Tag Archives: Public Space

Why Detroit matters? Taking lessons from the motor city.

This is the sixth of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Jacob Morris-Davies chose to write about Detroit …

Consider this, in 1940 you show Henry Ford this picture of Michigan Central Station, you say, “This is 2013, what do you think caused such a thing to happen?” To be frank his response would probably be along the lines of “the bomb”, “the apocalypse” or “the collapse of civilization”. Back then Detroit seemed indestructible, a freight train with unlimited momentum, but a train can only keep moving with tracks laid in front of it.

The transformation of Detroit over the last half century has been, to say the least, radical. What was once an industrial giant, the great manifestation of the American Dream, is now but a shell of its former self. Murder rates at ten times the national average(1), an alarming population decrease (it has halved since the 1960s)(2) and to top this all off on the 18th of July 2013 the city filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy(3). Why has this happened? Well that’s a complicated question, but an important one none the less. However, the question that should be on every economist, political scientist, sociologist and geographer’s lips is this. What happens next? Why? Because, if you think what’s happening to Detroit is unique, you’re wrong. At present, it may be exactly what’s around the corner for cities all over. If that’s to change, well, we better start paying attention.

How on earth did this happen?!?!

There are multiple possible explanations for the decline of Detroit, none of which are sufficient in themselves, here are just three of the main contributing factors.

Globalisation

Just as we saw the shift from city based economies to a national economy in the United States in the 19th century, the 20th century saw the rise of the global economy. Lower wages in East Asia have led to the decline of American industries across the country. Detroit is no exception.

Corruption

In the past 80 years five Detroit mayors and four country executives have either been sent to prison, were subject to federal probes, or were removed from office.(4) Giving out contracts to family members and creaming off taxpayer dollars are just the tip of iceberg. The political class in Detroit have contributed to the debt the city now sees itself in through irresponsible governance and outright Al Capone style tactics, yes that has even included the occasional murder.

Urban planning

Detroit is too big to function in without a car and contains too few people to justify such a massive land area. This is a map from the early 2000s(5), Detroit’s population has fallen even more since then but the point still stands. It is too spread out to function as a city. You cannot function in Detroit on foot, it’s impossible. But doesn’t everybody have a car? No, not in the Motor City. This has reduced social mobility, fuelled racial segregation and divided the city’s population geographically and socially.

But, whats going to happen now?

Here are three possible futures for Detroit, although we may not see these changes for many years, it is the actions of today that will determine the path the city takes.

It will be saved

The optimist in me believes that with the right intervention Detroit can be saved. By this I mean the city revitalised and re-populated. For jobs to be created and its crime rates reduced. For its image to be restored, to become a city in which people want to live again.

The 2009 auto industry bailouts were just the beginning, getting Detroit back on its feet is not just a matter of economics. No matter how many jobs are created its image and structure will not fundamentally change. The way working, living and moving interact in Detroit would have to be flipped on its head completely. People need to live in the city, at present over half of Detroit’s police force live outside of the city limits!(6) If the police force don’t want to live in their city, why would small business owners, young professionals or entrepreneurs? It would be a massive project, but not out of the question, large-scale top-down lead redevelopment would be the answer, the city is too far gone for private revitalisation such as gentrification to work.

Ruralisation

This is happening as we speak. Locals are turning huge areas of abandoned and unused land into farms, to grow food for themselves and for selling on. It is conceivable in the near future the city limits could become a sort of rural/urban hybrid.

In fact this is nothing new, only to a large urban area. Regions such as County Durham in the UK have transformed in a similar fashion since the decline of the coal industry in the UK. Small villages centred around mines are slowly changing into rural commuter villages, who is to say this will not be the future of Detroit?

Collapse 

There is of course the third option, complete and utter collapse. This may seem extreme, something to far in the future to be taken seriously right now, but isn’t that the arrogance of all civilizations that have fallen? Not to sound overly dramatic but why do we think we are any different, maybe this is the death of the industrial city?

We are already seeing people tour the derelict areas of Detroit, calling themselves urban explorers and place hackers.(7) This too is also not new, think about Rome, Athens, Giza; human beings seem to have a fascination with exploring the ruins of past civilizations. That is not to say it has not made its mark in history through its industry, music and culture but the physical place of Detroit may in the 21st century cease to be.

Why does it matter?

You may ask why does this matter in the whole scheme of things, isn’t Detroit a one off case? Maybe, but probably not, it’s more likely the first of many. It’s not the only city out there with issues in planning, corruption, social division and industrial decline. Detroit should be taken as a lesson of what can and will happen unless city authorities, governments and businesses act now to ensure the long term prosperity of the urban areas they inhabit. Just as Urbanization and Suburbanization defined past generations it is conceivable that ruralization or the process of collapse will define the next. Detroit is the perfect case study for the future, whatever that may be.

