There’s beauty in the beast

I walked across Manchester a couple of times yesterday, in the pursuit of food and ale.  Nearly every road in the city centre is being dug up, either to replace Victorian water and sewerage pipes or lay new tramlines.  Roads that are normally busy with bumper-to-bumper traffic (like Deansgate) are strangely quiet, devoid of the normal background engine noise but, nevertheless, full of pedestrians.

Despite the people of Manchester returning a resounding “no” to the proposed congestion charge, the city centre is certainly less congested as motorists can no longer drive through it.  As my second husband’s grandmother used to say “there is more than one way to kill a spider than pull its legs off” (apologies to insect-lovers).

There is a very healthy debate going on about whether more of the city centre should be car-free on the Manchester Evening News website.  Feelings run high on both sides, from comments such as “why not go the whole hog and ban cars from the whole of the city centre? Then businesses can go to the wall and maybe that’s the only way to get rid of this anti car council” to “women like to totter about in uncomfortable shoes especially in pleasant surroundings free from noisy diesel engines with plenty of restaurants, cafes and bars to visit” (apologies to practical shoe wearing women).

Nevertheless, at the moment these additional pedestrian areas are only temporary and because of the construction work going on, they certainly aren’t particularly attractive. I fondly remember walking through a major German City a number of years ago and being amazed by the floral mosaic on massive sheets of plywood straddling a major thoroughfare. My companion informed me that German city councils insist that if you are performing construction this ‘cover up’ has to be in place before you start.  I am not suggesting that we should have our construction done under cover of darkness; but could we devise a similar method of adornment of ongoing works?

Most places are in a constant state of change.  New developments are introduced and existing buildings and infrastructure has to be maintained and updated. Not too far away from where I’m typing I can see out of my 11th floor window a building site of magnificent proportions. I am referring to the Media City development out in Salford Quays, where the BBC and a host of other companies will relocate and change the industrial focus of the area from logistics to media and technology.

Their website has a decent collage of images of the area over the years, however, an IT company situated across the water has been cataloguing the development process in a number of weird and wonderful ways. My particular favourite is this 360 view.

With a bit of imagination I think you can see some aesthetics in the site, from the vivid use of ‘safety’ colours, such as bright orange and yellow and the contrast of the activity with the calmness of the canal maybe there is some beauty even in this beast.

Place Management 2.0

The future?Its been another interesting week here at the IPM I’m glad to say.

In my pursuit to try and establish a forum for talking about all things Place Management, we have used the B2B relationship program LinkedIn to set up a private discussion area. Our members are taking to it like ducks to water, most notably a local town centre manager who was intrigued by the greenfield project known as the Cutting Room Experiment.

The Cutting Room Experiment was a testament to innovation by using some very modern techniques to do a very old fashioned job. They sought to use some of the ‘social media’ tools available to get people to come together to celebrate the opening of a new town square. A commendable effort was made by all and credit should be given to Manchester City Council for the ‘cohones’ to fund such a left-field approach.

I am sure I am not alone in thinking that there is an opportunity for combining the world’s new obsession with ‘online communities’ to the idea of the communities we physically inhabit?

Through urban regeneration we try to reclaim the endemic industrial red bricks of the North West into our new builds. This appreciation for the past in our residences and workplaces is quite evident in some of the new developments such as the ones by Urban Splash.

It turns out that the square celebrated by the Cutting Room experiment was previously a central part of a bustling industrial hub and was even cited by Engels in his works. So, where there is already a bridge from the old to the new in a physical dimension, technology in its modern state has acted as a medium to this transformation.

I also read with interest this week a statistic that has put ‘flash mobbing’ on the steady increase as multiple homage-de-Michael-Jackson take place across the globe. Through Facebook, Twitter et al, these group activities are being propagated, much like the Cuttingroom.

It will be interesting to see how the new social media and digital marketing tools get adopted and adapted by place managers.  They offer so much opportunity to not get people involved in events but also local decision making and recruitment into other activities that make our towns and cities better places to be.

Just who is in charge of changing places?

ConferenceI went to a discussion last night, in Manchester, led by Duncan Ecob, Chair of the Urban Design Group.  The theme of the discussion was “Connectivity and Engagement”.

What followed was a lively debate (fuelled by quite a few bottles of red wine), we started off looking at the ‘engagement process’ and discussing different methods.

The general consensus was that the motivations for ‘engagement’ and ‘consultation’ affect the quality of not only how the process is undertaken but also the final outcome.  For example, private property owners are likely to engage in consultations and ‘community engagement’ purely to ‘placate’ those that might be in opposition to their development plans.

Even when the process is part of a large-scale public redevelopment project, and the community is actively engaged, the outcome of the process can still be affected by factors such as, in the case of Hulme, the lack of imagination of those charged with managing the fulfilment of the development process.

We spent quite a lot of the evening discussing Hulme and its characterlessness, brought about by adopting a carbon-copy approach to urban design.  Nevertheless, its original vibe was more accident than strategy.  The widespread squatting of council housing by ‘creatives’ resulted in a large amount of like-minded people living in close proximity – i.e. a community.

Whilst one of our fellow discussants was confident creative collectives still existed in the area, they certainly didn’t number the same ‘critical mass’ as before the redevelopment.  Creativity has moved to other areas of Manchester such as Ancoats and the Northern Quarter.

So whose fault is it that an area such as Hulme loses its identity?  The council’s?  The council came in for quite a lot of ‘stick’ last night, but it was pointed out that Manchester City Council are just one of the forces of change.  There are other ‘powerful’ organisations behind what makes Manchester, like the Universities and its football clubs.

Change may be masterminded and effected by the council – but they are usually focussing on the physical aspects of a location, the housing, the transport systems etc.  Another important force behind change is the people who inhabit the area, or, in the case of Hulme, leave it in droves.

Perhaps the lesson to learn is that if you think you are responsible for changing a place, then you are only kidding yourself.  As one agent, actor, organisation you don’t have much hope.  Places evolve organically through the behaviour of those that use them.  Whilst the behaviour of people can be influenced by their environment it can never be dictated by it.