Jonathan Schofield on the dysfunctional square heaped with more indignity

If any public space in the United Kingdom needs a psychiatrist it is Piccadilly Gardens. This is one very confused area. What the hell is it? Is it a garden or is it a square? The answer is neither, of course, although it is worthy of satire. There are no gardens, just some manky lawns and ugly planters, it certainly doesn't function as a square.

Piccadilly Gardens is officially a defeated public space, a blight on the city and an embarrassment

What it has been, though, is public: chaotic perhaps, but very democratic and with one of the widest demographics in the nation. Not anymore. Throughout 2022 half of it has been fenced off, decked to death, and harassed by Heras – those hideous temporary cages that bully so many public areas across the city. Shipping containers have been dumped into a space surrounded by formal architecture. Meanwhile, even though we had a record-breaking hot summer the fountain, wildly popular with kids and families, has been covered. 

What is the council doing with Piccadilly Gardens?

Confidentials asked the city council what on earth was happening on a site donated to the city by the Mosley family in the eighteenth century for public use "in perpetuity"? We asked for a clear policy response for the reason behind the decking and fencing: Was it to prevent anti-social behaviour? Was it for commercial reasons? 

Turns out it was for both reasons. This was the reply: 

“The (decked) site was originally installed as part of the city's 2021 Christmas offer linked to the city's economic recovery from the pandemic. The Council is currently in the process of developing a longer-term programme of activity for the space, which is intended to enhance and activate Piccadilly Gardens with activities, events and cultural offerings that will be family-friendly and create a safe and welcoming attraction.

“This responds to a consultation that finished in March 2021 around how residents and local businesses want Piccadilly Gardens to be used - and is a precursor to the design competition that will fully redevelop the Piccadilly area.

“The event space is reacting to the responses in the consultation to activate the Gardens with an events space that will be well lit, safe, be overseen by security, and will help minimise anti-social behaviour.

“The proposals have been welcomed by Greater Manchester Police (GMP) and wider Piccadilly Gardens stakeholders. GMP report arrests and anti-social behaviour down from previous years.”

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Behind fences: Manchester city centre's biggest public space Confidentials

Asked how many times this half of Piccadilly Gardens has been "activated" the response was: “The space has been used for events through the year, including the Irish Festival, Manchester Day and Women's Euros to name a few. It has been in use every weekend since the Euros with bars etc. The space has been used to give a stage to emerging artists. It will undergo extra build ahead of the Christmas season." 

The events are largely controlled by a private events company, T3 Events. We've asked if they have paid a fee for controlling the decked area or whether they have been paid a fee by the city. We'll report back when we get the answer. 

The replies indicate the barricaded space is a commercial asset although no money was being made in the fenced area frequently on weekends until the Women's Euros in July, seven months into the year. 

Together with points made about security and minimising anti-social behaviour the implication is that the council, businesses and GMP have given up on Piccadilly Gardens as an exclusively public space.  Of course, the twenty-year-old design of the gardens is not and has never been fit for purpose but surely its relatively limited and defined area should be capable of being policed properly rather than fenced off. 

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Shipping containers for a year in what should be a prestigious public space Confidentials

No Christmas lights turn-on this year

The ugly decking and fencing has maybe created another problem. This week the council announced there would be no Christmas lights turn-on in the city centre because of a “lack of a suitable and safe location to host the annual event.”

We’re told: “Council bosses have spent the last few weeks trying hard to find a location that would be both big enough - with appropriate sightlines for an audience of families with small children - and also safe enough to host the much-loved annual event that regularly attracts thousands of people into the city centre to kickstart the festive season.”

Usually, the lights switch-on takes place in Albert Square but with construction work there that can’t happen. Understandable. The alternative should be Piccadilly Gardens where large-scale events have taken place in the past such as Manchester International Festival’s opening event in 2017 when thousands attended “What is the city but the people?”. 

The council say now: “Piccadilly Gardens unfortunately isn't suitable in its current formation.” Too right, because half of it has been decked, fenced and commercialised. 

