A housing provider teamed up with the Royal Exchange to help lonely residents…with life-changing results

One glance at the Manchester skyline, which continues to grow like a bodybuilder on steroids, and it’s clear that high-rise buildings are very much in vogue.

The higher, it seems, the better.

But before lavish glass skyscraper flats commanded top whack, tall buildings - often in the form of tower blocks - had much lowlier aspirations. Built as a ‘quick fix’ after WW2, or to alleviate housing shortages in built-up areas, they quickly became unpopular as disillusioned residents didn’t find the ‘communities in the sky’ they were promised. 

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One Manchester tower blocks in Hulme

In fact, they can feel the very opposite of a community; as found by On Top of the World, an innovative theatre project ran by housing provider One Manchester and the Royal Exchange.

One Manchester owns and manages over 12,000 homes in central and east Manchester. On speaking to some of its residents back in 2015, CEO Dave Power found some were suffering from social isolation, which in turn was affecting their wellbeing. 

There is much more to those faces in the windows up high

Roy, who lives in Gorton, said: “No one seems to bother with you when you live in a tower block. I had virtually no network of friends, and I was becoming very introverted.” 

Most recent figures from the Office of National Statistics found 5% of adults in the UK feel lonely often or always, with those who feel don’t feel part of a neighbourhood at particular risk. And, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness, there can be severe consequences - both mentally and physically. 

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Loneliness can leave people feeling disconnected

So began On Top of the World, a three-year project designed to ‘empower and inspire residents to transform their lives and improve their health.’ This involved over 200 residents, living in four blocks across Hulme and Gorton, who felt they were at risk of loneliness and depression. 

One Manchester, together with Tracie Daly - who led community programmes at the Royal Exchange Theatre - organised outings to galleries and local theatres, inspiring some residents to volunteer as cultural ambassadors.

They went on to work with Tina Cribbin, a writer-in-residence at the Royal Exchange, to create Can You Hear Me From Up Here? - a play about the experience of high-rise living and attitudes towards people living in social housing. The culmination of the project was a performance by residents in July 2018 that gave many renewed confidence; not to mention a new social circle, a greater sense of purpose, routine and creativity.

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‘Can You Hear Me From Up Here?’ was performed by One Manchester residents in July 2018 Joel Fildes

Tina, who lives in Hulme, commented: “The play gave me and others an opportunity to meet new people (and explored) our own experiences, feelings and challenges over the years. There have been times when people in our community have felt lonely or forgotten but there is much more to those faces in the windows up high.

“Since joining the group, we are doing more activities collectively - days out, boat trips and watching performances at the Royal Exchange.

“This is about more than a trip to the theatre though…it gave us an opportunity to speak to our landlord and local authorities directly in a creative and engaging way. Taking part in this project has been a brave step for most of the group, we had to learn to trust one another and keep the bigger picture in mind - this could hopefully change lives for years to come.”

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“This could hopefully change lives for years to come”

Some participants have also since started a new job, training or volunteering. When her employer closed down, Anne “started helping with drop-in sessions to engage residents in the arts at Hopton and Meredith Court. Since the On Top Of The World project, I’m now running all sessions myself, and I’ve even applied for and received funding, to help me deliver these sessions full time."

Roy from Gorton also found the project life changing: “I don’t feel isolated anymore. It’s helped me get to know people in Hulme, as well as Gorton. People stop me in the street as they’ve seen me on TV talking about the project, and I feel like I’m becoming more extroverted.” 

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“I feel like a somebody, not a nobody."

The Royal Exchange’s Tracie Daly added: “Over the years I’ve come to know the residents well and I’ve seen them become more confident, independent, active and watched friendships grow.

“Residents who wouldn’t have dreamt of getting up in front of others to act out a dramatic scene have thrilled and surprised me. I’ve watched people flourish because of this cultural engagement. What were once just housing blocks now feel like communities that grow in confidence every day. One resident said to me, ‘I love being part of this. I feel like a somebody, not a nobody.’ That’s something I’ll never forget."

Can the arts combat loneliness? Yes, it seems, they can. 

Some On Top of the World participants will be part of Propel (Thurs 17 Jan): an evening of comedy, songs and stories from voices ‘on the fringe of society’ as part of HOME’s Push Festival 

Main image: Joel Fildes