Graham Haughton, Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, Planning and Environmental Management, School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester
A protest camp sprang up overnight in Alexandra Park in January earlier this year, in one of the coldest spells of winter. The camp was set up in response to contractors moving in their equipment to begin felling trees around the park. Tents appeared, including some in the trees. Two rallies were held in protest attracting large numbers of people. Support came from local people passing through food and others supplies for the protestors. Quickly a strong security and media presence emerged too, with media coverage in the local press and regional TV[i]. Very quickly this became a major news story in South Manchester. The council defended its actions, claiming community consultations had been extensive and had led to a welcome scheme to regenerate and revive a park, attracting people back into it.
Whilst at one level this was a protest about tree removal, it very quickly emerged that the protestors had other concerns that underlay these. Consultation had been poor, in terms of gaining public awareness and engagement. Some felt that the consultations had focused on the positives, underplaying the loss of trees. The science was disputed too, particularly the claim that felling involved only 200 or so ‘trees’, which protestors said was an underestimate as it failed to include the undergrowth areas. What constituted a tree was very much open to question – trees it seems are a sociocultural construct as much as a natural phenomenon. For some the restoration of flowerbeds was a problematic privileging of one type of ecology, the formal gardens preferred in the Victorian era when the park was created, whilst for others overgrowth trees were seen as ecologically inappropriate, with poor light resulting in limited opportunities for other ecological niches to develop. Other concerns included whether the renovations would permanently impact on Moss Side Carnival which had been a major event in the Park’s calendar since 1972, the climate change impacts of removing trees, and whether lack of consultation was because the city leaders felt immune to criticism due to its heavy domination by one party.
The contractors continued warily with their work of felling trees as protestors sought to disrupt them, with police and other security forces brought in to provide protection. Some concessions were made to the protestors to pull back on some of the planned felling. After about three weeks the tree felling programme was largely complete and the protest camp faded away, but leaving behind a continuing sense of grievance among some in the local community that they had largely been ignored.
Cities@manchester agreed to fund us (Anna Gilchrist, Graham Haughton and Erik Swyngedouw) to examine what was going on, quickly agreeing to fund some research whilst the camp was still in place. This allowed us to visit the protestors on site a couple of times, observe the contractors and security operations at work including talking police and contractors. After the camp had gone we continued our research, meeting a range of local policy makers, from the leader of the council to officials, professional ecologists and others. There was also a major public consultation event in the park soon after the protest camp which we attended. As if to confirm the protestors view, despite the fact that one of uses the park almost daily we only saw notices about this the day before .
We have made two videos about the protest camp, with the hope that we and others would be able to use them for teaching about postpolitics. That they helped in our emerging research was a bonus. The first video was self-filmed by Graham during a consultation meeting, on a day when he was noticeably starting to come down with a cold. It is proudly amateur and spontaneous, but hopefully it captures the spirit of the event. The second video is a companion piece, again self-filmed a few months later, covering our internal discussions as we sought to make sense of what the protests, with musings on urban political ecology and postpolitics to the fore. These can be viewed on the University’s you tube channel under the cities@manchester playlist. A key question that we address here is why the protest movement lost its momentum, that is how it failed to scale up to a more substantial challenge to the city authorities. Drawing on recent theoretical work on postpolitics, Erik in particular argues that this was in part a failure to move on from the initial focus on trees to the wider issues that protestors were also animated by. This was very different to another ‘trees in park’ protest this summer that reverberated around the world, Taksim Square in Istanbul.
[i] For the unfolding story, see for instance, this ITV clip, which contains links to videocasts from its broadcast coverage: http://www.itv.com/news/granada/topic/alexandra-park/ . For the BBC coverage see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-21289875 and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-21321490 and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-21491870 . The story as seen by the protestors themselves is powerfully conveyed on their website: http://savealexandraparkstrees.wordpress.com/