Category Archives: grand plans

Suspended spaces

Last month I contributed a post to the cities@manchester blog which explored the ‘suspended spaces’ that exist amidst the urban bustle of Manchester city centre. During my four years living in Manchester I became increasingly interested in – and often frustrated by – the temporary car parks, abandoned buildings, stalled construction projects and boarded-up voids that pepper an otherwise growing, resurgent cityscape. These suspended spaces, as I decided to call them, have a variety of origins – from the vagaries of the post-recession housing and credit markets to the never-realised grand plans of the city council. They are sometimes host to innovative and unexpected uses, providing a free backdrop for bandshoots or a place to store stuffed animals. Some suspended spaces are well known – indeed unmissable – such as the giant crater of Origin, while some are a little more off the beaten track, such as the Kensington gap (and its resident blue tit).

My coverage of the suspended spaces in Manchester was by no means exhaustive and I invited people to contribute to my map, which is open for collaboration by anyone with a Google account. At first: radio silence. Then: a welcome update from Parkstarter, a Manchester-based initiative to reclaim poorly used urban spaces in the city. They recently transformed the temporary car park on the former Dobbins site on Oldham Street into a day-long popup park – complete with real grass. A fitting example of the opportunities presented by suspended spaces, and the way in which these are often missed.

The Arndale’s hidden secrets

When Manchester’s Arndale Centre was completed in 1979 its massive scale and lurid skin of yellow tiles earned it the nickname The Giant’s Urinal. For a building with such a presence, and such a reputation, the Arndale has nonetheless managed to keep two remarkable secrets from Manchester’s shoppers.

First up is one of the only remaining pieces of the city’s never-realised underground railway, the Picc-Vic line. 9 metres under the floor of the Arndale, just below Topshop, is a void that would have become a station on Manchester’s 2.3 mile-long underground link between Piccadilly and Victoria stations. This mysterious space underneath the Arndale is destined to remain just that: the Picc-Vic project was shelved in 1977, after ten years’ planning, when central government pulled the funding.

The second of the Arndale’s secrets sits on the roof – or at least it did until 2003. When the shopping centre was built, alongside thousands of square feet of retail space 60 rooftop flats were created in the form of Cromford Courts. At a time when the city centre population of Manchester was close to zero, and decades before the explosion of new builds and warehouse conversions, Cromford Courts was a unique living space with balconies, communal gardens and unparalleled views of the city, right in the middle of Manchester above the bustle of the shoppers and the roar of the buses. From street level on Withy Grove the journey to your front door was equally unique, via a helter-skelter staircase up the side of a multistory car park. Cromford Courts survived the 1996 IRA bomb which tore through the Arndale, but was eventually swept away seven years later when Cannon Street was redeveloped.

Map © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2012). All rights reserved. Made available by the superb Digimap service, run by EDINA at the University of Edinburgh. Picc-Vic image courtesy of the Infra_MANC exhibition at the Cube Gallery.

The making of a garden city

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My research is based in Wythenshawe, just south of Manchester. Today Wythenshawe is home to over 70,000 people, but at the start of the 20th century it was open countryside and farmland. What is now one of Europe’s largest areas of social housing was built entirely from scratch, mostly between the 1920s and 60s, to rehouse tens of thousands of Mancunians from inner city clearance areas like Hulme.

Wythenshawe isn’t any old area of housing: it was one of only a handful of garden cities to be built in the UK – the product of a revolutionary era in town planning. The garden city movement was about more than simply relocating urban workers from the cramped, smoggy slums of the inner city into newly-built housing on the edge of the city. The movement envisaged new, comprehensively planned cities surrounded by countryside. Garden cities would have a strictly set maximum population. They would be self-sufficient, supported by their own industry and agriculture and with their own cultural amenities. Houses would be large and well built, with their own gardens.

If you look closely at Wythenshawe today, you can see distinctive features of its garden city design: hexagonal street layouts designed to make more efficient use of land; a strip of greenbelt to separate ‘garden city’ from ‘city’ (although this has now been eaten into by golf courses), and a tree-lined parkway road to carry cars to and from neighbouring Manchester, carefully landscaped to be inviting to pedestrians (now a forbidding motorway).

