Switching On: Will the City Cultivate or Smother its Culture?

Author: William Seabrook
Partisan’s Switching On series of webinars invites different panels of expert commentators and industry professionals to discuss issues around the built environment in Greater Manchester.
Warren Bramley
Creative director @ Cultural commentator
Mark Graham
Director @ LDA Design
Martin Stockley
Deputy Chair @ HS2 Design Review Panel
Does Success Displace Character?
How cities evolves is complex. It is a shifting set of relationships, and one of the most rewarding, and fraught, is between commerce and culture.

There is a cycle of development many cities experience, where creative industries and enterprises colonise run-down areas and make them desirable. This desirability translates into investment, which ultimately transforms the character of these areas beyond recognition.

These areas then become victims of their own success, pricing out the types of businesses and individuals who originally settled in them to repurpose them.
The challenge is to enable areas to develop but to still retain their essential character.
But the concept of preservation can be a tricky one, because a successful culture has to keep evolving.

“Nostalgia is a Disease”

Tony Wilson hated nostalgia. Too much reverence for an established culture can constrain contemporary cultural growth.

The danger is that one generation imprisons another in its concept of how the city should be.
Tony Wilson understood that creativity thrives on freedom from cultural baggage, and one of Manchester’s strengths has been its openness to new ideas.

However, not all new ideas are the best ideas when it comes to planning a city. Manchester remains an exciting place, because it is changing, but what is it changing into?
Success Versus Reality
The notion of a city’s success can become something very different, obscuring its reality. Sometimes the idea of success is stronger than the elements that contributed to that success in the first place.

The spread of this idea, principally through the media, ends up commodifying the city’s culture, which then ends up with one community supplanting another. In Manchester, glass towers are currently the most visible signifiers of success, so-called Manc-Hattan. But they are really only one aspect of the city.

Different things drive the success of cities: cultures, economies, communities. Each have their own narratives, but the danger is that development nurtures one at the expense of another.
The City is a Rainforest
The rainforest is an entire ecosystem, containing powerful and critical interdependencies. Trees may be the most visually conspicuous aspect of this ecosystem, but without a thriving forest floor, thousands of plants, animals and microorganisms could not exist.
Much rainforest soil is not, in itself, rich in minerals. When settlers cleared it of natural vegetation, they then found it could not support crops.
What makes rainforest thrive is its rapid nutrient recycling. When vegetation dies, it is broken down and returned to the system quickly and efficiently. There are unique relationships between plants, fungi and trees.

In the city, glass towers might indicate success, but what is happening at ground level to truly nurture this?

Like the rainforest, the city has its own complex ecosystem, in which culture plays a key role. Without culture, the built environment becomes a series of empty gestures.

A diversity of ideas and experiences build the culture of a place, and without them, the danger is that the culture becomes mono-dimensional and stagnates, and the life seeps out of the city.
The 15 Minute City
The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of neighbourhoods, but is this at the expense of the city’s future?

The challenge is to revive cities in an era of social distancing and massively reduced commuter footfall. One answer is the 15 minute city, based on reorganising the time of city-dwellers to improve both the environment and living conditions.

The idea is that various urban necessities should never be more than 15 minutes away, either by walking or cycling. It was developed by Professor Carlos Moreno, of the Sorbonne, in Paris. This vision has been put forward as a practical solution for Milan, by its mayor Giuseppe Sala. Localism is the key to survival in a crisis. With the importance of neighbourhoods now at the top of the agenda, can this influence how Manchester’s urban culture develops?

No city is ever complete. The attraction of cities is the opposite in fact, that they continue to evolve.
The big question is what aspects of this evolution can we, or should we, control, and what sort of city will emerge?
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