Think of the best cities you have ever visited, lived or worked in. What is it that makes you think they are brilliant? Stephen O'Malley asks.
Their cleanliness, security, ease of movement, perhaps, but what really caught your attention, what makes you remember them so readily? It's a well documented fact that our sharpest memories are those experienced when we are in a heightened emotional state, birth of a child, wedding day, lottery win!
Manchester city region is a thriving feast of emotion, its culture and mood is restless, edgy and progressive. Its politics and politicians (as elected representatives of its people) are ambitious and courageous, bold. Think 'Devo-Manc'. This character exists in the spirit of the place, the collective mood of the people and the way we choose to express ourselves.
The City region and its leadership have been exceptionally adept, wily, at securing investment and wresting control to the advantage of the populous, HS2, our tram network, knowledge economy, Manchester Airport enterprise zone and international investment in residential development, to mention a small sample, bringing with them huge opportunity for those that are already here and those skilled and talented people that will come to contribute to the city. An exemplar of self governance in the UK and the envy of many other administrations across the country and beyond, achieved against a backdrop of financial volatility and a central government wearing different colours.
So far, well, so positive. The strategies that have been set, the investment that has been committed, the projects that are contracted and on the way, are components. A disparate set of parts, limbs and organs that need to be brought together to create a single, sinewy and organic body, the city region proper. Each part corresponding and coordinated with the other, an athletic, synchronized body that responds and serves the emotional needs of the collective mind.
What we need is for the Mancunian character to manifest itself in the fabric of the city streets, converting these valuable pieces of hard infrastructure, centres of excellence in education and residential city neighbourhoods into a landscape that serves a culture led lifestyle, one that feeds our emotional senses, the opportunity for excitement, pleasure and physical expression.
It can be done. Buildings and high quality pavements don't make places. Spinningfields arrival as a new city district brought with it a glamour, freshness and scale new to the city at the time, which was fantastic, but the early environment around these buildings was hard and tough. Glass, granite and large scale structures resulted in a windswept, empty and frictionless series of spaces. The introduction of smaller scale pavilions, the character of structures such as the Oast House and the current rolling programme of events and activities now means that the spaces are activated, interesting and popular.
Albert Square and its City Hall setting is a dramatic backdrop for the variety of successful markets and performances that take place there throughout the year. Manchester International Festival, Whitworth Gallery and Park, Dig the city, jazz festivals, Manchester day parade, creative tourist and Northern Quarter life are all attractive and vibrant and important. Forging new synapses and releasing serotonin into the Manchester mind that casts our experiences into readily reachable recollections.
However the city has so much more potential, reordering the city's public realm, in its widest sense, occupying the footprint of the whole city region, offers the possibility of a world exemplar city landscape, rebalancing the way these spaces are controlled, making stronger and more direct connections for people between the buildings and infrastructure can stimulate the heightened state of emotion that will etch our every day experiences into our most memorable. Yes its mind-bendingly massive, tying together the idea of old (and characterful) structures in Oldham, bike trails in Trafford and café culture on Canal Street, but that's what we should be thinking about and striving for, story telling, poetry and artistry in our public realm.
Stephen O'Malley is a director at Civic Engineers.