What happens to Detroit is not just of consequence for Americans, urban decline such as this is a global problem and somewhat ironically one of the main regions that may be affected is East Asia. In recent years China for example has been organising its various provinces into specialised economic zones each centered around cities based on certain types of industry.(8) At the moment, it’s working well for them to say the least. However, in 20-50 or 100 years when Africa becomes a competitor, what then? Will they have the exact same problem on their hands as Detroit? Cities with one purpose in mind cannot last and adapt.

What is being urban anyway? What makes a great city? Why do we live in cities in the first place? Are cities not more than a group of people centered around one purpose? Detroit raises the questions, should cities be more holistic? Should they always serve multiple functions? Do they need a purpose other than just being?

Detroit was defined by its auto industry, why are we defining the places we call home, where we live and die in service of a single economic function? Should cities not be places we would live regardless of the work available? Many think so, many think cities can bring out the greatest and most beautiful elements of humanity. Because cities can have their own function which cannot be defined by any one factor, cities can have a purpose of there own, just by being.

Have a look at Richard Rodgers master plan for Shanghai(9), it approaches how cities are organised in an entirely different fashion. He suggests the overlapping pathways, connections and intersections of people, ideas and events make cities what they are. Not its icons, its industry or its history, but instead the way in which its inhabitants interact.

Why are these flows of interaction important? Well, because the cities of the future are being designed today. Cities must be economically and ecologically sustainable if they are to, but should they not also be socially sustainable? Detroit is at present none of these things, but why this is, where it’s going and what will works to fix it are questions that need answering to help plan our cities of the future.

What happens next? Collapse or re-birth, adaptation or abandonment, consolidation or ruralization, I do not know. But I do know this, understanding what is happening in Detroit now is essential to understanding how we should plan cities of the future. I will be watching; so should you.

References

(1)   – http://www.neighborhoodscout.com/mi/detroit/crime/

(2) – http://www.freep.com/interactive/article/20130723/NEWS01/130721003/detroit-city-population

(3) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23369573

(4) – http://www.myfoxdetroit.com/story/23652333/from-then-until-now-a-look-at-detroits-80-year-corruption

(5) – http://growingcities.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/detroit-reassembled.html

(6) – http://tcf.org/blog/detail/reinventing-detroit

(7) – http://detroiturbex.com

(8) –  Wei Ge, (1999) Special Economic Zones and the Opening of the Chinese Economy: Some Lessons for Economic Liberalization, World Development Vol. 27, No. 7, pp. 1267 – 1285,

 (9) http://www.richardrogers.co.uk/Asp/uploadedFiles/Image/1950_Shanghai%20Masterplan/RSHP_A_JS_1950_L_E_MP.pdf]

* http://zfein.com

** http://www.survivefrance.com/profiles/blogs/panic-in-detroit

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Postpolitics, Parks and Protest

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/ 

The Whitworth Park Community Archaeology and History Project

by Siân Jones, Hannah Cobb, Ruth Colton and Melanie Giles.

Whitworth Park was opened in 1890 towards the tail end of the most prolific park building period the country has ever known. It cost £69,000, and was filled with features designed for the recreation and health of the surrounding neighbourhood. The park became extremely popular on its opening, ‘abundantly visited’ by the local population (Manchester Courier, 5th July, 1890), with some ‘six to eight thousand’ people present on a Sunday afternoon in April 1893 (Manchester Courier, 15th April, 1893). In its Victorian and Edwardian hey-day, Whitworth Park boasted many typical features, such as a bandstand, a large boating lake, an observatory, various shelters, extensive formal flowerbeds, statues, and a covered walkway. However, many of these were removed in the post-war period; a common fate reflecting changes in urban park management and funding cuts.

An Edwardian postcard of Whitworth Park (Source: private collection of S. Jones)

An Edwardian postcard of Whitworth Park (Source: private collection of S. Jones)

The origins of public parks like Whitworth lie in the nineteenth century park movement, which was a response to the immense changes associated with industrialisation and urbanisation. Parks were designed to address many of the problems with this new urban environment, by providing access to nature, healthy pursuits, clean air, beauty and a sober venue for recreation (Conroy 1991). Indeed the public park was seen as a panacea to the ills of the urban condition and in its idealised form it embodied many of the social concerns of the Victorian period. As a specific kind of urban space, parks embodied a number of philanthropic and ‘improving’ ideals, as well as providing an arena for social control and the inculcation of middle class values (Wyborn 1994). Once part of the urban landscape, they quickly became sites of social encounter, tension and exclusion through which class, gender, civic, national and imperial identities were negotiated (Brück 2013). And despite significant changes, they remain important sites for the negotiation of memory, identity and place, as well as a focus for ideas associated with health, improved air quality, and other environmental concerns.

