about 2/3 more floor space than an average house in the UK.)

Other bits of the world are catching up with Jan Gehl’s ideas.

If you’ve seen a congested,cluttered junction transformed into a tranquil, bike-and-pedestrian-friendly meeting place, with all signposts and barriers removed, then some of Jan’s ideas were probably being adopted.

His big idea is this: cities should work for everyone, not just those behind the wheel of a car.

Another idea is that the success of an urban centre isn’t purely about how good the shopping is. That’s how we tend to judge a town centre in the UK,  but Jan thinks it should be judged on how appealing it is to people who have no intention of spending money.

Imagine if the success of UK towns and cities was measured in happiness, or the number of outdoor chess games going on, the number of people sat reading, and not purely the number of profitable retail units.

Think on Mary Portas.

The Tesco Effect hits Altrincham Hardest

Ghost Town Vancancy Rate

Let’s face it, the battle to save our towns from becoming crap-towns has been fought and lost.

In reality it wasn’t a fair fight. In war/fairness terms it was like pitting the 101st Airborne against Nicholas Parsons.

In his excellent and blood-pressure doubling book Captive State, George Monbiot talks about the Tesco-effect and what it does to towns.

This effect is approximately this: If a Tesco (or any big supermarket) opens a store in your town, employing say 500 people, then within a 5 mile radius roughly 1000 people will lose their jobs and businesses.

Net loss, 500 jobs (usually butchers, pubs, ice-cream men, chemists, milkmen, bookshops and, of course, grocers).

With this in mind, I was not exactly astonished to read that the town of Altrincham topped a recent list of new ghost towns, towns with a high incidence of vacancies – a word planners use to mean boarded up shops.

Now Altrincham was, until recently, considered quite posh. It is still surrounded on all sides by prosperous family neighbourhoods and good schools.

With Dewsbury and Bradford, also high on this ghost town list, there are other factors, like a terminal decline in industry. But Altrincham doesn’t have these broader, historical problems.

So why has the town centre wobbled and waned faster than Eric Pickles doing the three peaks? Well a downward view from google maps sheds light.

Altrincham not only has one of the biggest Tesco stores I’ve ever seen (blue on the map below), but somehow it got permission to build this megashed literally fifty yards from the high street (red).

(Supermarket people always claim they will ‘increase choice’ if they are allowed to build. The term ‘increase choice’ is used by all sorts of idiots, often politicians just before they begin privatising something.)

Altrincham Town Centre

Altrincham Town Centre, what chance did it have?

If you start walking from the other side of the town centre, the place visibly gives up and dies the closer you get to the Tesco Extra.

Wonder if a late counter-offensive from Mary Portas could put things right?

Doing better than good, and why that’s never enough for Tesco – Published: 11 Aug 2009

In 1998, the government commissioned a study of the impact of big stores on market towns. It found that when a large supermarket is built on the edge of the centre, other food shops lose between 13 and 50% of their trade.

The result is the closure of some town centre food retailers; increases in vacancy levels; and a general decline in the quality of the environment of the centre.

Towns are hit especially hard where supermarkets “are disproportionately large compared with the size of the centre”.

In these cases the superstore becomes the new town centre, leaving the high street to shrivel.

Read George Monbiot’s article in full
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The Tesco Effect, as witnessed by me, on my local high street…

A Tesco opens

A new Tesco opens on the high street, with its tried and tested formula...

Long established grocers Harts and also Cullens both close down.

…and long established grocers Harts and also Cullens, both of which offered a product range based on local demand, were forced to close down.

Your heritage is safe with us – Published: 16 Dec 2008

Take a look at this amazing, grade one listed building in Leeds…

Temple Mills, Leeds

And then read about how well they’re looking after it

I remember studying this building for an ‘A’ level in art history. I thought at the time this structure should be a major attraction and celebrated, locally and nationally. Now parts are falling down.

Though this is a rather extreme example, you see this sort of thing all over in the North. Visit Liverpool and see dozens of fantastic buildings simply falling to bits.

Temple Mills

Temple Mills collapses

Skoob Books Driven Underground by Chain Stores – Published 18 Jul 2008

I was up in the Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, the other day and went looking for Skoob Books, one of London’s best second hand bookshops.

When I arrived at the place I remembered the shop being located, I found this instead…

The chain stores had moved in! And Skoob had been driven out.

Assuming that that was it for Skoob, yet another victim of the relentless spread of High Street Anywhere, I wandered off.

Further on I discovered – thanks to a sign tied to a lamppost – that Skoob was actually still in business and had found a place to trade in a basement underneath a new Waitrose Supermarket.

The entrance is somewhat hidden, right until you are almost at the door. But it’s well worth the trouble to find.

Skoob Books, BloomsburyI think there’s something enormously symbolic about this shop being literally driven underground.

It’s not just the fact that it’s an independently run shop, doing what it can to survive in an era that has seen chain stores running out of viable places to either buy out and take over.

It’s also partly to do with the idea of books, especially older, tattier, rarer and out of print books, being a sort of forbidden commodity you have to seek out; grubby and somehow not fit to be perused by this frappe-slurping, Top-Shopping generation.

The shop may be underground but doesn’t feel like a cellar. It’s more like an Aladdin’s cave. It’s a warm, airy room you enter, crammed with as many books as it’s scientifically possible accommodate in the space. And everything is in a logical order.

I was amused to see that, for no real reason, there’s an upright piano against one wall.

Perhaps it’s for people who want to try the sheet music before they buy. I’m sure Skoob are happy to let patrons play – so long as they can actually play.

Staff were keen to help and happy to take the time to track things down on a given subject.

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Comments

A visitor‘ left this comment on 13 Nov 08
what did you buy tim?
A visitor‘ left this comment on 22 Oct 08
Here in little old Heckmondwike our secondhand bookshop on Union Road has closed its doors(been there for as long as I can remember-Lived locally all my life)It is going to be turned into yet more over priced undersized flats.
Christian‘ left this comment on 19 Jul 08
Nice post. And I find that first photo that you took quite terrifying in the grey uniformity of the shops and the way they seem to blend seamlessly with the grey sky, grey pavement, and grey people! :O)