Takeover Tuesday: Manchester needs more parks
A look at the (lack of) green spaces in the city centre.
Earlier this year, Mayfield Park opened in Manchester City Centre, the first park to open in Manchester in nearly 100 years. The park has been highly anticipated. It's beautifully designed, with different levels of planting beds across the park, and paths and bridges winding across the river Medlock. This part of the river hadn't been uncovered for over 50 years and with new planting and trees now running along its edge, it is expected to become a habitat for a variety of fish, birds, and bats - increasing biodiversity in the area. A playground has been incorporated too, making it interactive and accessible for children and families, and even includes 'scary slides' twisting and turning across the Medlock. Mayfield Park will eventually be the centrepiece of the £1.4 billion Mayfield development, which will consist of residential, office and retail space.
The park is a wonderful asset to the city centre; however, it may lead to residents wanting more green space (a common complaint from residents of Manchester). At 6.5 acres, walking around it only takes about 10 minutes, and, although it is great to have developers including a park within a scheme, with a lack of green space in the city as it is, this feels like it may not meet the needs of the residents.
Manchester hosts very few, very small parks within the city centre. Industry and population grew so quickly in the 1800s, that company owners put profits before outdoor space (many mill and business owners lived in the leafy suburbs or surrounding countryside and probably felt there was no need for it), and the city centre has been left with this legacy. Put it this way, the remaining parks are so small, they're not viable for Park Run (a 5km run) meaning locals must travel out of the city to join in. In fact, one of the biggest remaining parks, if you can even call it that, is Piccadilly Gardens, which has been a sore spot for residents since the lowered gardens were raised, accidentally becoming a brutalist hovel for crime which the space has struggled to recover from, despite multiple attempts at a Times Square style revival.
Curious as to whether this lack of green spaces is prevalent across the UK, we investigated. London appears to be outlier, with many parks and green spaces owned by the Crown and thus protected and maintained by The Royal Parks charity on behalf of the government. This amounts to 5000 acres of green space available for the public. According to the Green Flag Award, London has the best urban access to green space with 62% of residents having access to suitable green space. In other parts of the UK, the population is not so lucky however, with the Green Flag award advising that's 70% of people who live in UK urban space not having access to good quality green space. Here's the kicker for Manchester residents,cities in the North West have particularly little access with only 24% of people living in urban areas having access to a Green Flag Award park. With the Guardian reporting that local authorities are spending £330m less a year in real terms on parks and open spaces than they were a decade ago, it seems that an urgent increase in funding is required to change this downward cycle.
What often feels most difficult for residents in these cities though, is the development of any remaining green spaces into flats or office buildings. These locations are often labelled brownfield sites; however, developers and the council appear unaware of the positivity of these spaces within the community. Either that, or they choose to ignore it. A recent example of this in Manchester is the small area of green space adjacent to The Wharf pub in Castlefield. It is now a set of flats that's nearly complete. Previously, it was a haven for dog owners in the area as the only green space nearby, but now the flats are built up to the boundary edge, showing just how small the plot of green space was beforehand. However,there has been a green space addition the Castlefield area with the opening of Castlefield Viaduct, Manchester’s very own Highline. This project, run by the National Trust, is exciting and a great addition to the area. The National Trust plans to create a freely accessible green space, but for now this access is limited, visits are booked in advance through free guided tours only - with spaces selling out quickly when they’re released.
A second example of loss of green space to development is New Islington Green, this is a little more controversial. The Green is a large open lawn space that has been used by residents who often don't have outside space of their own. It is used as a place to socialise in the summer, a place to exercise, a place to walk dogs and even a place to host festivals (Hope Mill Theatre did just this in Summer 2021). It's a rare day in Spring and Summer when the green isn't being used for BBQs and picnics. Throughout the rest of the year, it’s used by dog owners, the only expanse of grass nearby that is big enough to throw a ball on. It is a great asset to the community in the area, especially through the last few years of lockdowns and Covid-19 limitations (which were particularly strict and lengthy in the Manchester area). Despite this, planning has been granted for the new Electric Park development on the brownfield site. This is a difficult moment in Manchester development - Electric Park is an exciting project with the aim for the building to run on 100% renewable energy and will be operationally carbon neutral, but this is at a controversial loss of green space for locals. Don't worry though, they plan to include two acres of 'new' public green space within the development, a token gesture to residents losing the Green.
With development in Manchester at an all-time high, it is no surprise that green spaces within the city centre are often sold off as land without thinking of the impact this can have on the community. What is frustrating, however, is when there are clear opportunities available to increase park sizes and these opportunities aren't grabbed with two hands by the local authorities. It's understandable that the financial benefit of selling off or leasing public land often takes priority for underfunded local authorities, however, this is contradictory to other schemes that have been run through the council. For example, developers of luxury flats and hotels were able to lease plots of land in the city centre for just £1 (under a scheme that encouraged developers to invest in Manchester), however, reports have since called for more scrutiny on how public land is leased and labelled the scheme 'worrying'.
However, there is some hope…adjacent to New Islington Marina, there is a large undeveloped space that used to house a retail park before it was demolished in 2019. The space sits alongside Great Ancoats Street and faced great opposition from residents and locals when the council put forward plans to develop a temporary car park on the site. With Great Ancoats Street already sporting illegal levels of air pollution and with a school sitting just the other side of the former Toys ‘R’ Us site, increasing the ability to park in the area hardly felt like a clever way to better the local community. However, the car park was halted, thanks to protests and campaigns by Trees not Cars and Extinction Rebellion. The 10.5 acres of land now sits undeveloped, a gathering point for skateboarders, whilst the plans are developed for the area.
A new revision of the proposal has now been released, (the first included no public green space at all, shock horror). This revision, however, does include a small slither of green space through the centre of the development. This feels like an afterthought, with buildings either side, the positioning of the public space will be shadowed for the majority of the day. In the proposition, the developers show the new public space in comparison to the other parks in the city centre - justifying the small size area by comparing it to the existing situations across the city. Despite reports by Place North West stating that 99% of respondents to the original consultation felt that the development should include new public green space, it feels like the developers have included the bare minimum, by creating a link from Great Ancoats street with the Marina.
With the public consultation now closed for the Central Retail Park Development, it's easy to imagine that the developers and council won’t increase the green space anymore, but we can dream of what could be. What if the council took inspiration from the privately owned Mayfield Park and took the opportunity to better the community and the environment, and began encouraging proper green space in the city? Rather than just another token gesture. As a local resident, I hope they do just that.