 

The Whitworth Park Community Archaeology and History Project aims to investigate the long-term social, material and natural histories of the park alongside its changing meaning for local communities. It also aims to use archaeology as a way of engaging contemporary residents with their heritage and to increase the social value of the Park. The project involves archival research, a small-scale oral history programme, and two seasons of excavation, with a wide-ranging volunteer programme and a series of school workshops. There are also public outreach events during the excavation seasons, and other forms of engagement such as newspaper articles, public talks and a project blog. Towards the end of the project we will produce a public leaflet about the Park’s history, a new display board in the Park, and a temporary exhibition in Manchester Museum.

Hannah uncovering the foundations of the bandstand 4th July 2012 (Photograph: S. Jones)

Hannah uncovering the foundations of the bandstand 4th July 2012 (Photograph: S. Jones)

 

Some of the Whitworth Park finds (Photograph: University of Manchester)

Some of the Whitworth Park finds (Photograph: University of Manchester)

The success of the project depends on a number of partnerships. It is led by the Archaeology Department at the University of Manchester and involves postgraduate and undergraduate students as well as academic staff. We hope to connect University-led research with the future of the local community: breaking down the barriers of ‘us’ and ‘them’, to link the hopes and aspirations of local people with those of the University. Our main community partner is the Friends of Whitworth Park, a group formed in 2005, with the aim of promoting the revival of the park for the benefit of the public, especially children, as well as updating ‘the historical infrastructure to make it relevant to contemporary life within a multicultural city’ (Shone 2005). Our other project partners, the Manchester Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre have forms of expertise and skill that support the public and school components, as well as established community relationships that we can draw on. A close relationship with Manchester City Council is also a key component both in terms of providing resources, and facilitating and promoting our work in the Park.

 

Volunteers participating in the Whitworth Park excavations in 2011 (Photograph: M. Giles)

Volunteers participating in the Whitworth Park excavations in 2011 (Photograph: M. Giles)

The excavations provide a remarkable catalyst, drawing the interest of park users. The physical remains of former park features such as the lake and the bandstand stimulate people’s imaginations and memories. Objects like marbles and other children’s gaming pieces, the remains of clay pipes, items of personal attire, like jewellery and buttons, all offer a powerful means of engagement. They connect people viscerally and emotively to the lives of previous generations of Mancunians and tell us about the unspoken aspects of daily life: the unwritten history of working and middle class lives. This gets to the heart of why the project provides such a rich context for combining research and community engagement. It also underlines why participation in the process of investigating Whitworth Park’s past creates enormous social value in the present. By exploring the park’s past, we hope to raise aspirations for its future, and to engage people in caring for their urban green spaces.

A lunchtime tour, July 2013 (Photograph: S. Jones)

A lunchtime tour, July 2013 (Photograph: S. Jones)

For more information about the Whitworth Park project visit our blog: http://whitworthparklife.wordpress.com/

The second season of excavation will take place 1st – 12th July 2013, Whitworth Park.

There will be an Open Day on 6th July in Whitworth Park.

Manchester Museum will hold a Big Saturday event on 13th July to coincide with the Festival for British Archaeology (http://festival.britarch.ac.uk/). For more information please visit Manchester Museum website: http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/whatson/

Acknowledgements:

The Whitworth Park Community Archaeology and History Project is funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from the University of Manchester and Manchester City Council. The Project is led by the Department of Archaeology at the University of Manchester, in association with the Friends of Whitworth Park, Manchester Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery, and Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre. All of these organizations have committed considerable resources to the project. We would like to thank all of the above, alongside our volunteers, students and project staff for making the project a success. Finally, we would like to thank the residents of Manchester who have engaged with the project and shared their memories and aspirations with us.

 

References

Brück, J. 2013. Landscapes of desire: parks, colonialism, and identity in Victorian and Edwardian Ireland. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 17(1): 196-223.

Brück, J. and A. Tierney 2009. Landscapes of desire: parks, colonialism and identity in Victorian and Edwardian Ireland. UCD School of Archaeology/Heritage Council Archaeology Grant Report, Dublin. [http://www.ucd.ie/archaeology/staff/drjoannabruck/publications/]

Conroy, H. 1991. People’s Parks: The Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shone, K. 2005. Whitworth Park Future Planning Document.

Wyborn, T. 1994. Parks for the People: the development of public parks in Manchester, c1830-1860. Manchester: University of Manchester.

 

Newspaper sources:

The Rambler in Manchester. Manchester Courier, 15th April, 1893.

Trees and Shrubs for Town Planting. Manchester Courier, 5th July, 1890.

