Searching for Sustainable Urbanism in Manchester

In the spring of this year, my partner and I moved to Manchester from the US and immediately, our carbon footprint decreased by half. No, I haven’t done the calculations to prove this, this is merely an estimate based on the average carbon footprint for each country (American residents emit about 19 metric tons annually versus 9.4 metric tons for British residents).

It’s easy to see how this happened. We ditched our single-family, detached house in the US for a high-rise flat in the Manchester city centre. Our automobile trips to work, the grocery store, and the movies have been replaced with lots of walking and the occasional bus or train ride. And we simply buy less because everything costs more in the UK. In short, we haven’t done anything extraordinary; we just conformed to the built-in systems and customs of our newly-adopted country (and to be honest, resistance would be futile).

This is great news for us as newcomers, a sort of passive environmentalism that allows us to reduce our contribution to climate change without making any drastic changes to our lives (well, except for moving to a new country, of course). If only this approach would apply to everyone. But it seems unlikely that we will all move to another country to reduce our carbon footprints. Anyone up for Somalia? Burundi? Afghanistan?

Beyond the built-in conditions that involuntarily reduce our carbon footprints, I’m interested in the opportunities and challenges that Greater Manchester presents for carbon mitigation and adaptation. Urban areas were once seen as being in opposition to nature, with their high concentrations of people and pollution along with a marked lack of greenery and undisturbed land. But the environmental perspective on cities has changed in the few decades and now, urban living is understood as the key to a greener, zero-carbon future. Cities offer a number of ecological and social benefits: high-density housing, close proximity to work and services, sharing of infrastructure services, and convenient mass transit options.

So what is Manchester doing to work towards this new idea of green urbanism? I’ve done some exploring in the city centre to find inspirational examples and frankly, I haven’t found too much to write home about. Despite its name, the Green Quarter is one of the most disappointing redevelopment projects. Tall residential towers make for an efficient city but one that lacks character and charm.
Spinningfields, Castlefield, and the Salford Quays are all well-known regeneration projects but they are also rather sterile from my perspective. And I’m patiently awaiting the completion of New East Manchester and the Oxford Road Quarter. In all of these developments, the bones are there for a greener, more livable city but the flesh has yet to grow (perhaps this will happen in time).

This leads me to ask a significant question about the future of the city: how does urban development happen in Manchester? How does change come about? From what I gather, the Manchester City Council practices a form of urban development that is largely closed off to public input and participation. Instead, commercial developers hold meetings with municipal officials behind closed doors, some secret criteria are applied by the powers that be and the development request is either granted or denied. There is no master plan for realizing a sustainable, livable, and resilient city, and residents are treated as passive receivers rather than integral participants in new urban futures. Is this the best route for realizing a sustainable city?

Should we trust in our City Council to “do the right thing” when it comes to climate change and sustainable urban development? Is this how great cities come into being?

Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places and I have yet to find the community of artists, designers, private property owners, and residents who are collaborating with the City Council to make Manchester more livable and green. For me, the Northern Quarter is the only place in the city centre that feels real, that exudes cultural and material qualities that are unique to the city. The rest of Manchester feels like a city-in-the-making, or a city that is gradually shedding its reputation as the first industrial city but is unsure of what it will become.

I’m not arguing that the entire City Centre or Greater Manchester should be like the Northern Quarter. And I’m not arguing that there isn’t a place for High Street commercialism, international business activity, and modernist buildings made of glass and steel. But it seems to me that we desperately need a city centre that has a variety of different places that people can call home, work, and everything in between in order to transform Manchester into a sustainable metropolis. And to make this a reality, we need an active citizenry that is involved in the shaping of the city, both materially and culturally.

I can imagine a very different Manchester fifty years from now. It is diverse, dense, active, alive, and a highly desirable place to live. Many of the historic warehouse buildings have been converted into residential and commercial space while infill activities have taken advantage of the vast amount of undeveloped property through the city. New buildings, parks, and public spaces have brought the city to life. And it is notably quieter and cleaner in Manchester, as the streets are dominated by people rather than single-occupant vehicles and carbon-belching buses.

My vision of Manchester’s future isn’t a utopian dream by any stretch, it’s quickly happening in many cities around the globe. And it is happening through innovative partnerships between public and private individuals and organizations that share the same goal: to create more livable and greener cities. The challenge is to adopt these ideas to the Mancunian context and in the process, create a city that reflects both the local history and people. It is only then that Manchester will have the potential to be considered a world-class city.

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One Response to Searching for Sustainable Urbanism in Manchester

  1. bernard says:

    A group of us involved in organising Chorlton’s Big Green Festival (see http://www.greenchorlton.org.uk for more details) have set up a small discussion group to talk about sustainable urbanism, or in our case, sustainable suburbanism. The Green Festival is great (over 4000 people came to the last one) and takes a lot of energy and commitment from a lot of people. We felt we also needed to think more about why we doing it and how it could have a year-round effect.We are trying to explore what ‘localness’ means and what climate change and peak oil will mean for us personally. We have started by trying to imagine what a low-carbon Chorlton would be like to live in, in 20-30 years time. This has surprised us all with the different visions that have emerged . To give a flavour of it, one had a sci-fi vision of two competing gangs – The Unicorns, who paint apples on their foreheads and the “Carbonistas” who had tattoos of cars on the back of their shaven heads with the words ‘Top Gear’ underneath and who hold illegal drag races on Chorlton Ees!. Another wrote it as a grandparent talking to their grandchildren of what life was like ‘back then’ in 2009 – “ We all had a car each….all burning precious oil…place was filled with cars… many people were knocked over by them…. the smell and the noise was everywhere. We thought that they gave us freedom, but it just led to more stress, we travelled miles to work, because we could. Thank goodness we think local now with ‘pedestrian first’ rules. The playground in the centre of Chorlton used to be a car park…!Bernard Leach

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