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A packed Piccadilly Gardens in 2017 for "What is the city but the people?" Manchester International Festival

As Urbanist and Liverpool University academic, Morag Rose, who lives in Manchester, says: “It is a shame so much of Piccadilly Gardens has been closed for so long this year. The annexed space is wasted most of the time and covering up the fountains does not solve wider problems. Spaces like Piccadilly Gardens can help people feel part of our city whether they live, work or visit us. The diversity of people who use the square could be seen on a walk-through on a sunny lunchtime. There is potential to make a much better public square.”

The future of Piccadilly Gardens

It certainly is a shame. There's perhaps some light over the horizon. Next year the winners of a competition to redesign the area will be announced, although when works will be completed is unclear. Unfortunately, part of the brief for the six short-listed design practices includes retaining a green space.

This is wrong-headed. There are plenty of pocket parks in the city centre and we now have Mayfield Park close to Piccadilly Station. The rise and rise of these spaces has been good news in the city centre as we highlighted in this article from January. A return to a formal garden, for which so many pine, ignores other memories of the previous sunken gardens.

As Dr Morag Rose says: “I am not convinced by the postcard views of a delightful garden – every woman I have spoken to who remembers the old gardens did not feel safe walking through at night.” 

In an area with such intense activity even the present arrangement of lawns has proved a liability. The grass wears out quickly and becomes unsightly which means the lawns have to be regularly renewed placing a burden on city finances.

Both gardens and lawns are impractical in such a busy 21st space. We have to remember during much of the post-war period the city centre population declined to almost nothing, footfall across any 24-hour period was far less than today when tens of thousands of people live within a mile and a half of Piccadilly Gardens. 

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The old sunken gardens were "not safe at night" Confidentials

Is a change of direction needed?

Confidentials has banged on about this for 15 years. This is a typical article from 2014 with now the cruelly humorous title of Piccadilly Gardens: action at last. Nothing happened of course. Yet in that article and in every other we’ve restated the only solution is to change the name to Piccadilly Square and hard surface the area. Make it similar to all the other great squares in equivalent European cities. Make it functional, make it neat, make it usable.

This is what we wrote back in 2014. 

"Type 'Great European Squares' into Google Images and none are made up of grassed areas with plant holders five feet above the ground, perfect for dumping litter. They may have the odd tree, they almost certainly have a fountain and statues, but they are categorically not green spaces. 

"Piccadilly Gardens is an oxymoron, a misnomer, a mangled mishmash of a historical error compounded and continued by a sentimental attachment to an unintended hundred-year-old mistake."

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The statues are hidden behind the fences, the "Gardens" are hidden underneath decking Confidentials

Rose again: “I think we can all agree Piccadilly Gardens needs improvements, let’s be creative and ambitious about them. I am worried the next iteration of Piccadilly Gardens will be as a commercial hub and not somewhere free or inviting to simply spend time in. Our city deserves a well-designed space that is open, inclusive and welcoming to everyone.”

Of course, that is all for the future and fingers-crossed for the results of the 2023 design competition but what is clear right now is the current, year-long, decking and fencing of Piccadilly Gardens and its commercialisation is the opposite of open and inclusive.

In essence, Piccadilly Gardens is now tacitly acknowledged by the council and other institutions and agencies as a defeated public space whereas it should be a grand and expansive square fit for a great European city. A huge potential asset is seen as a burden. It's terrible re-design before the 2002 Commonwealth Games encouraged anti-social behaviour and has been a blight on the city and an embarrassment for years but at least the space was definitively public for most of the year. The principle of public use "in perpetuity" has been sold for a clumsy and unsightly "activation" when that activation has previously been the movement of residents, guests and anybody who cares to linger. 

Follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter @jonathschofield

Read next: Adventures on the Manchester Beer Mile and beyond (part one)

Read again: Castlefield: Manchester's battered and tarnished jewel in the crown

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