 

Symposium report: The Making of Post-war Manchester, 1945-74: Plans and Projects

Poster

On the 8th May we organised a successful one-day symposium examining urban change in post-war Manchester, focussed upon infrastructural projects and the local implementation of central government initiatives in the three decades following 1945. Over one hundred people attended the event and engaged with a fascinating set of presentations from a range of geographers, historians, planners, architects and archaeologists composed of a mixture of well known professors, established scholars and new researchers. Fittingly for the symposium’s temporal focus it was held in the concrete bunker formerly known as the Kantorowich Building, designed by Professors Roy Kantorowich and Norman Hanson and completed in 1970. The speakers presented in the Cordingley Lecture Theatre, named after Reginald Cordingley (shown in full instructive mode below), Professor of Architecture at the University of Manchester between 1933 and 1962.

Source - Rylands Collection, Image Number - JRL1201094

Source – Rylands Collection, Image Number – JRL1201094

Aim: What changed in Manchester and what drove the changes?

The presentations were intended to reference transformative events and large scale built projects of the era in relation to civic plans, infrastructural initiatives, local and national government policies, technological innovation and the wider fiscal climate. The intellectual objective of the symposium programme was to reveal a selection of the significant narratives of the shifting social and physical development of the city during the years 1945 – 1974. Whilst we recognise that the two dates are, in many respects, arbitrary bookends for processes of change and urban development that are often long running and cumulative, they do provide a set of sensible marker posts – running from the end of the Second World War in 1945 up to 1974 and the wholesale political reorganisation of the conurbation in the wake of the Local Government Act (1972).

City of Manchester Plan

City of Manchester Plan

As a departure point, 1945 is particularly interesting and equally problematic, as it is all too easy to assume it as a pivotal moment, when, in actuality, it simply marked the end of the wartime hiatus and the resumption of many schemes and strategies devised in the decades before 1939. That said, many of the speakers made explicit reference to Rowland Nicholas’ 1945 City of Manchester Plan as a signature ‘visionary’ document of the era and it is evidently a useful narrative touchstone. It is perhaps unsurprising that the other end of these three decades was less considered. There were markedly fewer references to the formation of Greater Manchester, possibly reflective of its ambiguous status at the time and its limited legacy in the makeup of contemporary Manchester. It is now an apposite time to consider this period, via a public symposium, for several reasons, not least of all because some of the personnel directly involved in the projects are still around and can be ‘brought out of the woodwork’ to tell their stories. Moreover, primary documentary material is newly emerging into archives and becoming publicly available, and more generally it taps into growing scholarly engagement and broader public fascination with these three decades not just in this city, but across Europe.

map

This symposium built directly on our experience of curating a successful public exhibition in spring 2012, entitled Infra_MANC, that considered the role of infrastructure in the making of post-war cities by looking at the planning of the Mancunian Way elevated urban motorway, the never realised Picc-Vic railway tunnel, the Guardian ‘secret’ underground telephone exchange and fanciful notions for a rooftop city centre heliport. The 200 page illustrated catalogue from this exhibition has just been released online as free PDF book. The study of both built and unbuilt projects has the capacity to reveal new histories, particularly political relationships and the interplay of local interests with national policy directives. Unrealised urban schemes, be they for buildings or infrastructure, frequently leave unrefined traces of their gestation, promotion and failure that do not gloss over the fractious and antagonistic relations of policy makers and power players. In this regard the active debates and discourse around the things that did not physically alter, but still had the capacity to change, the city were as relevant to the symposium as the obvious large scale extant developments, which were also considered.

The Symposium

Speakers Laurence Brown and Niall Cunningham. Photo source - Joe Blakey

Speakers Laurence Brown and Niall Cunningham. Photo source – Joe Blakey

The event itself was arranged into four sessions. It began with a contextual overview, eloquently chaired by Professor Brian Robson and in the opening talk by Professor Michael Hebbert, a former professor at Manchester, dissected the limits of the assigned time frame and provided passionate prose on the relative shift from the modern industrial metropolis to a something approaching a post-modern service city and its refraction through the lens of Granada Television’s Coronation Street. Subsequent sessions dealt with spatial changes related to housing renewal, the development of key social institutions including higher education and the NHS, and the impact of pollution control on the environmental quality for the city and its citizens. Midway through the day a stimulating presentation was given on population migration in the post-war period contrasting the situation in Moss Side to Cheetham Hill, presented by University of Manchester colleagues Laurence Brown from History and Niall Cunningham based in the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) (shown in the photograph above). The day concluded with presentations on the development of aviation facilities for Manchester, the broader culture of the Mancunian Way and a description of the ‘disconnected city’ caused by distinct shadow of unbuilt ring roads in the urban form of the city centre.

Each participant received a 36 page printed booklet containing the full programme and speaker details. The symposium also included a gallery of reproductions of nearly twenty of the key plans and maps from the era and the Manchester Modernist Society were on hand with their ‘pop-up shop’. The full programme and abstract of the presentations are given on the supporting blog, PostwarMcr. With the kind permission of the speakers we have been able to provide copies of the slides for the majority of the talks, which are also available via the blog.

