Monday, 22 August 2011

Urban Degeneration

Swift has been the response from government and city fathers to the damage caused by looting and riot in Manchester on the night of 9 August. zero tolerance, retribution, firm staterments of intent have been deployed to outline a strategy of 'business as usual'. But what business? Planning policies that marginalise the status of the war dead and represent the administration of the law as just another lifestyle option in the bureaucratic-commercial complex. This is the debased state of the civic landscape in Manchester after nearly a quarter of a century of trickledown urbanism.

I refer, of course, to my perennial hobbyhorse of the pitiful quality of public space in the city. I remarked in my book 'Urban Ethic: Design in the Contemporary City' on the predictably poor examples of contemporary public space which Manchester had produced in the decade after the 1996 IRA bomb. A further five years on, after countless more CABE design review sessions, and a gravy train of expensively remunerated consultants can we discern that the situation has improved? Economic slump has probably slackened the pace, and austerity measures have trimmed the consultancy budgets but terrible judgements in taste and dubious values continue to produce cynically compromised projects.

The proposal for St. Peter's Square, Manchester, has been discussed elsewhere but the question might seriously be asked that if Charlie Gilmour deserves 16 months in prison for desecrating the Whitehall Cenotaph what would be an appropriate term be for those planners and traffic engineers who are unable to cope with the inconvenient position of the Manchester Cenotaph and propose chucking it aside in their own transport tantrum?

At the other end of what was once a great civic route Crown Square has been looted of all dignity. Surrounded by taller and vulgarly aggressive neighbours, chav-ery erected into a form of city-building, the sombre dignity of L.C. Howitt's Crown Court is now confronted by a weirdly rustic haven 'The Oasthouse'. This bizarre intrusion into the public space - yet another pub in a city drowning in licensed premises - makes a permanent feature of last Christmas's temporary 'ski lodge'. Every scrap of available space in the city has to be turned into a source of income and be available to the highest corporate bidder. Respect for the law? Get another round in - and make mine a large one!

It is at least a decade since Manchester's exclusive new apartments took shape behind hoardings lined with warnings on how to avoid drink-fuelled urban violence but the continuing situation at ground level shows no sign of improvement. An apparently non-judgemental state shelled out support for the unloved offspring of one night stands between rampant developers and architects with the metre running, planning authorities observing this messy congress like panting voyeurs. Illiterate to every sense of urban value or decorum the resulting monsters require the most exclusive brands to achieve the most lucrative turnover. Manchester City Council now appears to exist primarily to facilitate the expansion of these corporate brands, and predictably then feigns shock when chaotic individuals mistake this service as a free offer. The misreading of private commerce as the public realm, the downgrading of the collective against the encouragement of individual gratification, preferably paid for on credit, is the degraded cause of our urban malaise.