Dig the City

Dig the City reviewed

Carolyn WillittsCarolyn Willitts reviews Dig the City, Manchester's urban garden festival…. I'm standing on the A56 in Manchester city centre. To my right, Manchester Cathedral. Check. Left is the river. Check. But something isn't quite right. Here in the middle of the city, is a wildflower meadow. There's an Antony Gormley sculpture to my left, and a beehive. Beyond that is an orchard.

The answer comes in the shape of the UK's first urban garden festival, Dig the City Manchester 2012 . A 150-metre stretch of the recently pedestrianised Victoria Street has been transformed into a Living Street.

Liz Edwards from Groundwork walks me around the showcase, and explains how the environmental regeneration charity helps to transform neighbourhoods and local spaces, "promoting good health and well-being through gardening".

The transformation continues in front of Urbis, where sunflowers stand tall, slowly being persuaded to open in the sun; part of a much larger project of 3,000 sunflowers worldwide , planted to honour Bletchley Park computer scientist Alan Turing. The idea, says Erinma Ochu of the Museum of Science & Industry, is to celebrate Turing's work and "help solve the mathematical riddle" of the Fibonacci Sequence, which Turing worked on before his death.

If you're enjoying a glass of wine in the sun outside Hanging Ditch (and why wouldn't you be in this sunshine?) pop next door to see Nikal and TPM Landscape's amusing and well-executed installation showing how plants can survive in the gravel, rubble and sand of a builders' yard.

Beverley Taylor, head of community engagement at Manchester City Council, explains that Dig the City "was always going to start small", and has "benefited hugely" from community support. The festival shows, she says, "what people can do with an empty concrete space". It could, however, be "so much bigger and better", and the council is on the lookout for future sponsorship.

Dig the CityI'd love to see Dig the City develop, because people are excited and energised by gardens popping up unexpectedly in a city centre. I'm wondering if next year community groups could pair up with a garden designer, landscape architect or student designer to create larger showpieces. More sponsors could be found to provide materials and plants. Signage could be developed into a fun trail around the city.

Not all the elements in Dig the City Manchester 2012 are as strong as they could be; some aren't quite finished, others don't seem to be here at all. Overall though, the festival is a fantastic way of showing what a difference some extra green space makes to a city. And it doesn't all finish on Sunday; fruit and vegetable planters from the Community Avenue will move to Victoria Street and be maintained by The Booth Centre, a day centre for homeless people.

Two lovely policemen I spoke to in the festival café told me they love the green street: they think it should be made into a permanent feature with a flower and vegetable market. Now that's a good idea.

  • Carolyn Willitts is a landscape architect, director of Carolyn Willitts Design and a member of the Landscape Institute North West Committee.

Photography by Carolyn Willitts

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