The symposium was made possible with financial support via a Seedcorn grant from the Cities@Manchester initiative and with complementary fund through the Campion Fund of the Manchester Statistical Society. Behind the scenes logistical support was provided by colleagues in SED and several student volunteers from architecture and geography. The Manchester School of Architecture kindly underwrote printing costs.

The Future of Post-war Manchester

Manchester and its Region

 

We plan to develop an edited book following the themes of the symposium and we are pleased that many of the speakers have committed to contributing chapters. In broad terms the volume will be a compendium of new and existing works and organised in the manner of a ‘regional study’ with chapters covering key themes (housing, transport, education, industrial change, etc.). As such, the book will have clear resonances with earlier edited volumes, such as the survey prepared under the editorship of Charles Carter for the meeting British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Manchester, August 29 to September 5, 1962. As currently proposed, our new title, The Making of Post-war Manchester will, hopefully, be much broader in style and with discursive space for commentaries, shorter essays and visual interpretations of how city changed during the thirty or so years after the end of the Second World War. It is likely that it will be published and distributed by bauprint, Richard’s cottage publishing arm, designed and priced to appeal to wide readership interested in the city’s histories. Once the initial print run is sold we will also make the book available free online as a popular and educative resource.

The Making of Post-war Manchester symposium brought together scholars from a range of disciplines and professionals in planning and architecture, along with students studying aspects of Manchester’s development, and some members of the general public, interested in the recent history of their city. It is hoped that the crossing of disciplines will provide new narrative associations previously unexplored that may act as a platform for further research and discourse.

Richard Brook, Senior Lecturer, Manchester School of Architecture 

Martin Dodge, Senior Lecturer, Department of Geography, University of Manchester 

 

Suspended spaces

A map of suspended spaces in Manchester city centre

A map of suspended spaces in Manchester city centre. Click to interact or add more spaces

by Sam Baars, PhD candidate, Institute for Social Change

At first sight the city is all noise, movement and purpose – a place where people, vehicles and buildings jostle for space and every last inch of ground is accounted for by its function. But in this bustling urban environment inactive, suspended spaces are abundant. Manchester city centre is host to dozens of them – stalled construction sites, abandoned buildings and empty plots – and many can be found within walking distance of Piccadilly. This is a brief guide to a selected few.

If you’re coming to Manchester by train you can enjoy some of the city’s most prominent suspended spaces before you’ve even set a foot down. Arriving into Piccadilly, the view to your left is dominated by the derelict Mayfield Station, empty since 1986 and with no firm proposals for redevelopment, while to your right is a hole in the ground the size of Piccadilly Gardens, occasionally filled with parked cars, which was to be the site of the 58-storey Piccadilly Tower before the recession brought construction work to a halt in 2008. On exiting the station to the north you’re greeted by the meandering S of Gateway House which, currently empty save for its ground floor shops, forms a slightly decrepit entrance to a smart city. To the west, nestled between some of the city’s most expensive hotels, are the broken windows of the Employment Exchange, whose tortuous journey from drawing board to construction was interrupted by the Second World War. The recession, which put paid to the Albany Crown Tower proposed for the site, has granted the Employment Exchange temporary respite from the bulldozers – and afforded this former labour office a glimpse of a recession-stricken Manchester in which unemployment currently stands at 12%. To the south of Piccadilly Station sits London Road Fire Station, a fume-blackened Edwardian gem which has been empty for fifteen years while various proposals for music venues, hotels and a museum have come and gone. Urban explorers 28 Days Later reveal that the building is now home to an impressive collection of stuffed animals.

Arriving by car, it couldn’t be easier to find somewhere central to park. Piccadilly Basin, once a hub of canalside warehouses and home to the headquarters of the Rochdale Canal Company, is, as irony would have it, now home to the parked car – a symbol of the victory of the twentieth century motorway over the Victorian waterway. There is a masterplan for Piccadilly Basin which includes offices, retail, apartments and leisure, along with the flagship Eider House, whose triangular site is currently home to Linda’s Pantry and a van rental depot. But until the masterplan is realised, Piccadilly Basin will continue to be a space for stationary vehicles. One of the few suspended spaces in the city centre not to be transformed into a car park is a meagre patch of grass and goose poo next to Tariff Street, which is a popular spot for barbecues in the summer and will become homes and shops when the masterplan eventually comes to fruition.

A short walk along the Rochdale Canal into Ancoats reveals the single largest suspended space in the city centre. New Islington is at last beginning to take shape, over a decade after funding was secured to transform it into a Millennium Community. While some set pieces such as the Chips building were completed by 2006, the rest of the project stalled as the effects of the financial crash a year later trickled through into the credit and housing markets. The site is still largely a wasteland of debris from the demolished Cardroom Estate, although new houses, a marina, a public park and a school are now in progress. Northwest along the ring road sits the skeleton of Nuovo, which has graced the entrance to Ancoats since 2007 and remains incomplete six years later after its developer filed for bankruptcy.

