Paul Unger Editor PlaceTech

Editor’s note: Reboot our city thinking

Extinction Rebellion’s takeover of Manchester’s busy Deansgate thoroughfare for four days generated more debate locally about pedestrianisation than the climate crisis. Paul Unger writes.

There was a mixed response veering from ‘at least they are doing something to save the planet’ to ‘what about disruption for commuters’. Few people contested how much nicer Deansgate was to closed traffic. Peaceful. Beautiful, even, owing to the potted plants that the protestors brought with them as a backdrop.

The city has had several goes at major transport overhaul. The council’s congestion charge bid defeated in a referendum in December 2008. The later city centre movement programme that made a few good changes such as closing one end of Deansgate to reroute traffic to the ring road but bad calls such as narrowing the other end which causes tailbacks as people cut angrily in between lanes to get through into the city.

Manchester’s Twitterati PR machine remains a cheerleading force that most towns and cities would give their hind teeth for, bigging up their city at every opportunity – ‘we deserve a Michelin star!’ – being honest I think the city centre is a bit of dump. Hostile, rarely easy on the eye, hard to get around whatever your mode of transport. The prime shopping drag, Market Street, is like Blade Runner remade, with competing random buskers and too packed to enjoy comfortably. And yet design quality rarely comes up in conversation with city leaders.

I partly blame the zonal approach of the past couple of decades that tackled sequentially this bit then that bit, leaving a series of developments abutting each other where the ‘back doors’ of schemes meet without any clear understanding of how they were meant to relate, let alone do it well.

Enter data, digital twins, all the new-fangled ways of improving our cities through technology and innovation. Some of the new wave of tools and techniques are covered in a separate piece I wrote.

Many of Manchester’s problems are echoed in cities around the world. One only has to read the local newspaper when travelling to see the arguments over ruined waterfronts, stalled stadium plans and inequality to know there is little unique about city planning in any city.

All the well-documented good design principles and clever passionate people that believe in them cannot save a place from civic decision-makers that are not interested.

Do we expect that simply because we can now measure the impact environment has on people who use it that better decisions will flow automatically?

Maybe it will, judgment will improve as information increases. How did that work for the science of climate change, or the economics of Brexit?

Compiling the business case, gathering the evidence of the benefits of new ways of working has never been more important or more within reach.

Then it needs the right advisors in the right rooms with the right people to get that message into the powerful hands where it can make a difference.

Just because a notion is right doesn’t mean it will be adopted. Just because it won’t be adopted doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

I look forward to reporting on the success stories as the changing discussion around healthy and enjoyable cities becomes part of the daily conversation in property, placemaking and politics.

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