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Piccadilly Gardens Redevelopment Stalls Again

It could just be that the old gardens were a happier place which served the exact need a public space should fulfill.

Plans drawn up in 2017 to knock down the infamous concrete wall which runs across the southwest side of the Gardens have been cancelled in another disappointing move by developers.

Legal and General, a financial services company, submitted their plans in July 2017 and in early March 2019 have withdrawn their applications due to some considering their scheme to not be cost-effective for them at this time.

Their plans sought to address some of the issues which have been to subject of public complaints for the past two decades such as:

  • Removing the existing Pavilion building and feature wall and replacing them with two new Pavilion buildings linked by a covered area of new public space for year-round use.
  • Improving lighting around the Gardens to deter anti-social behaviour and improve natural surveillance. Greater Manchester Police have been consulted on the design.
  • Creating extra seating throughout the Gardens for public use.
  • Introducing extra ‘soft landscaping’, including new shrubs and plants.
  • Addressing damage to pavements and grass by raising the grassed areas and relaying pedestrian thoroughfares.
  • Bringing family-themed restaurants and a new coffee outlet to the new Pavilion buildings, seven units in total.

Important amongst this list of proposed changes is a glaring fact which enters into the debate over public space: the issue of anti-social behaviour and, by extension, the moral panic engendered when an area becomes perceived by the public as unsafe for individuals and families past a certain time in the evening.

Tied within this are other structural and societal problems relating to drug use, which, along with the mismanagement of public funds in running the Gardens, lead to a disintegration of trust in the authorities. In short, the public space will always appear to hold a city’s problems, so it is incumbent upon city bosses to get it right to prevent ill-feeling and a sense of chaos.

The last objective of the list would be the primary reason for the investor interest – the economic return. Overall, the goals of the failed development are ambitious and necessary considering the frustrations of the public over its mismanagement.

At the time of the proposed development, Bill Hughes, Head of LGIM Real Assets cited their reasons for taking on the task: “L&G has a longstanding track record of working with progressive local authorities to bring forward regeneration and improvements to social infrastructure projects. We see Piccadilly Gardens as a prime example of this kind of collaboration in action.”

Although a proper and more detailed explanation as to why the money does not seem to be worth the investment anymore is yet to be heard, Legal and General seemed to be an optimistic choice should it have been necessary to seek corporate cash for the renovations.

The growing desire for the Gardens to be renewed was kick-started when a photograph of the area taken in the mid-1970s made the rounds on social media, comparing it to the current state of affairs. Chief among the differences was the large concrete wall which alone stands as a metaphor for the tragic and bewildering planning which went into the present design of Piccadilly Gardens.

Although the photograph which showcased the Versailles-esque flower-beds and ornamental fountains and Victorian style park benches may just evoke a sense of nostalgia, which is a powerful motivator when you are greeted by a 15-foot wall on a walk through the city centre – it could just be that the old gardens were a happier place which served the exact need a public space should fulfill.

Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, has seemingly understood this need for what we could call ‘useless’ or non-profit-driven space: “Piccadilly Gardens is a major thoroughfare used by hundreds of thousands of people a week and, for all the debate it generates, it remains a well-used public space. Clearly, though, there is potential for improvement and we look to ensure that this is achieved to deliver a welcoming and attractive destination in its own right.”

By admitting that the Gardens deserves to be a place which “in its own right” should be cared for, he shows the necessity for public space to be left to what the public want to make of it.

A Question of Space

Designing, building and delivering a public space which satisfies a demand above that of individual profit is a difficult task. Writer and commentator Will Self has been one of many voices trying to bring attention to the continuing ‘alienation’ of public space. Fortunately, the land of Piccadilly Gardens itself is owned and run by Manchester City Council, however some criticise the corporatisation of the space.

From the coffee shops to the ring of food outlets surrounding it, increasingly we see the Gardens are being used as a prop to support and direct attention towards retail space nearby. On the Manchester City Council website, the page for the Gardens has in its description for the location a list of the businesses occupying the shop space in its environs. This open advertising is referenced by Will Self:

“So much of our time in modern urban existence is defined by a very simple metric: time and money. And it seeps into our consciousness. And when we are constantly moving around in spaces that are privately controlled, which is in essence ‘monetising the space’, there’s a subconscious awareness of that […] it undercuts your sense of a public provision.”

To reiterate, although the Council has control of Piccadilly Gardens, and the former developers Legal and General even referred to the Council as “progressive”, it’s still a fact that the centrepiece of development always seems to be maximization of marketable space and thus a reduction in purely public – or ‘pointless’ or ‘profitless’ – space.

Whatever is next for the Gardens is unclear. There could be another bidding period with another round of corporate investors or the Council could draw up its own plans. Whether there will be a more thorough consultation period is also unclear, but the resounding response to the question ‘What should we do with Piccadilly Gardens?’ shall often receive the answer: ‘Tear down this wall!’

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