Monthly Archives: February 2012

Contemporary Cities and Infrastructural Imaginaries

by Martin Dodge, Geography, School of Environment and Development.

On way to academically approach the city is to interrogate the infrastructures that keep its inhabitants moving, working and communicating. Engaging extensively with the materiality and technicality of infrastructure subsurfaces of the city is still relatively uncommon in the social sciences (1). It is also somewhat unusual to focus attention on infrastructure that never came to be and technical systems that remained on the paper plans.

Infrastructure typically exudes physical permanence, at least to superficial visual inspection, and on the engineering overview plans and construction schematics, it can appear so believably real. Moreover, the functioning of technical space and built structures as infrastructure for the city often equates to cultural permanence, which is generated by a widespread lack of technological comprehension [or even awareness] in the general public. The very essence of infrastructure is that it can be seen as invisible and ignored in the conduct of our everyday tasks. In established industrialised cities, like Manchester, the ‘basic’ utilities of water, power and communications are seemingly present everywhere, always ‘on’ and working, which appropriates an imaginary of infrastructural permanence and stability. In contrast to this image of permanence and stability, systems of infrastructure are in reality delicately balanced, prone to failure, highlighting the vulnerability of urban processes that depend upon them. As such, one of the defining aspects of utilities and structures, which achieve the cultural status of infrastructure, is that they become ‘visible upon breakdown’. (2)

Over the last couple of years I have conducted research that has sought to uncover the histories and technical extents of several infrastructure systems in Manchester and the impact these have had on the shape of the contemporary city(3). A particular focus has been on the water supply and hydraulic infrastructure (4). More recently, and in partnership with Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) we spent several months delving into the engineering details and concrete materialities of a number of iconic projects and several unrealised infrastructural dreams within post-war Manchester. The immediate goal for the research was build up narrative understanding and a visual record of the four key modes of communication – road infrastructure, railway transportation, passenger aviation and telecommunications –  and to display the results publicly to reach non-academic communities who want to learn more about their city. The results have been assembled as Infra_MANC a new exhibition exposing infrastructural imaginaries of Manchester and it is due to open next week in the CUBE Gallery / RIBA Hub. The exhibition sets outs to analyse the conception, planning, construction and promotion of four infrastructural projects: the Mancunian Way, the never realised Picc-Vic railway tunnel, the Guardian underground telephone exchange and fanciful dreams of a city centre heliport.

The conception of the Infra_MANC exhibition

Two of these infrastructural imaginaries become real being built largely as planned and at considerable financial cost, but proved to be rather ineffectual by completion.  The other two projects were to remain unrealised dreams of city planners, to be forever infrastructural imaginaries lying inert on paper plans, drawings and maps. All four were imagined as large scale pieces of infrastructure, that were envisioned create new spaces for communication, with two being buried underground and two being up in the air to facilitate movement above the congested city. They partially overlap and intersect across and through the central area of Manchester. One has now become something of an infrastructural icon for the city [the Mancunian Way (5)], another is a source of intrigue for some [the underground telecommunications ‘bunker’ codenamed Guardian], and the two unrealised infrastructures are significant in that they offer scope retro-futurist urbanism, imagining how the city would be different had they been built.

Overview map. The four infrastructures being interpreted in the Infra_MANC exhibition are displayed on a 1950s era street map of Manchester city centre. [Source: Map compilation created by Graham Bowden, Cartography Unit, University of Manchester]

