One of the events held during the Future Everything festival in Manchester last week was a thought-provoking City Debate intended to spark conversation about the way Manchester develops.
It was an unusual format with participants answering a central proposition with short statements – and at times that proved to be a little unsatisfying in its depth – but far more importantly than that, it brought together for the first time some of the many and diverse individuals and groups who have a passion and an interest in what happens next for the world’s first industrial city.
The central proposition was; “Manchester, the first industrial city, has a long tradition of scientific, political and cultural experimentation. Our proposition is that it should become the first ‘experimental city’, adopting a systematically experimental approach to its development.”
I won’t re-hash what was said (myself and Louise and Nigel from the InsidetheM60 created this live blog where you can review what happened here ), instead I’d like to offer the following contribution to the debate – something I hope others feel compelled to do on their own blogs, in the comments here or elsewhere.
It seemed to me that the participants in the debate could be loosely divided into two groups.
The first I’m going to call the Make-do-and-Menders. Into this group I’d count those people who do stuff with what is actually there. They include speakers such as Patsy Hodson, the vice principle of Manchester Communication Academy who spoke so movingly about the horrifying real-life situation that one of her pupils finds himself in; it includes Colette Williams who wants to represent the issues of Moss Side without always having to define the area in terms of gun gangs and drugs; and it includes many people from the creative sector, represented in the debate by Kate Feld from The Manchizzle blog who would like to see empty pubs turned into art spaces.
Then there’s a second group that I’m going to call the Space-Racers. This camp see a new future and has a vision of how that could be built where there is nothing but the inner city equivalent of a moonscape. I’d include in here those who are building MediaCityUK with Peel Holdings; Susan Woodward who is championing the Sharp Project to provide space for digital entrepreneurs; then there’s people who have already changed the way the city looks forever such as Nick Johnson from property developer Urban Splash and all the layers of government from the city council to the MDDA.
Hearing each of them spell out their ambitions for the future of the city it would seem on the face of it that there’s little overlap there – other than passionate interest in the city all hold.
There’s also a very obvious disparity between the power and influence each of those groups possess with the power, land and money mostly being held by the Space-Racers despite the fact that the Make-do-and-Menders probably strike more of a chord with an evolving city population.
In fact one interjection from the audience showed up this difference of approach in stark relief. Commenting that it’s possible to buy a cappuccino on every corner but impossible to find an NHS dentist, the audience member also pointed to the fact that he’s bought into the city living dream when there were cranes competing on the skyline but now that had all stopped. He claimed the centre was left with 4,000 empty flats. (Note: I haven’t yet found evidence to back this figure but will investigate further).
Two responses from the panel summed up these different realities; 1. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing and could be turned to social housing and 2. Building work is still continuing, the push for city living continues!
So I started to think about each of the groups in terms of a Venn diagram and to attempt to identify what exists in that shared space in the middle. How those two groups could actually work together so that the creativity and energy of one is actually facilitated by the power and money of the other?
It’s an interesting space to consider and one which soon brings up issues of motivation. What motivation is there for these groups to work together? Is there sufficient reward and visibility for the the Space-Racers in such collaboration? Is there enough opportunity for inclusivity for the Make-do-and-Menders to get on board? Will a new framework for organisation or even legislation be required to operate effectively in that space?
They’re issues which no doubt sit heavily on the shoulders of those in power with responsibility to deliver – but it’s time that conversation was heard outside the corridors of power.
If the debate started at Future Everything does nothing else, then I hope it sparks some further discussion, yes, but more importantly, comes up with some mechanism for meaningful input from the rest of us.