Piccadilly Labour took hold of the City Council

Piccadilly Gardens is the largest public space in central Manchester, located between Market Street and the Northern Quarter at the heart of the city’s main shopping and entertainment precinct. It is the first area of open space that one encounters heading into Manchester after arriving at Piccadilly train station, and is a terminus for a number of key bus and tram routes from other areas of the city and outlying suburbs. The site  first became a green space in 1936, when a garden of cherry trees and rose beds was installed following the demolition and relocation of the Manchester Royal Infirmary. Benches traced the perimeter of the garden, facing inwards towards a stone fountain at the centre, installed in the Jubilee year of 1953. LS Lowry’s 1954 painting (fig. 1) depicts the space as a pleasant one, where families, dog-walkers and individuals could “stand and sit together, interact and mingle, or simply witness one another” (Young, 1990: 240). From the 1960s onwards, however, rising unemployment caused visible homelessness, alcoholism and drug abuse to become evident in the Gardens. Notionally, these social problems were exacerbated by the ‘sunken’ nature of the space, as constructed upon the footprint of the former Infirmary’s basement. 

Like many of the UK’s northern industrial cities, Manchester’s economy was heavily damaged by the neoliberal economic restructuring of the 1970s and 1980s. After Labour took hold of the City Council in 1984, municipal socialists in Manchester were amongst the first that sought to use the local state “as the primary site of resistance to the Thatcher government” (Quilley, 2000: 601). When, however, in 1987 the Labour Party lost the General Election, the Council was forced towards an accommodation with the national government, all but abandoning municipal socialism in favour of “a pragmatic acceptance of property-led strategies for urban regeneration” (Atherton, Baker & Graham, 2005: 71). Globalisation had created “an unavoidable climate of competition” (Williams, 2000: 489), pitting cities against cities, regions against regions (Quilley, 2000). The City Council consequently formed an alliance with Manchester’s business community, and throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, operated what has been described as a high-octane, entrepreneurial mode of governance (Williams, 2000; Gibbs, Jonas & While, 2002). This saw the City focus on new sources of economic growth: namely, “financial, professional, and producer services; leisure, cultural industries, and the media; and the retail sector, high technology, science, and higher education.” (Williams, 2000: 489) Moreover, Manchester sought to re-market itself internationally as a favourable “location for business, leisure and consumerism—a ‘world class’, ‘twenty-four-hour city’.” (Byass, 2010: 73) This was to be achieved partly through a revitalisation of the City Centre and the development of a new commercial quarter that would revolve around, and draw character from, Piccadilly Gardens as a central focal point (EDAW, 1999, cited in Byass, 2010). 

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In the wake of an IRA bomb attack in 1996, an international competition was set up for the redesign of Piccadilly Gardens, the eventual winners of which were landscape architects EDAW and the renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando (Batho, Williams & Russell, 1999). The project was funded by the sale of a small parcel of land on a 250-year lease to Legal & General Assurance Limited for the construction of a new commercial building—now known as the Pavilion Building—along the south edge of the Gardens (Williams, 2002). Avoiding the perceived pitfalls of the old design, EDAW wanted to construct a more functional space. They envisaged the new Piccadilly Gardens as a hub of movement and connectivity, driving economic growth in the City Centre and communicating to the world Manchester’s identity as a “post-modern, post-industrial and cosmopolitan city” (Atherton, Baker & Graham, 2005: 72). Their vision was fulfilled: the redeveloped space has attracted substantial private investment, corporate tenants, city centre residents and tourists since its unveiling in 2002 (Williams, 2000). As Rowland Byass notes, “the design’s attention-grabbing geometry (fig. 2) is eminently reproducible; it is a landscape of representation with one eye on a wider audience who will view it in images rather than in the experience of the space.” (Byass, 2010: 82) From an investment perspective, and as a landscape of spectacle, the new Gardens are undoubtedly a success. 

Moving down to ground level, the Gardens are extremely heavily used, their paths forming major thoroughfares for pedestrian traffic moving through the centre of Manchester. Not only this, in the summer months, many come to the Gardens to eat lunch, meet friends or let their children play:

“On a nice, sunny day Piccadilly Gardens is just wall-to-wall people… and the kids in their summer holidays you’ll see them jumping around in the fountain. For a lot of kids that don’t get a holiday, coming down to Piccadilly gardens is part of their holiday.” (reference interview)

Though human activity breaths life into the Gardens, their atmosphere varies with the weather: on cold or wet days the space is completely empty, and feels bleak, grey and agoraphobic. In addition to this, due to the sheer numbers of people moving through the space on a daily basis, the lawns are more often than not trampled and muddy. In this way, “… they Piccadilly Gardens have been a victim of their own success. An unused space has become an overused space. The reason the paper The Manchester Evening News can show pictures of bare earth where there should be grass is that the gardens are now phenomenally well used.” (Leese, 2016) Attempting to marry the old Garden’s role as a bounded, secluded space of contemplation with new aims of connectivity and growth has ultimately not worked. Piccadilly Gardens no longer looks, and is rarely used, like a garden should be. As one councillor noted: 

“Some people have suggested that we rename Piccadilly Gardens ‘Piccadilly Square’ to fit more in line with how it’s used now, but renaming it wouldn’t change anything… how you design space and how you use it has to reflect a practical reality. It’s not going to be an oasis of quiet in the middle of the city anymore… there’s just too many people using it.”

What kind of public space is Piccadilly Gardens supposed to be? This is not an easy question to answer. Despite serving a clear public function, the Gardens look and feel much like a corporate plaza, with No. 1 Piccadilly and the City Tower looming over them from the east and south sides respectively. Even EDAW seemed confused, variously referring to the space in their 1999 planning report as a ‘twenty-four hour park’, a ‘key transport interchange’, a ‘City Garden’ and a ‘square’ (EDAW, 1999, cited in Byass, 2010).