We have chosen to approach the materiality and imagined forms of these four infrastructures by analysing them primarily through visual artefacts of engineers and original mapping of the planners, much of which is never normally published or even meant to be exposed to the public. Undertaking primary research in archives, seeking recollections of those involved and borrowing key items held in private collections, processing some new photographic images, we have striven to present the distinctive aesthetic of a Modern city as viewed through the professional eyes of the engineer, the technically-applied architects and the transport planner. Many of the drawings we have chosen for the exhibition are highly technical – apparently de-humanised and seemingly a-political – showing only what was to be manufactured, concreted, wielded together and hammered into the ground. Whilst harsh as first sight, infrastructure can often have sculptural qualities to its insertion in the landscape, while the angular forms, materials and architectural styling speaks of the age in which they are conceived (6). Infrastructural plans, sectional diagrams and drawings depict fluidly shaped lines of pipe routing, sinuous steel reinforcing and muscular concrete supports, along with arrays of cryptic acronyms and hand-drawn annotations that truly invite scrutiny and thought from non-expert viewers. There are rewards that arise from the time one must take to decode the content of such engineering schematics and planners diagramming of space; we would argue it brings a new kind of infrastructural sublime to the fore. Of course, one might counter-argue that it is not sublime space one is seeing displayed, but merely infrastructure being laid bare to be easily objectified as a kind of pornographic exposure of the workings of the urban entrails. We leave it to the judgement of visitors to the Infra_MANC exhibition and readers of the accompanying catalogue to reach a verdict.

Our role as exhibition curators has focused on trying to find the right kind of plans, maps and schematics of infrastructure and we have spent many [happy] hours in libraries and online catalogues tracking down obscure technical reports, as well as wading through mundane committee minutes and correspondence between public officials and technocrats. Most importantly, we have been able exploit several valuable, locally-held, archives that have been little or never used before, including, firstly, the collections held by the Transport Museum Greater Manchester  relating to 1960s and 1970s activities of the city and regional transport authorities. While the museum is best know for its big buses, restored trams and other large metallic objects, it actually has accumulated a sizeable archive of textual materials, including important documents, printed ephemera, unpublished reports and working plans. This material has little or no cataloguing at the moment but has yielded some valuable artefacts for this exhibition. [We are most grateful to George Turnbull in facilitating access and guiding the research at the museum.] However, the most significant archival resource that has underpinned this exhibition project is the huge collection of plans of the Manchester City Engineers and Surveyors that were photographed onto microcards in the mid 1980s (7). Stored at the Greater Manchester Record Office the multiple filling cabinets contain tens of thousands of separate plans, maps and drawings. Many of the most interesting plans displayed in Infra_MANC came from this source, including key material regarding the unbuilt Picc-Vic underground railway stations and the sites of potential city centre heliports being considered by Manchester Corporation in the mid 1950s. This collection also contains much else we are sure and merits greater scrutiny for those interested in the recent urban history of Manchester as narrated through it built structures and unrealised plans. Unfortunately, the microcard collection is rather physically inaccessible and lacks readily usable indexes.

Imagined infrastructure under Manchester. An architectural render for a subway station on the Picc-Vic line that very nearly got built under the city centre in the 1970s.

We have also consciously taken on historically-focused description, seeking to understanding how the infrastructures were imagined in different times and socio-economic circumstances. We begin with the optimism of the immediate aftermath of war, the reality of construction in the 1960s and the disappointments with the economic downturn of the 1970s, all against a backdrop of increasing paranoia of the cold war. The 25 year period at the heart of Infra_MANC encompasses the fortunes of Britain in the post-war era and lurches wildly from far reaching vision and ambition, to failed dreams and urban disappointments.

We hope, however, that visitors to the exhibition will come to understand something of the infrastructure of Manchester via our curation of  original maps, engineers schematics, architects drawings and marketing ‘machines’ that we have brought together in an attempt to expose the role of communications infrastructure in the contemporary city and to introduce historical context to these overridingly technological propositions.

Exhibition Details:

  • Infra_MANC // Post-war Infrastructures of Manchester, an exhibition curated by Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) and Martin Dodge (Department of Geography, University of Manchester), with support and help from MMU, Museum of Transport Greater Manchester, and Greater Manchester County Record Office and Manchester City Archives.
  • Dates: 27 February – 23 March 2012. Free entry, open from Mon-Fri. 10-5.30, Sat. 12-5.
  • Location: CUBE / RIBA Hub, 113-15 Portland Street, Manchester, M1 6DW.

(1) Although see notable work by Steve Graham, Maria Kaika and Matthew Gandy.

