Stephen O'Malley Civic Engineers

COMMENT | Can Manchester’s infrastructure be ‘just right’?

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There’s plenty to admire about the Swedes, not least of which is their central philosophy of ‘Lagom’ (pronounced “lar-gohm”) meaning “not too little, not too much, just right”, writes Stephen O’Malley of Civic Engineers.

This single word encapsulates the entire Swedish socially democratic philosophy on life: that everyone should have enough, but not too much. It moderates people’s views on everything from work-life balance through to frugality, stress reduction, striking the perfect balance between work and play and focusing on environmental concerns and sustainability.

Attending Place North West‘s Question Time event offered a fascinating glimpse into the complex challenges our city, Manchester, needs to meet, and the many conflicting demands our city leaders need to navigate, on their way to moving the city forward. Responding to a range of questions from the audience, the panel had to deal with the assertion that the “city had sold it soul”, as suggested in the recent Guardian article, followed a short time later by a question on the difficulty of securing planning permissions from a council that once had a “can do” approach to business. Clearly, the city can’t be both of these polarised things simultaneously!

Transport was a key theme of the evening with all of the panellists agreeing that a wholly integrated public transport system overlaid on a high-quality public realm was a shared vision of a successful Manchester. The city and Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s policy position is well defined through the work of Chris Boardman and Made to Move, the Beelines, as well as TfGM’s 2040 vision and a series of public information campaigns, run through Clean Air Greater Manchester.

The panel highlighted that the population of the city centre now stands in the order of 65,000 with tens of thousands more new homes in prospect in the near future. There was agreement that, while big transport is essential with intercity and light rail provision critical to the continued success of the city region, ‘micro journeys’, (categorised by TfGM as trips of 5km or less) need to be undertaken by means of active travel, nor car. Currently, these journeys can make up to 40% of peak-time traffic.

The evidence to support this need for a paradigm shift in the city’s infrastructure is clear and the political will to deliver is also apparent. When we layer over this the advantages of reallocation of public space away from cars, we create the opportunity for Sustainable Urban Drainage and green infrastructure, and the argument for a fundamentally different urban infrastructure is more straightforward. It is, however, far from clear that our society realises the impact that this change in urban landscape will have on our lives and lifestyles. They are also unclear as to how the changes will affect everyone in how neighbourhoods are structured, our streets are arranged and how our buildings are designed to adjust to these new patterns.

The panel talked about incremental, transitional change, making sure the medicine doesn’t kill the patient. This is fair enough but it does lead onto further questions, such as, what is the right speed for change? How prepared are we as a society in understanding the need for this change? and how prepared are we as a development community in driving this change? Moderation has its virtues, but how do we calibrate our Mancunian ‘Lagom’ before we have the luxury of a ‘just right’ choice?

  • Stephen O’Malley is founding director of Civic Engineers

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I think people are giving that stupid Guardian article too much attention

By Floyd

That Guardian article might be stupid, but look how easy it was to create that narrative, how easy it might be for someone, or some political process, to weaponise that narrative.

By Rich X

Manchester needs a skyline.We need to build more skyscrapers with luxury apartments and office space.I don’t know anyone who isn’t impressed by deansgate square except for people in the comments sections.

By jacko

Sorry but what you will find is Manchester has sold its very soul. Whilst the vast majority of residents encourage new development, most of the new build element has been of poor quality and architecturally vacuous. Testament to this is that some of the 2000-2009 offerings look ready for demolition. We have messed up and are being outperformed by Leeds and Liverpool in regenerating.

By Acelius

Sadly. Acelius is right – but the way to mitigate this is at least make the spaces and facilities
(or “public goods” as they’re generally referred to in mainland Europe) between the buildings great quality. Which they are absolutely not at the moment – in fact, they’re laughably bad compared to many comparative European cities, as is the maintenance of them.

By MancLad

Acelius have you been to Liverpool and Leeds recently? The two cities have experienced some growth and regeneration but they are not able to compete with the fantastic transformation of Manchester a city which is outstripping all its rivals.

By Monty

I agree with the ambitions of reducing car travel etc. but when will policy makers provide us with the carrot over the stick? Urban transport planners have successfully decreased the ability to move around the city centre, by car, in a stress free state. Congratulations, but I still find the connections between Piccadilly, Spinningfields and Oxford Road terribly poor unless you want to walk.

And out in the wider conurbation public transport connections are really patchy.

It’s all very well explaining the need to eradicate non-essential car trips but seriously we are a cold, wet climate with everyone working hard and rushing about. At this moment in time it isn’t realistic to think we can substantially reduce car journeys without a step change improvement to sustainable transport choices.