Piccadilly Gardens, in central Manchester, is, according to the Manchester Evening News, the square that shames the city.
However, the negative aspect that the MEN highlights are almost exclusively to do with the social problems that the Gardens seem to attract.
Should these detract from its value as a public space, at a time when such areas are rapidly disappearing from cities and towns across the country?
The Garden of Earthly Delights
Hieronymus Bosch painted The Garden of Earthly Delights between 1450 and 1500. It is a triptych and its three panels depict Paradise or Eden on the left, Hell on the right, and in the centre, a large landscape of lust and indulgence.
Here, there is giant fruit, naked people frolicking and riding on the backs of giant animals and birds.
It is Bosch’s depiction of what happens when we give in to our temptations and basest desires, with the right panel of Hell showing the consequences.
Piccadilly Gardens is, in its own way, a location for earthly delights, though these are considerably less striking and altogether gritter than those in Bosch’s painting.
The problem with current criticisms of Piccadilly Gardens is that they focus on the consequences of people’s actions, rather than what the space itself represents, or even what it could be.
Disappearing Public Spaces
Where once there would have been plenty of green space in built-up centres, now these locations are disappearing, often supplanted by what are quasi- or pseudo-public spaces.
What defines these pseudo-public spaces?
They have emerged on the back of investment restructuring in the UK’s towns and cities and they represent a loss of public space and its potential for cultural use.
Typically, they appear to be normal squares, parks or thoroughfares, when in fact they are privately-owned and often policed by the owner’s own security arrangements.
They may be open to the public but, because they are privately-owned, they are not subject to local authority by-laws. Instead, the private owner determines and enforces restrictions of their own.
Does this matter, if the public can still access them?
Yes, definitely, because these landlords are not obliged to disclose their regulations, but can still enforce them, deciding what is or is not acceptable for anyone who uses these spaces.
Therefore, you could end up infringing rules you are unaware of, and find yourself being moved on by private security guards.
Piccadilly Gardens as an Authentic Public Space
No one would argue that Piccadilly Gardens is in any way perfect. Its current design and layout is a curious combination of greenery, commerce and a touch of brutalism.
However, it is a genuine public space, located at the heart of the city following the demolition of the Royal Infirmary and Mental Asylum in 1908.
Despite the lurid stories of crime, drugs and drunkenness, it still attracts plenty of people and families who just want to sit and socialise, or take some time to themselves amid the bustle of the city centre.
Compared to the manufactured neutrality of Spinningfields’ common areas, Piccadilly Gardens still has vivid personality.
This is a deceptively complex character. It wants to present itself neatly but is frayed at the edges. It attracts and repels in equal measure. But above all, it feels real.
Its delights are definitely down to earth.