OPINION: THE CITY OF MANCHESTER - URBAN PARKS OF THE FUTURE?
Updated: Jul 24
Did you know that Peel Park in Salford and Queen’s Park and Philip’s Park in Manchester were the first ever publicly-funded Corporation parks, not just in the UK, but in the world? When they were opened in 1846 Manchester was responding to the rapid enclosure of open land for housing and factories. Mancunians like MP Mark Philips were determined that everyone should have space for recreation, even the lowest factory hand.
Manchester’s pioneering founding of public urban space nearly 200 years ago was a response to rapid growth in the city’s population as a result of Industrialisation. From a mere 70,000 in 1800, it rose to just under 700,000 in 1900; peaking at over 750,000 in the 1930’s. From this high point, the City’s population almost halved, as we moved into the 21st Century.
With the decay of Post-War industry Manchester’s population, and ultimately its parks, had fallen into relative decline. Recent years however, have seen a dramatic recovery in Manchester’s fortunes. Increased economic prosperity has seen the population boom again. Today, Manchester is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the United Kingdom, with a population predicted to rise to as much as 625,000 by 2025.
Certainly, in comparison to examples like New York’s High Line or London’s now cancelled Garden Bridge, Manchester has not been blessed with ‘park fame’ in recent years. But, Manchester is no longer viewed as a city of decline. Over the last four decades, Manchester has been transformed into a world-class city which is active 24/7. Sir Howard Bernstein’s legacy is a city that rivals its counterparts around the world perhaps on all but its open urban spaces. So how can Manchester respond to its recent surge in city-centre living and create open leisure space for a 21st century powerhouse with the same ambition shown by our early 19th century forbearers?
Perhaps Manchester is already addressing this question. Whereas previously the architectural value of a development would have focused on the crown of a building - its towers, skyline, penthouse suites - attention is now shifting towards the space at ground level and how publicly-accessible-realm can be designed and animated to maximise a development’s value, both commercially and socially.
Now is an opportune moment to discuss Manchester’s public space, with more than 20,000m² of new public space planned at Circle Square, development of the same amount within the NOMA masterplan as well as Manchester University transforming Brunswick Street to create the largest green space on its central campus. These three examples alone equate to approximately £20 million of investment in Manchester’s urban public space over a few years.
Another example of this kind of new urban open space is The Field at Hardman Square in Spinningfields, which will create a vibrant public park-space in the heart of the business district, when it reopens later in 2018. Savvy developers, like Allied London, have seen the untapped value of creating a vibrant, welcoming space that helps generate the movement of people in-between their buildings and creating a place which people will want to use; all of which is, of course, music to any Local Authority’s ears.
The Field is just one example. The Manchester boom is due in part to the successful universities and the continued inward investment and regeneration of the city. As a result, the marked increase in city dwellers, students and workers, has in turn driven the need for more open spaces, creating a city where people can work in the week and relax at weekends without feeling the need to leave the centre on a quest to find peaceful green spaces. We need spaces for walking and jogging as well as quiet relaxation, but how do we create more space in the city?
The task clearing large amounts of space within a city centre to create new public space is not without significant challenges, we believe the focus instead needs to be on making the most of the spaces we already have. One only has to look at the plans for Circle Square and the recently completed grand civic space at St. Peter’s Square to show how urban space can be used creatively. It’s not just about creating places that are publicly accessible, but creating urban parks that have a civic ambition to ‘belong’ to the city; spaces that are animated and are alive.
The very concept of what we imagine an “urban park” to be is being challenged. Instead of confining an urban park to the parameters of an individual plot, new urban parks should be seen as nodes on a route; a collection of urban spaces linked by a common DNA. But, let’s take this one step further: what if instead we looked at the whole city as a single urban park with developments within it? In doing this, we further open up the city and increase the flow – and pleasure - of movement around its various districts. The Oxford Road “Corridor” has started to consider this aspect, the quality of experience as walker, jogger or cyclist on a major urban artery. And in a similar example, the revitalised canal waterways of Ancoats and around the Middlewood Locks development.
What are the Parks of the future?
The evolution of the city will undoubtedly see open spaces being better connected, but interestingly these spaces will often not be under one single ownership. Spaces that were once owned and controlled by civic corporations will now be owned by a myriad of developers, whose sense of stewardship needs to carefully balance civic responsibility and commercial ambition; instilling a sense of the space ‘belonging’ to the public, whilst also maintaining an appropriate management structure.
It’s hard to deny the added social and commercial value that the development of urban parks can bring to a city. Rather than simply trying to follow in the footsteps of cities such as London and New York, we need to think creatively and use the unique spaces we already have to the very best advantage of the city as a whole. This means linking Manchester’s main quarters as it continues to expand its boundaries. It means taking full advantage of future changes to transport – autonomous vehicles, such as driverless cars, for example will free up acres of new walkable, useable, city space. And it means creating pleasurable, inspiring, connected and safe places the people of Manchester can dwell in twenty-four hours a day.
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