The maps show Wythenshawe’s development between 1938, 1954, 1967, 1977 and 1996, and they chart the gradual relinquishing of the garden city principles on which Wythenshawe was designed. In 1938, the extent of the pre-war development can be seen, alongside the extensive area of countryside still to be built upon. In 1954, the post-war building has commenced to the west and south west. By 1967, the majority of Wythenshawe’s housing has been built and its maximum population reached. A corridor of open land to the west shows where the motorway extension to the Princess Parkway will run, and an empty triangular space in the centre indicates where the long-awaited Forum centre will be built, complete with shops, a library, a swimming pool and a theatre. By 1977 the Forum has arrived, along with the M56 motorway and its spur to the airport, which together cut Wythenshawe in two and begin to seal it off from the countryside to the south. By 1996, the dramatic expansion of Manchester Airport and the arrival of a new railway line have finally removed the direct link between Wythenshawe and the countryside: the ‘city’ and its ‘garden’.

Despite Wythenshawe’s finished form being a significantly watered down version of the garden city ideal, aspects of its design – in particular the living space afforded by its houses and gardens – stand in favourable contrast to many modern developments, a fact not lost on the Real Lives campaign which is fronting Wythenshawe’s regeneration as ‘Manchester’s garden city’.

Maps © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2012). All rights reserved. Made available by the superb Digimap service, run by EDINA at the University of Edinburgh.

County Hall Island Block

John Bancroft’s 1970s extension to the former Greater London Council’s headquarters lay empty for exactly twenty years before being demolished in 2006 to make way for a hotel. Sitting in the middle of a busy roundabout at the southern end of Westminster Bridge, the County Hall Island Block was an early example of open-plan office space and could only be accessed from the outside by pedestrian subways. The building was inhabited for twelve years before the Greater London Council was abolished in 1986 and the Island Block was abandoned.

Mancunian Way

The Mancunian Way opened in 1967, putting a highway on stilts round the southern half of Manchester city centre. Two years later the road gained an award from The Concrete Society, but the most famous feature of the A57(M) is its slip road to nowhere. This would have sent eastbound traffic north into town along Upper Brook Street, which is one way in the opposite direction. Either the contractors failed to realise this, or there were plans to make Upper Brook Street two way that never made it off the drawing board. Nowadays the slip road stub makes a handy refuge area for anyone unlucky enough to break down on such a busy bit of road.

Maps © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2012). All rights reserved. Made available by the superb Digimap service, run by EDINA at the University of Edinburgh.

West Cross Route

The West Cross Route was one of the few short sections of the London Motorway Box to make it off the page. First conceived after the war, the Motorway Box was part of the London Ringways scheme, which mirrored plans in other cities up and down the country to build new, fast, orbital and radial roads to ease the urban gridlock caused by rocketing private car usage. By the mid 1960s comprehensive plans had been drawn up to run four concentric orbital Ringways around London. The West Cross Route would have formed the western section of the innermost Ringway 1 or Motorway Box, and was built in 1970 as the M41. Less than a mile long, it was designed to continue north east and become the North Cross Route (never built), and to be met from the south by the westernmost point of the South Cross Route (also never built). The roundabout stubs at the road’s northern end indicate where it would have continued.

The West Cross Route was one of only two sections of Ringway 1 to be completed, the other being the East Cross Route/Blackwall Tunnel Approaches between Hackney and Kidbrooke. The Greater London Council produced a leaflet in the mid 1960s, showing detailed plans for this part of the Motorway Box. The leaflet refers to the rest of the Ringways scheme as still very much a firm plan, but within ten years the entire project had been scrapped as Londoners began to witness first hand how urban motorways would transform their city.

This change in public opinion began at the Westway, a six-lane elevated road that meets the West Cross Route at its northern end and carries traffic east towards central London. Building the Westway had necessitated the demolition of hundreds of houses and was met with widespread public outcry which ultimately convinced Labour to drop plans for the Motorway Box when they gained control of the Greater London Council in 1973. The scale of the Westway, and the impact it had on the lives of those displaced by it or left living in its shadow, led to broader opposition to the London Motorway Box and was part of a sea change in public attitudes towards road building in general which would culminate in the protests at Newbury, Twyford Down and Leyton twenty years later.

Maps © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2012). All rights reserved. Made available by the superb Digimap service, run by EDINA at the University of Edinburgh.