Turning back towards the city centre, immediately opposite these totems of space suspended by the (in)operation of private finance, is a suspended space of an altogether different nature. Between Dean Street and Port Street is a triangular plot hosting a single house (number 75) surrounded by temporary car parks. This suspended space isn’t a physical incarnation of the vagaries of the market, a la Nuovo and New Islington, but the ghost of a government plan. Sketches drawn up by the City Council in the 1960s and 70s show the proposed new Inner Circle Road blasting its way through this gap en-route to an interchange that would have wiped out much of Ancoats. As with many grand highway-building plans from that era, such as the extension of the M57 along the Hyde Road, even when the roads were never realised they often left behind scars of deterred development along their route.

Further towards the city centre, sandwiched between Port Street, Hilton Street and Newton Street is a small wedge of land occupied by Bradley House, Manchester’s Victorian take on New York’s Flatiron, and the Hatters hostel with its equally stateside metal fire escapes. There is a gap between these two buildings where a pub once stood – the Sir Sidney Smith, which became the Old Windmill and finally the Kensington before it was demolished in the 1970s. One of the smallest suspended spaces on the route, the Kensington gap is a temporary car park and home to a giant blue tit who arrived in 2012.

Outside the Piccadilly area Manchester city centre has many more suspended spaces: Origin, the Faraday Tower, the Tib Street Horn, Smithfield Market and the Ancoats Dispensary to name but a few. The intriguing thing about all of these suspended spaces is their variety. Firstly, they exist for different reasons. Most of these spaces are artifacts of market collapse – planned towers, Millennium Communities and entire swathes of canalside land all hibernating for the protracted economic winter. Some, however, are shadows of a centrally planned future that never left the page. Secondly, suspended spaces appear in different guises. Some are empty voids of bare earth or rubble – Picadilly Tower and much of New Islington, some contain buildings whose useful function has lapsed – Smithfield Market and the Employment Exchange, while others are home to structures that were grounded before they were even completed – Origin, Nuovo. Finally, suspended spaces accommodate a variety of interim uses, both official and unofficial. While car parks are de rigueur, such as at Piccadilly Basin, some are graced with public art – the Tib Street Horn, the Kensington blue tit, and, very occasionally, suspended space can become green space, such as at Tariff Street. Suspended spaces, by their nature as redundant, forgotten realms, have also been appropriated organically – The Kensington is a popular space for band shoots and Saturday night altercations, the London Road Fire Station and Faraday Towers are frequented by urban explorers, and a small patch of Piccadilly Basin is now home to a cluster of allotments.

Suspended spaces are an inevitable component of the cityscape: paradoxically, as pockets of inactivity they are a byproduct of a dynamic, changing urban environment. Stalled transitions between the past and the future, suspended spaces demonstrate what can happen when plans meet a hostile reality, but also how we can, at least on occasion, find innovative interim uses for the resulting land. Some suspended spaces are gems; others are eyesores, but they are a fascinating and important part of our city’s story. Take the tour, discover your own suspended spaces and add them to the map.

‘Anti-park’ to ‘Designer Park’? The proposed development of Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld

Tempelhofer Freiheit in summer 2012

Tempelhofer Freiheit in summer 2012

by Clare Murray, PhD candidate in German Studies

The heavily contested decision to remove part of the longest remaining stretch of Berlin Wall to make way for luxury new flats has led to the re-emergence of some of the key issues that have characterised post-unification urban planning in Berlin: gentrification; the treatment of historical traces; and the significance of interim spaces. Underlying these is the confrontation between a market-driven, neo-liberal socio-economic structure and a rejection of that as a dominant framework which should shape the urban environment of Berlin. At the time of writing, the East Side Gallery has been granted a stay of execution but this is far from the only arena in Berlin where these debates play out:  just over five kilometres away the airfield of the former Flughafen Tempelhof is subject to a redevelopment plan which has pitted individuals, citizens’ groups, and some politicians against the Berlin Senate.

The site itself is of great architectural and historical importance: The airfield is a key site in aviation history having hosted pioneering flight demonstrations in the early twentieth century; Sagebiel’s colossal airport building, begun in 1937 and never fully realised, was one of the prestige projects of the Third Reich. A hybrid between stone-clad National Socialist monumentality and a technically innovative 1930s city airport, it remains one of the most iconic buildings in Berlin; the use of the airport by the American Air Force after the war, and in particular, its connection with the Air Lift have re-inscribed the site as a ‘symbol of freedom’ to many (West) Berliners; and the controversial cessation of flight operations in 2008 brought the site’s future firmly into public discourse.

