From Jennifer Williams of the Manchester Evening News:
It seems hard to believe now, looking out over Manchester’s burgeoning skyline, but in the early 1990s just a few hundred people wanted to make the city centre their home. Reversing that trend was top priority for a city leadership desperate to turn around decades of post-industrial decline. Less than 30 years later, Manchester now faces the opposite problem. How does it sustain the biggest boom seen since Victorian times – in which an astonishing 50,000 people now live in the wider city centre, more arriving every day – without destroying its heart and soul?
What a familiar ring that has. Williams’s piece precisely captures dilemmas now gripping her city that London has been wrestling with since the end of the last century, as economic expansion and population boom have transformed the core of the capital from a place best escaped from into a magnet for people and money from all round the country and the world. Yes, it has always been that way to some extent. But never more powerfully than in modern times.
The post-war management of what seemed to be London’s inevitable and, in some respects, desirable emptying out has been replaced by growing pressures to shape and control a form of filling up that devours as well as provides, generating new and increasingly fraught versions of old struggles over the control of road space, green space, private property and public land, between profit and fairness and between preservation and progress, however defined.
As in London, some of Manchester’s most acute concerns are about the replacement of landmark old buildings and cultural niches with colonising glass and steel towers. Here’s Williams again:
It isn’t just about listed buildings. How does the city assess landmarks that have other kinds of cultural or social value, such as pubs, bits of artwork, cinemas and former music venues? On Oxford Street two former cinemas, neither of them the finest architectural example of the road’s silver screen heyday – all of which have arguably already gone – are either vanishing or under threat. The Cornerhouse looks likely to be swallowed up by a new mixed-used development around Oxford Road station, while demolition of the former Odeon began a couple of weeks ago.
An urban planning balancing act is required, one guided by the right combinations of sentiment and utility, continuity and change. But who decides what that balance is? And who can finally enforce an idea of the greater good when the interests of private interests and capital conflict with it? Camden Council hopes it has made a deal with the developer of St Giles Circus and Denmark Street that will enable London’s famous Tin Pan Alley and its environs to retain their creativity and evolve in ways consistent with the coming of Crossrail. It is realistic about its powers to halt or control change it doesn’t like: no borough can say no to a developer forever, and must instead strive to harness market forces to the delivery of public benefits as best it can.
“The challenge for the town hall is to weigh up the need for growth – and the inevitable impossibility of pleasing everyone all the time – with the demand for a wider public debate about the city centre, as more and more people feel they have a stake in its future,” Williams writes of Manchester. She could be writing of City Hall and London too. She could be writing of Liverpool and other great cities of Britain as they are faced with the question of what “good growth” is and how to foster it. We have plenty to learn from each other.