The region’s design experts have praised Manchester City Council for pedestrianising part of Deansgate, and said they hope it could trigger other schemes to improve connectivity by prioritising walking and cycling.
The council has announced plans to ban traffic from the area of Deansgate between King Street West and Blackfriars as part of social distancing measures amid the coronavirus pandemic, with Planit IE and highways consultant Steer appointed to advise on the project.
But other design and planning consultancies working on projects in Manchester called for the council to identify parts of the city that could also be pedestrianised.
Mark Graham, director at LDA Design, the consultancy drawing up plans to overhaul Piccadilly Gardens, said: “Just doing a bit of Deansgate probably isn’t going far enough.
“We need a full, city-wide approach and it is critical that the council looks at other areas [of the city], particularly those with higher footfall. This is an opportunity to fundamentally rethink how public realm is done.”
Lindsay Humblet is partner at design consultancy Planit IE, which is delivering a major overhaul of the nearby Lincoln Square, intended to open up public realm linking Deansgate to Albert Square. He said: “Deansgate is such a lynchpin and spine through the middle of Manchester.
“If you can improve circulation, movement and dwell on that street, and connect through to the medieval quarter and Lincoln Square, then it is a massive opportunity for Manchester to create a people-centric place with less reliance on cars.”
Planet IE expects to be on site at nearby Lincoln Square later this year, Humblet added.
Murmurings of a project to rid Deansgate – one of Manchester’s busiest streets – of traffic have been going on for some time, with groundswell deepening after environmental lobby group Extinction Rebellion blocked off the road during a protest last summer.
Extinction Rebellion climate change demonstrators have blocked Deansgate in Manchester for a 4 day protest. The group has chosen the street because it's one of the most polluted in Manchester pic.twitter.com/n1UbrmJYwN
— BBC North West (@BBCNWT) August 30, 2019
Matt Pickering, associate director at design practice CallisonRTKL, explained that, at the time of the protest, a plan to pedestrianise that part of Deansgate had just fallen through. Lobby group WalkRide GM had been urging Transport for Greater Manchester and Manchester City Council to close the section between Blackfriars and King Street West, but the plans never progressed, in part due to disagreements between TfGM and the council, Pickering said.
He described Deansgate as a “glorified rat run”, and said the Extinction Rebellion protest showed evidence of several benefits.
“The shops on Deansgate didn’t suffer, they saw greater footfall and greater profit,” Pickering told Place North West.
“Air quality improved on Deansgate and the surrounding areas. It improved how people can move across the city while also benefitting health and wellbeing.”
The council’s latest pedestrianisation proposal, which will be implemented on a temporary basis initially, is aimed at making it easier for people to social distance in the city centre once some of the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
Cllr Angeliki Stogia, executive member for environment, planning and transport at Manchester City Council, said in a statement last week that the council hopes to make the change permanent, something LDA Design’s Graham said he would welcome.
“I think people recognise the value of having fewer cars on the street and a few more birds singing in the air and being able to meander into the street without worry,” he said.
Pickering agreed, saying that the project could set a precedent for similar schemes across the city while also urging drivers to embrace change and reduce Manchester’s carbon footprint.
“With Manchester’s drive to become zero-carbon by 2038 it is going to take some fairly big initiatives to hit those targets,” he said.
“Nobody is too worried that you can’t drive down Market Street or St Anne’s Square and there’s no need to go down Deansgate. If you’re trying to get from A to B you’re much better off using the inner ring road and then the arterial roads at the point you need to get in.
“Hopefully, the inner ring road will become predominantly pedestrianised.”
Pickering, Humblet and Graham all called for a rethink of the street and public realm layout around Whitworth Street, as well as the area around Piccadilly Gardens.
Humblet, who has also worked on the revamp of Preston’s Fishergate Shopping Centre, said: “To make the area north of Piccadilly Gardens feel more connected to the gardens, and create better linkages between Ancoats, the Northern Quarter and the station, would be amazing.”
While the Deansgate initiative is a step forward, Pickering said future pedestrianisation projects must show flexibility.
“Deansgate is a big severance,and if you remove that severance you begin to link places together really well,” he said.
“Placemaking isn’t a finished article; it’s an evolving process you’re constantly improving. This is a good example because you can look at it and ask, ‘how has this made our lives better?’ It only takes a few minor changes.”
LDA Design has whittled options for the Piccadilly Gardens redesign down to three, which will be unveiled later this year. He said is is “strikingly obvious” that there isn’t enough space for cyclists and pedestrians in city centres, although Planit IE’s Humblet countered that widespread pedestrianisation might not be the answer.
He said: “There’s a myriad of things to consider. Pedestrianising streets isn’t always the right solution. It’s about creating a balanced street and sometimes streets have to have vehicles on them.”