When the airport closed, a unique asset was brought back into public use: a 270 hectare area of open space.  Its use as a military exercise and parade ground and then as an airfield had preserved the vast green area and enabled it to leap-frog almost two centuries of ideas about how public space should be constituted. It has now, however, been exposed to the forces acting on the 21st century Western European city. In 2010 the airfield was opened as a unique city park, enabling visitors to cycle and skate on the former runways and to play sport and picnic underneath now defunct signs displaying instructions to pilots. Citizens were invited to apply for space to establish interim ‘pioneer’ projects which currently range from a unicycle school to allotment-type ‘urban gardening’ facilities for residents without access to a garden.

On 6th March 2013 the ‘masterplan’ for the future of the site was unveiled at a lively public meeting in the former airport building. The plans confirmed the intention to ‘develop’ the former airfield in two senses of the word: to build new ‘city quarters’ on the field’s edges; and to alter its internal structure[1]. The Senate for Urban Development states that they are meeting demands for increased housing in Berlin and for improved facilities at the park yet both elements of this reconfiguration of Tempelhofer Feld are being met with resistance.

Citizens’ initiatives such as 100% Tempelhofer Feld are leading the campaign against the proposal to build on the former airfield[2]. They have organised a petition for a referendum which will reach the second round in September. Green and Left Party politicians have submitted a motion to the Abgeordenethaus for a halt to the planning process while this petition is still running[3] .

The reaction is not only against the proposal to build on the site but also about the plan to reshape the 230 hectares that will remain as parkland. The 2013 ‘masterplan’ makes clear that the next few years will see increased intervention into the remaining park landscape.  The proposed system of pathways will shape how visitors use and experience the space, creating easily accessible areas which will be more intensively used than the expanse in the middle where there will be fewer paths. The 4 hectare water basin, which will collect rainwater from the building, will constitute the first major permanent feature on the landscape which does not attest to its history or former function. The 1000 trees, which are to be planted at the site’s edges to provide shade and seem to be positioned to serve a double function in screening the proposed new city quarters, will bring about a contraction of the site’s perimeter, diminishing the vast emptiness of the Feld’s panorama.

Those campaigning for Tempelhofer Feld to remain in its present condition fear the transformation of ‘anti-park’ into ‘designer park’[4]. The designation of ‘anti-park’ derives from the fact that, as an appropriation of left-over space, Tempelhofer Freheit, as the park is named,  is not the product of an over-arching  ‘park design’ process. Accordingly, several of the features that characterise the western public park are absent here.

In contrast to the taming of nature prized in the gardens of the baroque or renaissance period, the park at Tempelhof has been characterised by the celebration of the capacity of nature to reclaim and reassert itself.

The former fire-service practice plane. Summer 2011

The former fire-service practice plane. Summer 2011

Unlike the pathways of the nineteenth century park, with their graceful contours and simple variety which Joyce explains were carefully designed to encourage walking in the belief the working class would seek to emulate the comportment of their ‘betters’,  the default means of getting around Tempelhof are the former runways, shaped to fulfil an entirely different function. Similarly, while Joyce explains that a key feature in the design of nineteenth century public park was the variation of the (in)finitude of space, achieved through the strategic planting of trees to open and close the panorama, Tempelhof is characterised by the vast emptiness of its horizon[5].

Tempelhofer Freiheit. Summer 2012.

Tempelhofer Freiheit. Summer 2012.

In other ways, however, the ordering processes that Joyce identified in the nineteenth-century public park have been active at Tempelhofer Freiheit since its opening. There is, of course, considerable relaxation in the idea of what is ‘appropriate’ for a public park – ‘swearing’ and ‘dirty clothes’ are not banned, for example, yet the restriction of loose dogs and barbecuing to designated areas, unusual in Berlin, raised eyebrows. More pronounced is the issue of (in)accessibility that arose when it became clear that the park would have a perimeter fence with opening and closing hours;  ‘a people’s park –until the sun goes down’ wrote one newspaper[6]. The rejection of the idea that through the numbered gates and the non-porous boundaries of Tempelhof, the park and its visitors become countable, knowable and therefore manageable feeds into a wider theme which is particularly salient in 21st century Berlin; resistance to the homogenisation both of space and of the individuals that inhabit that space. Through the fence, Tempelhofer Feld is demarcated as a ‘place’ wherein particular norms of behaviour are expected and, to an extent, enforced.  This is consolidated by the fact that the public can only use the park during daylight hours, i.e. when they are visible, this suggests that when they cannot be seen, and thus monitored, the ‘general public’ may not conduct themselves ‘appropriately’ and should thus not be permitted to access the park.

Tempelhofer Feld is seen as a tranche of wilderness which through historical circumstance has persisted within the urban area. The proposed development is seen as an extension of attempts to manage its wilderness, to limit access to it, to shape how it is to be used and experienced and, most significantly, to repackage parts of it as a commodity.