(2) Star, S. and Bowker, G. [2006] ‘How to infrastructure’, in Lievrouw, L.A. and Livingstone, S. [eds] Handbook of New Media: Social shaping and social consequences of ICTs [London: SAGE], p.231.

(3) Some of the results were presented in a successful public exhibition Mapping Manchester: Cartographic Stories of the City [June 2009-March 2010, Rylands Deansgate Library; co-curated with Chris Perkins]. Ongoing research is feeding into the Mapping Manchester book project discussed by Chris Perkins in an earlier Cities@Manchester blog post.

(4)  See discussion presented in Dodge, M. and Perkins, C. [2012] ‘Maps, memories and Manchester: The cartographic imagination of the hidden networks of the hydraulic city’, in Roberts, L. [ed] Mapping Cultures: Place, Practice, Performance [Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan]

(5) Millington, S. [2011] ‘Mancunian Way: On the road to Manchester’s lost utopia’, in The Modernist, Issue 1.

(6) In relation to the sculptural forms and concrete aesthetics, see the sublime materiality of water supply infrastructure captured in Stanley Greenberg’s photography.  [Greenberg, S. [2003] Waterworks: A photographic journey through New York’s hidden water system [Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press].

(7) The creation of this collection is partly explained in this article: John, S. and Guest, P. [1986] “Mapping Manchester’s sewers: The engineering archives project”, in Manchester Region Local History Review, 2(2): 33-37.

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Multi-Speed Britain: The Widening of Urban Inequalities

by Dr. Stephen Hincks, Lecturer in Spatial Planning, Centre for Urban Policy Studies, Planning &  Landscape.

‘Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse’ (Taleb, 2007: 225).

The interlocking nature of the local and the global serves to create a sense of ‘scalar nesting’ that is comfortable and familiar.  Yet, during crisis events, the outcome of this intertwined relationship is largely predictable: ‘winners continue to win’ and ‘losers lose harder’.  It is inevitably at the local level – the city, the town, the neighborhood, the street – where this Molotov cocktail reaps its havoc.

The depth and severity of the global financial crisis became fully apparent in mid 2007. Based on quarterly GDP figures, the UK experienced the longest recession between the second quarter of 2008 and the third quarter of 2009 since the publication of quarterly GDP data began in 1955. It was also the first time that the UK economy had the largest quarter-on-quarter decline since 1980.  So I was intrigued earlier this week to read Cities Outlook 2012, a report published by the non-partisan think-tank, Centre for Cities (Centre for Cities, 2012).  The report makes the case – through an analysis of recent social and economic data – that the gap between Britain’s most prosperous and poorest cities is widening as a result of the economic crisis. The report found a case for a ‘two-speed Britain’ as more resilient urban economies – including the likes of London, Edinburgh and York – adapt to changing economic circumstances as less resilient urban economies – including Swansea, Hull, Liverpool and Sunderland – struggle to respond to changing economic imperatives.  Research undertaken by the Centre for Urban Policy Studies at the University of Manchester – prior to the publication of the most recent Cities Outlook report – goes further in arguing that rather than there being a ‘two-speed Britain’ there is in fact a ‘multi-speed Britain’ as different types of urban areas respond differently to the impacts of the most recent downturn (Wong et al, 2011).

This, you might argue, is all fairly standard so far.  However, what both reports are clear on is that current government policies seem to be widening, rather than narrowing, the gap between our urban areas.  Without wanting to get too caught up here in the respective analyses, both reports contend that the scale and depth of public sector spending cuts – introduced as part of the Coalition’s austerity strategy to combat the ‘spiralling national deficit’ – are adversely affecting towns and cities up and down the country with the greatest shocks being felt in metropolitan areas that are reliant on public sector employment.  Unemployment in our metropolitan cities has risen sharply and the welfare system has become a safety net across a widening spectrum of society as individuals and households look to ride-out the economic storm.

