Tuesday, May 18, 2010
The City Debate and the future of Manchester
Hoo boy, is this a long post. But I had so much to say about FutureEverything’s City Debate last Friday, I just couldn’t restrain myself. For another perspective, I’ll point you in the direction of Inside The M60's coverage and blogger Sarah Hartley, who has a very interesting analysis. As a snotty aside, I also find it surprising that a serious debate about the future of Manchester with some pretty big bigshots held at Manchester Business School didn’t rate either coverage by the local press or participation from the city council (though Sir Howard Bernstein did record a video statement.) But what do I know?
Big props to FutureEverything for organising what was a very ambitious and largely successful event. The format was interesting, but I think there were simply too many people taking part. I'm sure this came out of a well-meaning desire to offer a really broad slate of views. And it was great that such a range of people were there. Unfortunately, having so many panelists made the event longer and slower to get down to brass tacks, as everyone read through their statements and responded to questions from a couple of specially-selected lead questioners. For me, it wasn’t until the questions were opened to the floor that things really got interesting.
Two big things I took away from the event: One is a growing sense of frustration from many of the people in the audience and even a few of us on the panel. For all the horn-tooting about the meteoric rise of the original modern city, the reality is that we’ve just seen a period of tremendous growth which seems to have completely passed by most of the people who live here, especially those in poorer outlying neighbourhoods. It was clear that that many of us would specifically like the people in charge to focus their innovating on making sure this doesn’t keep happening. Patsy Hodson of the Manchester Communication Academy currently being built in Harpurhey spoke especially well on this point, and she should know.
And the second is a sense that the wind is, at long last, shifting in the city. For years Manchester has been in thrall to property developers. But the boom is busted, and what we do in the future will be less about building and more about retrofitting. As a wise audience member pointed out, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Now that the cranes have stopped their seemingly-endless march across the city, let’s turn our attention to what we already have: acres of solid old industrial buildings and solid old housing that no-one’s using. And some of the housing isn’t even that old – I’d love to know how many of those new build “city living” flats are empty?
But many people are discovering that highly-marketed dream of city living ain’t all it's cracked up to be. As one CC resident pointed out at the debate: “I can get as many cappucinos as I want but I can’t find an NHS dentist.” Ever noticed a playground in the city centre? I haven’t. (But don’t get me started on park and green space provision in Manchester; we compare shamefully with every other major city I’ve ever lived in or visited. When is this going to become a priority?)
If you want to depress yourself, consider the number of long-term vacant housing units in the city (recently at more than 6,000 according to the MEN) alongside the waiting list for social housing in Manchester (this article in The Mule puts it at 23,000 a year ago). Then factor in all the houses and flats on the market people can’t afford to buy. Something isn’t working.
Meanwhile, commercial rents in the city centre are skyrocketing, and you know who can’t afford to pay them? The artists, inventors, writers, thinkers and makers who give this city its reputation for being a hub of innovation. We can’t all go and work in the Sharp Project. If the city really wants to encourage a culture of innovation and experimentation, how about fitting out some of these abandoned or derelict buildings as artist live/work spaces (see Islington Mill), community cultural/voluntary centres (Zion Arts), or technology workshops, places like MadLab which provide resources and networks as well as much-needed physical space in which digital/creative folks to do their thing.
I’m hopeful that good things will start to happen in this area. We are lucky in Manchester to have a progressive city council that has supported many innovative programmes in the past; bold ideas that often don’t get as much recognition as they should. What we need is for the city leaders to make this a priority, to devote money (even a little bit) and time and energy to these projects, to develop incentives for people to re-use. Wrangling in court with landlords to take possession of a derelict building for the common good, for example, isn’t glamorous work, but its becoming increasingly important work.
While they’re at it, they should have a think about some of the ideas that were bandied about during and after the debate: Green rooftops and vertical gardens growing food – reducing CO2 and hunger at the same time. Citywide free wifi (though I get the impression MDDA have already established that dog won’t hunt.) Developing the unloved canal network for a range of uses. Making Manchester really bike and pedestrian-friendly. And if something’s working well in another city – the free bikes or city-sanctioned artist squats of Paris, say – let’s not be shy about stealing those ideas.
And yes, I know it’s not that simple. I sure as hell don’t have all the answers to all the tough questions like where is the money going to come from and what if people don’t want to live/work in these old buildings and how much can the council actually do? I guess I’m just hoping we can start to talk about these things in a new way. And that this is a conversation we can all participate in.
(Photograph: E.O. Hoppe, Manchester 1925)