Manchester city centre is experiencing exponential growth, but for how long, and what kind of legacy might it create?
These questions were already on the table before the pandemic. Now, looking at the impact of Covid-19, the question of what sort of city we want seems more and more relevant.
One thing keeps cropping up: communities and the part they should play.
Can a Post-Covid Community Consensus Survive?
The Government has recognised the strength of community response during the Covid-19 crisis.
It has emphasised the essential part community life plays in the health and wellbeing of the nation.
Lockdown made many people much more aware of the need for social connections, for neighbours, and for having a sense of belonging.
You could see this as a source of optimism, and even the start of a more widespread grassroots activism, where people help support and drive the development of their own communities.
This extends to business too, with many local cafes and restaurants benefitting from the Eat Out to Help Out initiative. This localism includes retail in general, with research suggesting that UK consumers trust local products more.
But community consensus now has had to contend with rapidly changing rules surrounding social distancing and other restrictions.
It’ll be ironic if it turns out that it took a national, blanket lockdown to stimulate local community feeling, and now it’s a more regional approach that is threatening to damage it.
We have the potential for multiple divides: between rule-followers and rule-flouters; between people following guidelines and those who think the whole thing is a conspiracy. There are divisions brewing too between the young and old; between those who are asymptomatic, and those for whom the virus may be life-threatening.
Most of all, everyone is tired of Coronavirus. This, more than anything else, is causing the edges to fray.
What we should try and retain is the promise of something significant – something that was there in how different communities responded originally.
Will There be a Positive Legacy?
Localism is a powerful thing, and if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that certain kinds of issues can spur people into positive action and change their mindset, for a period at least.
Is this important?
Coming back to the issue of regeneration, the role communities can play is vital.
For town and city centres to be liveable spaces for regular people, they need to nurture and serve local communities.
Attracting masses of investment is not, in itself, enough to sustain any city that wants to have some sort of enduring identity and character.
The city is an ecosystem, and upsetting its balance could have long-reaching consequences.
Life and Commerce
A recent article indicates that Manchester city centre’s residential market remains in reasonable health despite the pandemic.
Demand for rental property outstrips supply by five to one, and the city centre population is predicted to continue its dramatic rise.
What Covid-19 may have done is made potential renters much more discerning, since wherever they choose to live, they may find themselves pretty much confined to it for stretches at a time.
But in the city’s ecosystem, the high rise apartments and impressive skyscrapers will only continue to be desirable if they offer access to a vibrant culture with plenty of amenities to match.
This is where the city’s future starts to seem less certain.
If its hospitality sector is hollowed out by stop-start lockdowns and a general need for people to protect themselves, how will this ultimately affect the city’s value as a place to invest in? Similarly, retail is not in the best of health, and footfall continues to be down.
Ultimately, residents are only one part of the city’s ecosystem, and it’s hard to see how soaring property values will maintain their upwards trajectory if these same residents have less places to go where they can enjoy the fruits of their labour.
The Multi-faceted City
Cities have always been places of light and shade, of fantastic wealth and opportunity but also poverty and crime. People of all social backgrounds and demographics experience the city. It is multi-faceted.
Consequently, regeneration with any sort of positive legacy in mind, must recognise this and recognise the diversity of the communities that occupy and live in the city.
And when it comes to regenerating places, it shouldn’t be just a case of extending the tentacles of investment outwards and changing areas beyond recognition. Regeneration needs to add value to more people than just property investors.
What Do Vital Communities Need?
Modern lifestyles keep changing. It wasn’t Covid-19 that caused the crisis in so many regional high streets, it was changes in how people were shopping that were already well underway.
But this has echoes in current responses to Covid-19. There’s still a drive to try and achieve a semblance of normality based on the old model.
But is that the right way to look at it? If the residential market in Manchester city centre is still holding up, shouldn’t this provide the impetus to think of how to redesign the city around its residents?
This means thinking beyond the individual building project, and whether it’s a stone’s throw from established amenities.
It means looking too at what those amenities should be, including things like green spaces and cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.
Already, there is plenty of thinking supporting this approach to regional town centres and smaller population concentrations. Is Manchester city centre too big for vibrant communities, or can we start to change how it works and how people use and experience it?
Strong placemaking principles need to apply, with a better understanding of how communities can help to drive lasting urban regeneration.
A Partisan Approach
We’re a Manchester-based brand consultancy, and we want to support and promote change in our cities and towns, by helping to find positive solutions that will sustain future development.
For more information, please call us on 0161 860 7010, or email firstname.lastname@example.org