We are all aware that the current economic climate is intimately entangled with the sovereign debt crisis.  Experiences in the Euro Zone, North America and Britain poignantly illustrate this.  And so, the arguments made for reducing the UK’s national deficit are well rehearsed: the nation’s debt needs to be brought under control for the sustainability of the national economy.  Whether this is something that you accept or not (this rationale for introducing the deficit reduction plan has been contested on the basis that net public debt was about 60% of national GDP in 2010 compared to over 200% in the 1950s following the end of the Second World War) there is political appetite for reducing the deficit.  The Prime Minister’s suggestion, however, that ‘we are all in this together’ seems to be collapsing under the weight of its own hypocrisy.  As the Welfare Reform Bill – of which there are some welcomed aspects including attempts to incentivise work in response to rising levels of worklessness – moves through the parliamentary process debates over the introduction of a benefits cap and the implications of proposed reforms to the NHS have intensified.  In a recent piece written for The Guardian (23 January, 2012), Randeep Ramesh points out that the proposals contained within the Welfare Bill – irrespective of the nature of the transition period adopted as one welfare regime replaces the other – have the potential to increase child poverty and to adversely affect certain disabled groups in society which is something that has been acknowledged by the Coalition itself.  Position these proposals in the context of wider reforms in housing benefit and cuts in regeneration funding – the adverse effects of which are likely to be disproportionately concentrated in our metropolitan areas according to recent research by the Centre for Urban Policy Studies (Wong et al, 2012) – and you catch my drift.

For most people, the arguments made for reducing the deficit, including the need to improve the sustainability of national finances, are, however, broadly palatable.  But, it is the nature and intensity of the cuts that has proven most contentious.  Cut fast, cut hard to reduce the deficit quickly or cut in a slower and arguably more ‘managed’ way: broadly speaking, this has been the crux of the debate.  Clearly, it is too early to judge the success of the government’s strategy but recent OECD figures suggests that the markets have been slow to respond to the deficit reduction strategy adopted so far.

However, in my view, the deficit reduction debate has served to mask a more fundamental and altogether more toxic set of policy assumptions; namely that the claiming of welfare support (and state aid in general) is indicative of a mentality that ‘living off the state pays’.  Do not get me wrong, I am not suggesting for one moment that the much maligned ‘Gallagher-esque’ situation – a reference to the dysfunctional family through which ‘contemporary council estate culture’ is portrayed in the British television drama Shameless – does not exist.  Clearly it does.  But what I am clear on in my own mind is that it is extremely unwise, dangerous even, for politicians and society in general to adopt extreme denominators as benchmarks against which to measure the characteristics and cultures of a place, a situation, a scenario, an individual or a family let along to use these benchmarks as springboards for the development of policy.  Since assuming office in the spring of 2010, under the guise of ‘Localism’, the Coalition has introduced a raft of reforms and proposals including neighbourhood forums, mayoral systems, and the further ‘decentralisation’ of powers to local authorities all of which form part of a plan to reduce the democratic deficit that emerged (perceived or otherwise) under previous administrations.  In many quarters these ‘innovations’ have been welcomed with open-arms.  Yet, as the raft of Coalition reforms, Bills, Acts and amendments meander their way through the parliamentary process, I cannot help but feel that there is a politics of survival being actively played out here through which inequality could bloom further; a politics that the most vulnerable in society – who are disproportionately concentrated in our metropolitan areas – are least equipped to play.

References

Centre for Cities (2012) Cities Outlook, 2012. Centre for Cities, London.

Ramesh, R. (2012) ‘Iain Duncan Smith holds the line on welfare cap’ The Guardian, 23rd January.

Taleb, N.N. (2007) The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Random House, New York.

Wong, C., Gibb, K., McGreal, S., Webb, B., Leishman, C., Blair, N., Hincks, S. and McIntyre, S. (2011) Housing and Neighbourhoods Monitor 2011 – Fragility and Recovery. York, JRF.

Wong, C., Baker, M., Hincks, S., Schultz-Baing, A. and Webb, B.  (2012) A Map for England: Spatial Expression of Government Policies and Programmes. London, RTPI.