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Saturday, July 13, 2024

How Manchester Did It & How Preston Can Do It Too

Fewer than 600 people living in the city centre, which turned into a bit of a ghost town after the shops shut and commuters went home.

That was Manchester in the 1980s. Away from the university and polytechnic, the city was built for commerce with residential areas spanning out from the main roads leaving the centre heading towards Moss Side and Hulme, Salford and Cheetham Hill, Rusholme, Levenshulme and Longsight onto leafy Didsbury and Chorlton.

In the inner city core were run-down shops and streets, abandoned warehouses, bricked up pubs and clubs. The Northern Quarter (globally famous and successful now) was barely a glint in a hipster’s eye and was referred to, if at all, as Oldham Street, where the New Order boys somewhat bravely and optimistically (it seemed then) opened a posh bar called Dry.

Also way ahead of their time were 60 flats built on the roof of the Arndale Shopping Centre, a quirky anomaly in a city that never really catered for homes and families. They were demolished in the late 1990s, sadly, because visionary architects are just beginning to talk today of building homes on retail parks, on top of schools and shopping centres, using valuable, but free vertical space to maximise urban footprints.

Fast forward three decades and Manchester is boomtown; a genuine success story and regularly namechecked as one of the cool destinations on the planet. When you look around the city now and see all the gleaming new bars and boutiques, shiny glass-wall office buildings, the ever-expanding tram network it must seem to a visitor that it was ever thus.

But, it wasn’t and nor was it pre-ordained that Manchester would be a regeneration success story for the north of England and the UK.

Key to the city’s success is the inner city population explosion where those hardy 600 souls now number 50,000 and rising – a city within a city.

In the early 1990s, as the first warehouse conversions were taking place and developers began to price up the cost of a new residential building and ask themselves if it was worth it, you famously couldn’t find an open shop to buy a pint of milk after 6pm.

Today, shops and business, culture and leisure, all thrive thanks to the thousands of residents who find they have no need to venture more than 500 metres from their front doors to find anything they need to survive and thrive.

To make this happen, conscious decisions were made in City Hall to enable and encourage residential development. Public private partnerships made the most out of the derelict, but historic Victorian canals, mills, warehouses and commercial buildings of Manchester’s past.

It’s taken three decades and is a work in progress – as any major evolving city should be. There are serious lessons to be learned for a city such as Preston, a mere 35 minutes train ride from this megalopolis, and as development begins to happen the time to learn them is right now.

First, a serious rethink is required of the Markets Quarter development plan. It looks and feels like it was put together in the 20th century before good planning rules prioritised people over cars.

Today, Manchester “gives priority to pedestrians, disabled people and cyclists above the needs of the car and developers must take this into consideration.…in the location and design of any parking facilities. Developers will be expected to encourage and support walking, cycling and public transport use.”

At a property summit for Preston developers last month Mike Horner, of Muse Developments, said the near 600-space new car park being proposed alongside a new market, cinema and restaurants was an important enabling element of the Markets Quarter plan.

The fact is there are several massive car parks close to the market already that would surely meet demand for spaces. The prime car park site could be given over entirely to residential with a mix of uses overlooking both the new market and the ring road.

Preston Council’s City Centre Plan says: “Efforts must be made to reduce non-essential traffic. In reality however, like most city centres, a degree of congestion particularly at peak times is unavoidable.

“As growth and development will continue to be focused on the city centre, it is inevitable that there will be added strain on city centre roads. It is essential the highway network can manage this additional strain to produce reliable journey times.”

This policy seems to accept as inevitable gridlock and congestion and cars in the city. Whereas Manchester is very clear in encouraging development that promotes non-car use.

It’s 2017 and the start of a major infrastructure project vital to the success of the city centre that’s going to be used for decades to come.

Alternative transport technologies are being invented, we have the promotion of exercise for general health and well-being, the rest of Preston is slowly promoting pedestrianisation and it seems crazy we are accepting a 600-space multi-storey car park in such a prime location.

Preston Council has an easy opportunity to put down a really strong marker that kicks off its imminent City Living Strategy with a bang – homes for all right where they are wanted.

It’s a win-win situation since it creates an instant urban village and ready, regular customers for the new market, which must succeed for the future vitality and prosperity of Preston.

Can Mike Horner and the council really be confident out of towners will drive in from the suburbs to use the market instead of their local Tesco or Asda superstore? I’m not. And I suspect the car park convenience thinking is being driven by the cinema and not the market.

If you want an out-of-town multiplex fine; if you want a genuine, vibrant, popular city centre residential scene then ditch the cars and promote the alternatives like public transport and walking.

It’s not even a radical suggestion any more; it’s a no brainer.




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