Andrea Sandor thinks they should. Here's why...

Last October I was invited to Manchester School of Architecture (MSA) to talk to MA students working on a project to reimagine the Northern Quarter. Like others invited to MSA, I spoke about the challenges the area faces, from the emergency demolitions to the impact of Airbnb to the gentrification pushing out independents and the proliferation of luxury flats.

Plans include introducing pocket parks throughout the area, roof gardens on Hilton St, pedestrianising Thomas St...

After I spoke, a student from China approached and wanted to know who owns the land the Northern Quarter sits on. He was shocked to learn the Council doesn’t own all the land, that in fact it’s owned by a patchwork of private individuals. The student’s question pointed at a basic issue. 

If there isn’t a single property owner with a mandate to create sustainable neighbourhoods for people to thrive in, then what oversight is there to ensure that will happen? This is where the state should, in theory, play a role - and the Council does have some powers to do so. 

2019 02 26 New Plans Northern Quarter Proposed Greening Of The Northern Quarter
Proposed greening of Northern Quarter

For example, according to the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act, Councils can issue Section 215 notices on owners of derelict buildings and vacant industrial sites deemed to “adversely affect the amenity of the area.” Despite these powers - and the Northern Quarter being situated within two conservation areas - a number of historic buildings were left to rot for decades, resulting in a slew of emergency demolitions last year. 

While it would be wrong to say the Council is completely hands-off, it seems to prefer a laissez-faire developer-friendly approach that leaves the area to “organically” develop. Or, in other words, to develop what “the market” wants. And that currently seems to be financial products in the form of “luxury” flats and very little else. 

This “state-led hyper gentrification”, as it’s called, is why the Northern Quarter is such an odd area. Yes it’s vibrant, lively, buzzing - but also falling apart, polluted, littered, and at times dangerous. This is the neighbourhood the market has made.

As I’ve written before, there’s no overall vision for the Northern Quarter. Not, that is, until now.

2019 02 26 New Plans Northern Quarter Sir Richard Leese Attended The Public Consultation  Students Believe There Is A Pressing Need To Redirect The Northern Quarters Development To A More Positive End
Council leader Sir Richard Leese attends a public consultation with architecture students

The MSA students have put forward concrete proposals for an integrated and cohesive Northern Quarter. And people agree it looks marvellous. 

Last November the students unveiled their plans and held a public consultation at the Arts and Crafts Design Centre. Visitors to the consultation included the Northern Quarter Forum and Sir Richard Leese. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive. 

Joanne Cross of the Forum told me, “I was amazed that in weeks the students grasped exactly what we’d all been thinking and talking about for years.”

So let’s take a closer look at the plans… 

2019 02 26 New Plans Northern Quarter Imagine Stevenson Square Pedestrianised
2019 02 26 New Plans Northern Quarter Stevenson Square Is Pedestrianised With Markets Exhibitions And Concerts Making It The Heart Of The Northern Quarter
A pedestrianised Stevenson Square (pictured above) is a key part of the proposal, making it the heart of the area. This space would be used for markets, exhibitions, and small concerts.
2019 02 26 New Plans Northern Quarter The Tib St Car Park Becomes A Rooftop Park With Market Stalls On The Levels Below
The Tib Street NCP car park would be transformed from an eyesore into a community asset, an idea that came from the resident’s Forum. Because the car park makes money for the Council, the students have prudently provided different options. While one option is flattening the car park and replacing it with a park, other options involve retaining it and transforming the roof into a park with lower levels acting as market stalls and the lowest levels maintained for parking.
2019 02 26 New Plans Northern Quarter Vacant Plots And Car Parks Are Transformed Into Pocket Parks
Vacant plots and car parks - such as this one on Oldham Street - are transformed into pocket parks
2019 02 26 New Plans Northern Quarter Imagine The Car Park Along Rochdale Canal Transformed Into A Recreational Space
The car park along Rochdale Canal could be transformed into a recreational space (see below)
2019 02 26 New Plans Northern Quarter The Car Park Along Rochdale Canal Is Reimagined As A Park
The Rochdale Canal make-over would integrate the Northern Quarter with Ancoats and Piccadilly. Currently given over to surface car parks and a few hodge-podge buildings, the plans transform the area into recreational spaces. It uses the canal as an asset, as opposed to an annoyance, overshadowed as it currently is by an increasing number of drab new-builds (my lunchtime walks along the canal have grown more and more depressing over the past year).

There are five other projects scoped out. They include introducing pocket parks throughout the area, roof gardens on Hilton St, pedestrianising Thomas St, transforming vacant plots on Oldham and Tib St into parks and communal spaces, and developing the Port St car park into a multipurpose space. 

A fundamental principle of the plans is increasing the walkability of the area and reducing the number of cars. Thus we see streets given over to pedestrians and car parks redeveloped into parks and entertainment/exhibition spaces. 

Now, you may be thinking, where am I going to park my car if all these car parks get redeveloped? 

(Actually, a minority of you are thinking this because only 23% of peak-time journeys into the city centre are made by car.)

My answer: what if you didn’t need to drive your car into the city centre?

(Again, most of you already have this nailed, but a quarter of you are still driving - most likely because it’s the only or most convenient way for you to get around. But stay with me, there’s exciting stuff happening.)

2019 02 26 New Plans Northern Quarter The Students Northern Quarter Proposal Is On Display In The Fred Aldous Shop Window At Stevenson Square
The proposal is on display in the Fred Aldous shop windown in Stevenson Square

The students have recognised Manchester’s urgent need to reduce its carbon footprint, not to mention its “lethal and illegal” air pollution levels. Central Manchester has the highest rate of emergency hospital admissions for asthma in England, more than double the national average.

As green goes mainstream around the world, Manchester has pledged to become “zero carbon” by 2038, and this will involve a major rethink of our congested car-dependent way of life. We’re talking infrastructure that enables safe, convenient alternative ways of getting around - clean buses, trains (that actually run), trams, bikes, e-bikes, scooters, etc.

And Manchester is on it.

£1.5bn is to be invested in 1,000 miles of safe walking and cycling routes across Greater Manchester - putting us on a par with the level of investment for pedestrians and people on bicycles in Amsterdam. The Metrolink is expanding, and re-regulation of the bus network could be on the cards.

So these Northern Quarter plans, created by the next generation, are in line with what the city is already doing and what’s needed. 

It also supports the Council’s vision for Manchester becoming a world-class city that “cultivates and encourages new ideas”, “plays its full part in limiting the impacts of climate change”, and is “clean, attractive, culturally rich, outward-looking and welcoming.” 

So considering these plans were made in consultation with residents, has a clear vision for a city centre cultural hub that’s green, future-facing and people-friendly, and which aligns with the Council’s own aspirations, I have only one question: when is it getting the go-ahead?

2019 02 26 New Plans Northern Quarter Arch Students
84 international postgrads at MSA developed the plans, based on consultation with residents, site visits, surveys and lit reviews

What can you do?

The student plans are currently on display in Fred Aldous’ shop window at Stevenson Square. Pop down for a look at the model and read more about the plans here.

Get in touch with Picadilly Ward Councillors and let them know what you think of the plans. Tweet them @Piccadilly_Lab and email them at: / /

Follow @undoingurbanism to keep up to date with the student project.

Follow Andrea Sandor @wordstoseeby