When moving to central Manchester seven years ago, I googled “green spaces near me” and the first place that came up was Piccadilly Gardens. I decided to take the six minute walk to what Visit Manchester calls the “heart and soul of the city centre”. Having lived in the centre of cities bigger than Manchester and always able to find some lovely green spaces within a few minutes’ walk from my home, I was hopeful of finding something similar at the end of my stroll.
What I saw was a small patch of muddy grass, grey walls, antisocial behaviour, begging, drug dealing, and lots of buses and trams. Where was the green in “green space”? If this was the heart and soul of the city, Manchester was in trouble.
As Mathew Stallard, Chair of Trustees at Manchester Central Foodbank, wrote in The Meteor:
“Piccadilly Gardens is one of the most important sites in the city’s public life… It is a reflection on our city and all of us as citizens… For years, unfortunately, it is also been a focal point for some of our most persistent and severe social problems that occur primarily as a result of poverty.”
I was immediately aware of the social problems due to poverty on my visit to the Gardens, what I later learned was that austerity policies by the current and previous governments in the UK, had dismantled public services leaving a threadbare safety net for many vulnerable people, at their time of greatest need, to fall through.
Redesign of Piccadilly Gardens
Since that initial visit some of the walls have come down and Manchester council have carried out a public consultation to help redesign Piccadilly Gardens. Organisations such as Get it Done, who are “striving for a new vision for Piccadilly Gardens and Manchester’s public spaces” envision a place that meets the needs of its citizens and is inclusive to all, especially those facing inequalities. Get It Done are continuing to collect comments from the public, to ensure as diverse an array of voices as possible are heard in the deliberations about how Piccadilly Gardens is developed.
Although billed as a “consultation” the council said that the process was a conversation to inform the competition and not a formal consultation, and that a full consultation will take place on any proposed design.
Manchester council told The Meteor the information that was gathered from the 1700 people, businesses, and organisations that responded would be used to inform the competition brief of an international design competition for Piccadilly Gardens.
The council say that they promoted their survey by using social media platforms, posters in travel hubs, digital outdoor advertising, and on their website and that responses could be done online, by phone, or requesting a hard copy. Homeless people and beggars are a common sight in the Gardens but surviving on the streets and the chaotic lifestyle that often entails means they are the least likely to reply to such consultations.
Mimi Dearing, director of Get It Done, explained that they are including homeless people in their project. By working in conjunction with Invisible Manchester who work with people who experience homelessness across the city, they aim to bring an inclusive vision to Piccadilly Gardens redevelopment.
Get It Done, held a community arts event, Placemaking Piccadilly, at HATCH on 23 September where questions such as “How can we create a public space that is inclusive to all?” and “Who has ownership over our Manchester public spaces; is it the council or the citizens?” were addressed. Participants discussed these issues in small groups, drew plans for the gardens, and made signs for the upcoming People’s Takeover of Piccadilly Gardens.
In the true tradition of the public square, Get It Done, in conjunction with Manchester Central Foodbank, will be holding an assembly in Piccadilly Gardens on 16 October, called the People’s Takeover. There will be a range of free creative activities, and opportunities for the people of Manchester to share their thoughts on how public spaces can meet their needs and challenge the deepening inequalities across the city.
According to Dearing, “These findings will be presented to the Council in December in a comprehensive exhibition showcasing the work on the campaign, including a tapestry created by artist Freya Bruce compiling all the voices from our creative workshops.”
She feels that going outside the Council process is essential as, “Digital access and expertise.… remain huge barriers to thousands, as do language skills, let alone a lack of confidence or trust and the time and mental energy to dedicate from someone’s day to respond to a long consultation form.”
The Peoples Takeover will record an audio podcast during the event, which will collect people’s opinions on Piccadilly Gardens, and there will also be a Discussion Circle at 2 pm. Invited speakers will discuss their experiences of inequalities in accessing public spaces and how we could overcome these to create a more inclusive one in the city centre.
A public consultation preceded the current layout of Piccadilly Gardens and the Peterloo memorial public consultation led to exclusion of Mancunians with accessibility requirements. Dearing points out that many planning decisions “taken in spite of public consultation, seem to put investment capital and the strategy of politicians and officials over and above grave local concerns about community cohesion, affordable housing, gentrification, and environmental impacts.”
Dearing said that their process of collecting public feedback on the Gardens was “unlike the official consultancy process” because the way they do it, “takes time and isn’t based in online surveys, a scale of 1 to 10, or pie charts and percentages. It is about building relationships and trust through spending quality time together.”
What should be done with Piccadilly Gardens?
Get It Done has found that so far, their workshop suggestions have centred around safety, accessibility, and aesthetics. Dearing says people want “places to sit and enjoy the space as opposed to it being more transitory, a space to survive through.”
Some ideas so far have ranged from communal gardens, free food stalls, huge water slides, wrestling rings, and a statue of Marcus Rashford.
One workshop participant said: “It would be nice to have a community garden with wildflowers and tomatoes, or a little pond with real fish. In the trees, I drew a little bird house, so wildlife can come back into the city centre.” Another called for, “an arts and crafts area where people can repair things and people can swap things and learn different crafts.”
I walked through Piccadilly Gardens and took my own small survey. All the people I asked were unaware that a public consultation had been taking place on the future of Piccadilly Gardens. Dislikes included big grey walls, litter, begging, and homelessness, with likes being the grass and fountain. Suggestions for what they would like to see in the future were additional seating, more colour, making it a family friendly place, adding a glass pavilion with places for eating your own food, and using the empty buildings nearby to shelter the homeless.
Those wanting a say in the future of Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, can go to the People’s Takeover on 16 October.
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Featured image: Dale Anne McAulay