Bring up a map of Manchester’s city centre, and then gradually zoom out. Just as the urban density and gleaming high-rises of the centre give way to lower density housing and industrial uses, stop zooming, writes Mark Slocombe of CallisonRTKL. See that bit of the city that encircles the centre, lying inauspiciously between the leafy suburbs and the urban core? That’s Manchester’s ‘doughnut’, and despite its potentially delectable qualities, it is being woefully ignored by hungry developers.
It’s a tale as old as time. The urban core of a second-tier city is given new life via a combination of favourable economic and political conditions, and energetic local investment. New businesses move in, which in turn drives large-scale commercial development, and contributes to a dramatic increase in the quality of city living. Young people flock to new residential buildings in the city centre, while the remaining city workers commute in via train or car before returning to their pastures greener in the evenings. It’s the path of the modern city. Unfortunately, it’s also the path to long-term inner-city blight and a barrier to future growth.
Like many cities before it, Manchester is currently falling victim to these urban planning pitfalls. Favouring the city centre and established first-ring suburbs, developers and planners are largely ignoring swathes of inner Manchester where there is space, amenity and potential to create vibrant, sustainable and enjoyable family communities for the 21st century. Failing to see the possibilities of this urban belt around the centre core means effectively creating a circular gutter between thriving areas. Rather than provide the amenities and features that promote self-sustaining communities, it serves only to absorb the spill-over of residents and places excluded from the benefits of investment.
How do we prevent this from happening and instead create a city that works for urban and suburban dwellers alike? We can start by overcoming the stigma attached to ‘affordable’ housing. Just in time for a possible forthcoming congestion charge, we can encourage the next generation, not just our dependents, to live within walking distance of the city centre. We can think like our Dutch neighbours and create city-based family homes with access to great schools, healthy spaces for children and a truly sustainable city existence, instead of lazily resorting to the daily motorcar grind. We can embrace the future prospect of migration back into the city by providing now the places where people truly want to live.
It shouldn’t be hard: the doughnut boasts enticing development benefits just waiting to be realised. More affordable than the city centre, the area has the potential to offer new co-working spaces to encourage entrepreneurs right out of school, and promote co-operative investments and community ownership schemes. More spacious than the city centre, it could offer investment hubs for ‘dragons’ to buy talent, short-term commercial spaces to promote pop up retail, or even urban farms. More accessible than the suburbs, it could provide new allotments for self-growers, safe communities for older generations, and self-building, flexible tenures and variable dwelling types that promote city living not just for millennials or privileged high-rise dwellers, but also for working families and pensioners.
The future of Manchester doesn’t have to be plagued by urban voids that feature so heavily in cities across the UK and beyond. Instead, we have the opportunity to turned unloved spaces into new hives of activity, and we can start now. Modest investments in improved cycle infrastructure and pedestrian links that are safe, inviting and outward looking along with flexible, free light rapid transit systems will reconnect these spaces and allow organic development to follow. In other words, let’s get started: free the doughnut.
- Mark Slocombe is studio director of CallisonRTKL