[1] Up-to-date information and a PDF download of the masterplan are available at http://www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/ueber-die-tempelhofer-freiheit/aktuelles/nachrichten/standortkonferenz/

Practising urban alternatives

by Jana Wendler, PhD candidate in Geography

There is lots of talk about the need for cities and urban life to become more equitable and sustainable – and there are initiatives and people that already practice alternative ways of living based on such ideas. Often described as some form of experiment, these places currently attract much attention as sites where alternatives are tested, showcased – and ultimately lived. What is interesting here, and what I researched as part of my PhD, is that their ‘alternative-ness’ is not only, and sometimes not even primarily, a direct statement. It emerges from the way the spaces look and feel, and how they are inhabited and performed. They are places that challenge our perceptions and interactions, with subtle invitations to touch, to explore and to think differently about our urban environment.

One of the biggest and best-known alternative areas in Europe is the free town of Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark. A former military area next to the central neighbourhood of Christianshavn, it was occupied by squatters 40 years ago and has carved out an autonomous existence ever since. Christiania maintains its label as a “social-ecological experiment”, a term applied by the Danish government in the early 70s as a way of politically managing this alternative space in the middle of the city.

Although intricately tied up with ideals of alternative politics, anarchism and the right to self-determination, the experience of Christiania as a space of alternatives is primarily embodied. What strikes the visitor-researcher are the sights, sounds and smells. There is no traffic noise (Christiana is a car free zone), and the smells of hash (openly available) and woodfire (the main source of heating) are everywhere. At night, the unmarked gravel roads and paths are pitch-black. This sensory expression of being alternative marks the boundaries of the freetown as clearly as the big entrance gates proclaiming Christiania’s non-EU status.

Leaving Christiania: "You are now entering the EU"

Leaving Christiania: “You are now entering the EU”

Living Christiania: Open-air kitchen with rainwater harvesting system

Living Christiania: Open-air kitchen with rainwater harvesting system

Living Christiania: Colourful and creative house

Living Christiania: Colourful and creative house

These differences continue much deeper into the daily lives and the homes of the Christianites. Alternative urban life becomes materialised in the self-built houses that spread along the water. These wooden houses are reminiscent of anything from a playground hut to the masterpiece of a skilled craftsman, and they are intricately linked with the people that live in them. Some houses give a physical shape to their builders’ spiritual ideas (the pyramid house), others show their connection to nature and resources (a hut with an open-air kitchen and a compost toilet). They are part of the family history, and people come to be named after their house or vice versa. Often the effects of these open relationships between people and material are quite playful, with bright colours, strange angles and unusual objects. Beyond a different sense experience, ideas of alternative living are practised here through unusual material constellations.

Another example is the Prinzessinnengarten, an urban garden in Berlin, created in 2009 on a brownfield site in the hip but poor area of Kreuzberg. It offers 6000 m² of green against the roundabout and towerblocks just outside its fence, with a café area and many ways for people to get involved. It is experimental mainly in its approach: of seeing what you can do with a wasteland once you allow people to ‘plant’ their ideas onto it, and of asking questions about food, biodiversity and the sustainable city in an unusual setting.

The garden stands as a counterpoint to its surroundings but it remains fundamentally urban: the vegetables grow in colourful plastic boxes and bags because the soil is not usable, the sound of birds mixes with the police siren outside, the label on the garden-produced honey says it comes from “city bees”. This gives it a unique aesthetic and sensescape, and it makes room for interactions that are lacking elsewhere. There are no signs warning visitors against touching the plants; in fact people are encouraged to feel, to smell, to dig. If you order herbal tea, you can choose and cut your own ingredients. During the gardening days, anyone can help shovelling soil, and then harvest their own produce. The interactions with the space are tactile, embodied, direct.

Prinzessinnengarten: Growing Alternatives

Prinzessinnengarten: Growing Alternatives

Prinzessinnengarten: Touching Alternatives

Prinzessinnengarten: Touching Alternatives

 

These invitations to explore bring the alternative ideas of the garden to life. The suggestions it makes about sustainable urban life are not proclaimed but practised – by the office worker who tends to his bees in his lunch break, by the volunteers who mix soil and plant tomatoes. They are also expressed in the colours, materials and solutions in the garden, which provide new starting points and practical inspiration. The garden as a space for learning and engagement both emerges from and creates the conditions for new relations between people, plants and materials.

The buildings of Christiania and the plant boxes of the Prinzessinnengarten give us a glimpse of different ways of being urban, and of ways in which such alternatives can be tried out. They speak of the connections people form with their immediate surroundings, and introduce alternatives not based on any overarching idea of the sustainable city, but on direct embodied, material interactions. The spaces allow people to give a material expression to their values and visions. They encourage further experimentation by leaving loose ends, by juxtaposing ideas and by asking the visitor to take an active stance. They are also fun, interesting places to be – adding a playful element to the challenge of finding urban alternatives.

The fieldwork in Christiania was kindly supported by the Christiania Researcher in Residence (CRIR) project. More information on the research: http://greenplaylab.co.uk