Monthly Archives: January 2015

Parks in Manchester, a suggestion for Castlefield

This piece was written as a response to the consultation for the Castlefield Regeneration Framework in Manchester:

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This response is to suggest three specific areas in which it would be useful to be more specific within the framework document: on the residential offer, on quality open space, and on connectivity.

The draft framework is explicit on the benefits of a height and massing hierarchy for new buildings in proximity to the rail viaducts, but other aspects of the framework are perhaps quite generic and could be further detailed to even better capture the opportunities of the area’s key characteristics.

In general, the Castlefield area offers an experience of changes in height, levels and scale which is not to be found to the same impressive extent elsewhere in the city centre. This unique physicality should be brought to the fore, celebrating its particular expression within the wider urban form. The rail viaducts in particular are monumental in scale, and it is not surprising that the middle area is widely used for filming due to its cinematic scale. However, the wider area has experienced less renown with a predominance of lower value uses which would normally be expected to be found beyond the inner ring road and not within a city core.

Green Infrastructure

The two rivers and the canals provide a variety of water courses and frontages which are difficult to find elsewhere in the conurbation core, combined in a manner which complements rather than copies Salford Quays, to which it is connected. The framework should use this feature as the defining basis for the area’s green infrastructure, including better linear riverside connectivity and quality open spaces reaching into the core. The schematic form of the draft framework is light on this aspect, with little shown beyond generalised boundary planting. The reference to 35 central parks is not a strong linkage, and within the framework discussions there would be benefit in exploring mechanisms to achieve quality open spaces which share the uplift in land values equitably between the various interests. Without a mechanism such as a trust or a joint venture, the provision of quality open space risks being borne unequally.

As well as green infrastructure being a deeper feature of the framework and feeding into quality open space and public realm, consideration should be given to the use of the metal unused rail viaduct next to the Metrolink route towards Cornbrook. Whether this should be open to the public would depend on a strategy to manage the area and any attendant risks, but even keeping it closed to public access it could nevertheless be planted in a manner similar to the High Line park in west New York, which was also a disused elevated railway track. Such planting could be within large containers to protect the structural integrity of the viaduct, using sculptural shrubbery with high-colour flowering shrubs to make an impact at a distance.

Connectivity

The linkages between the site and the Castlefield-Deansgate Metrolink station are mentioned but could be amplified, and could include an iconic feature which would define the experience of the area. The walking route from Metrolink, other than at road level across Deansgate, is through a high-level car park which spans Deansgate and enters Castlefield, walking to arrive at a metal stairwell or a lift, dropping considerably to ground level.

To the side of this metal stairwell, the suggestion is to build a skywalk which would take pedestrians at height into the area, either under or over the rail viaducts, to a destination on Liverpool Road next to the Museum of Science and Industry – MOSI. The design of the skywalk would be slim, tall and sleek, undulating as it approached MOSI. It would probably pass under the Manchester-Preston rail viaduct, mindful of the clearances needed for future rail overhead wire electrification if the walkway passed above. In concept it borrows for pedestrians from the Millau roadbridge in southern France, and would especially define the area in the minds of children visiting MOSI by tram.

Demographic Opportunities

The following discussion note was prepared in October 2009 and this framework provides a key opportunity to develop the residential offer of city centre living in a manner which is attractive to a wider and economically sustainable demographic.

Urban niche market opportunities for the active retired

In the field of urban regeneration there are discussions about sustainable future uses for some city-centre apartment schemes. In the last five years the growth in student renting as a niche market has been helpful, and this note is to suggest that a similar niche market could be developed for active older people, with some outline thoughts as follows, using the Castlefield area in Manchester as a case study.

Castlefield is often used as a film set, being an urban quarter with sensitive, historic and strategic features including Roman and industrial revolution connections. It has canal waterfronts, monumental transport viaducts, a YHA café, YMCA fitness centre and swimming pool, a major museum nearby plus the city centre core within walking distance – with close walkable access to the Concert Hall, Art Gallery, Royal Exchange and other theatres, Deansgate and King Street for premier shopping as well as main brand ‘metro’ supermarkets and the whole range of city centre attractions.

There could well be an opportunity in places such as this to be re-marketed with developments aimed at aspirational retired professionals looking to downsize, to let go of the car and drive less often (cars can be hired by the hour now), and to relocate their home in order to easily maintain their access to the prime leisure and cultural offers of the city centre while living in a quieter urban quarter with a waterfront or similar advantages. The fact that some developments are currently only built to shell allows for a re-thinking of some of the internal features. People with retirement income are less affected by the recession, with their purchasing power not dependent on current employment.

The internal fit-out could be informed by the Lifetime Homes standard. This might involve time costs in changed designs and drawings, but the property’s improved marketability will be worth the effort, as well as keeping a work flow for in-house design teams. More amenity space would also be attractive to older purchasers. There is sometimes adjacent underused land such as former car showroom sites which might make well-designed public and/or private open space.

The benefits of active frontages at the ground level are well documented, and a mix of small retail plus health care could be attractive and viable. In particular many city centres still need to build up the social infrastructure of GP or nurse-led health services. What could be key for prospective purchasers, along with covenants on occupation, will be visible, proactive and reassuring property management such as those with a concierge service.

October 2009 and March 2011

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“Delays in the Planning System”

I heard this awful phrase yet again yesterday. The dear old Today programme on BBC Radio 4 were interviewing someone about why so few new houses are being built.

It could equally have been an interview about the shortage of affordable housing. Or even the reason why pop songs are not quite as catchy as they used to be, when we were young. Trains are running late? Well, you see, it is all because of delays in the planning system.

When journalists get trained, are they hypnotised? I wonder, because all you have to say to them is the trigger phrase – delays in the planning system – and they go all quiet and gormless.

So, what is going on here?

Firstly, we know that more houses receive planning permission than are ever built. Like land banks, there are permission banks. Sometimes these are speculative, where the land owner is trying to increase the value of their land by obtaining permission in advance. But just because you have permission to build a copy of the Eiffel Tower in Runcorn, doesn’t mean anyone else thinks they can make money from doing it.

Secondly, the planning system is quasi judicial, with expensive barristers for when the going gets tough. But it is administrative law, mostly going up the chain to Ministers rather than up to the courts. And there is an inequality of arms: the big firms can afford to pay more for barristers than can local authorities, and big firms can hold the threat of recovering costs if the local authority is judged to have been unreasonable in its denial of permission.

So, thirdly, local authorities fight the planning lawyers with bureaucracy. Which leads us to having 27 policy documents and investigations before you can build that wonderful copy of the Eiffel Tower.

But, fourthly, perhaps the biggest factor and by far the least talked about is: location, location, location.

Basically the posh councils have a problem. Everyone living there asks just two things: keep the schools decent and don’t build any new houses near us. But all the house builders want to build in these same posh areas because good location equals good money.

The not-posh councils don’t have this problem, and are often grateful for anything that comes their way, even if the quality is woeful. We have all been on trains or in cars, going past new houses at 50 miles an hour where it is painfully obvious they are far too small to live in, our slums of the future.

So, in a nutshell, delays in the planning system is often code for trying to get permission in the posh areas, often in or near the green belt, where the local voters are saying “no more” and the council they have elected is trying to defend the area from the lawyers of all comers with just a few forms, policies, processes, and ever more meetings.

And finally, I would suggest that a better line of interviewing would challenge such bald statements about delays with the deeper question: does what we are doing currently help in sustainable development, or is it a just a sideshow about money?

Journalists, please note.