November 10, 2005 - From the November, 2005 issue

Bold, Thoughtful Design Helps Rebuild Manchester, England

The glory days of Manchester, England's, industrial past have long faded, and recent decades saw the city fall on hard times. Though many may have left Manchester for dead, a 1996 IRA bombing in the heart of the city had the unexpected effect of uniting and inspiring the city to rebuild and revitalize itself. City leaders focused on the downtown core and provided political cover for the international planning firm EDAW to give the city a new heart - one reliant on good design. In this exclusive TPR interview, EDAW's Jason Prior and City Council Leader Richard Leese explain how inspired planning brought new life to an old city.

Richard Leese

Manchester was one of the case studies featured at a recent Harvard conference dealing with the question, "Can design improve life in cities?" Richard, as the elected leader of your city council for the last decade, what has been the role of design in helping your city rebound from a terrorist attack in your city center in 1996?

Richard Leese: The bomb that took place in 1996 and damaged large parts of the heart of the city was, in some ways, just another event in the life of a city. It was a disaster, but it also created an opportunity to deal with a number of the long-standing problems that the city faced. We had serious problems of being a declining industrial city with deteriorating fabric in the heart of the city long before the bomb. At another session here at the Harvard symposium, we heard somebody talking about New Orleans, saying that it's unusual after a disaster to do anything other than simply rebuild as it was. The decision in Manchester – and this is where leadership comes in – was made within three days that we would not rebuild as was, that we would rebuild in a way that dealt with many of the planning mistakes that had been made in the '60s and '70s.

How was the challenge successfully framed by the City's political leaders to enlist followers to follow leaders and avoid simply rebuilding the old Manchester?

RL: For followers to follow leaders, you need to be leading them somewhere that they want to go. One thing disaster does is unleash an amount of emotional response and it must be harnessed. This was our message: "We're not simply going to rebuild. We're going to rebuild better than what was there before." That immediately gets an enormous response from people. That's the message they want to hear in those sorts of circumstances, and we used that energy and momentum in order to be able to do things very, very rapidly.

Jason, how was the city's charge to "do it better" translated into EDAW's master planning commission?

Jason Prior: I always start with the nature of place you're trying to create and not necessarily the results in urban fabric that a design necessarily might make. Actually, as it turned out, the plan was more about structure, usage, public places, and our ambition about what that might generate for the city. The building components and the details would all follow on. But, I think the key thing is that the structure we came up with responded to the nature and grain of the city as it was and then as it should be.

I think there was an organic tack back, almost backwards in time to get to a place that was more appropriate for where the city would be. But it also considered the ability to deliver that within, first, the timescale these guys were working to; and, second, I think the organizational structures particularly in terms of land ownership, etc. So, the city had set its ambition out very clearly, and I think our job was to interpret that both in terms of where the city would be as an entity and a place and then around that structure create the finest civic place that could go with it.

What I think was extraordinary about this was very clear leadership, very clear control, and then a very active debate, because we had to move very quickly. We had an appointment in November. They published a master-plan by February the following year so I think we went four months from the get-go to a strategy we show people on plan and in model and then evolve it in a live scenario that it was from that point.

This project was featured in a recent show at MoMA, and the video accompanying it began, "Imagine if we took out ‘x' amount of concrete . . . and ‘x' amount of asphalt..." Elaborate on the "imagine" phase of the planning? What are the building blocks of the city center plan?

JP: To me the "imagine" was that, with this opportunity, you can make imaginative moves about restructuring. I always think that we see cities as amazingly complex entities, and they are. But there are some underlying structural moves in there, and I think there are some frightening aspects of trying to make decisions around infrastructure. The "imagine" with Manchester was actually the underlying infrastructure. We made some very serious moves on that in terms of streets, buses, public transport, etc., but I think the real imagine was to create a framework and then just imagine your perfect vision of what a great European city might be like.

People want to live here, people want to bring their children up here, people want to sit in cafes, go to great shops, come to the theaters, stay all day. And to some extent we had sitting just off the green as it were, the antithesis of all that, which was an out of town shopping center that was going to provide major competition to the city. And we knew that culturally, and in the depths of what we might replicate in Manchester, to be everything that that place could not be. To some extent the dream was imagine the best city you can make, and go for it.


RL: In terms of the brief that was given to the design competition, you needed to identify what's wrong with the city center and I think that was relatively simple. We had a river that was almost invisible. We had a Medieval quarter but nobody knew about it. We had running up from the river a whole series of linear blocks that were completely impermeable at grade. We had a street that was probably the main street of the city but had no active frontages whatsoever. Around that, we had an environment that was very pedestrian-unfriendly that was dominated by traffic. It was probably those five things that were about it, really. So you address those five issues, and I think that at times there's a temptation to make these things harder than they really are. In this competition I think why the EDAW proposals won through was that they recognized the simplicity of what we were facing.

In last month's TPR, former Washington, D.C., planning director Andrew Altman explained how the client -- the mayor -- plays a critical the role in public-sector projects. What's has been your role as the council's leader in implementing this plan and this vision?

RL: The proper role is simply to set the parameters of the work and to monitor the delivery of it. We are directly responsible for that which is primarily public realm and the transport infrastructure, and we take responsibility for delivery. For everybody else, and this is principally the private sector, our role is to be as demanding as we possibly can be on what they can deliver. So, part of the good client is to be demanding. To be fair, that means we end up with developers and users, designers and architects who want to work and want to be in that sort of environment, and it then becomes win-win.

Is the plan a success, Jason?

JP: It is a success. If you just stand back from it, we achieved essentially what we wanted to create with the plan. And we did it on time and through a very demanding program. But I think my measure of success would be how people have responded to it. As Richard said earlier, the population of residential homes and people living in the city has grown exponentially. We've increased business investment, including headquarters facilities, hotels, you name it. There's been a level of reinvestment in the city center which spans across a vast range of land uses and types of people. The rate of tourism has grown exponentially. It's a place where conferences go. It's the second-most visited city in the U.K.

Through a whole range of people and interests it's become a place where people want to be. But I think the other measure of success was that there was no end to this process. Other people at different times have picked up the pattern and moved it on. The catalyst has acted in a way that I doubt any of us would have been brave enough to have forecast, because from flower markets to farmers markets to new areas of development to a level of spontaneity about how developers responded and how these things spread out.

I think we all in our innermost thoughts hoped it would get to that point, but that culture of action, that culture of "we can do this" has meant that an awful lot of people have worked out from that core and, as Richard said earlier, the city actually created that ambition elsewhere and realized it in the city center; then this wave has swept out from that point. So, there are numerous projects where you could say that the city is changing and you won't relate that back physically to the city center but you can relate it to this culture of change that started before that, moved through that, and kept going.

Richard, in addition to presenting at Harvard, you must have many officials from the United States and the world coming through Manchester. When officials come to visit or when you present this project, what do you offer as the central instructive lessons from Manchester's town center development experience?

RL: Leadership certainly, but probably above all else is having a long-term vision and a deliverable framework, because a lot people that work with us in Manchester including people that come from outside say that they find it easy to work in Manchester because they know where it is that we are trying to get to and how they fit into that. If there's one single message, it is that.


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