Creating a city centre community

Since I first arrived in Manchester, the issue of families living in the city centre has pre-occupied me. Only seeing the same narrow range of ages on the faces in the lifts of the new-build block of apartments where I lived really unsettled me. Growing up in the remote countryside, where there were more sheep than humans, I’d always wanted live in a city, where people were. But having arrived in the city, only some of the people were there, so to speak.

This was thrown into sharp relief when I visited Barcelona (don’t worry, this is NOT a post about sports-led regeneration and aspirational cafe culture!) and wandered just a little off the beaten track and took a couple of hours to amble through the suburbs not too far from the tourist trail. Just a few minutes from the thronging tourist hotspots were streets of mixed age households, with older people peacefully sat round watching the world go by and small children playing footy, with parents watching over close by.
My holiday memories are almost certainly idealised and naturally are tainted by traveller-vision, but what struck me at the time was how far this situation is removed from that in Manchester city centre, and how sad that is.

I now live in a suburb where there are independent grocers, a well-used park, and a primary school, with people of all ages and a mix of income levels and lifestyles. And being a worthy, Mike Leigh-watching, Guardian-reading type, I love it. But… I miss the excitement of the centre. I want the best of both worlds –  being around exciting, creative, noisy happenings in a famous, dynamic city, but I also want the people living next door to not be uniformly aged 18-35, professional and well-off. The city centre still feels like a cosmopolitan playground, and I think it’s poorer for it.

That’s why news like this excites me greatly. Manchester City Council is considering the redevelopment of the soon-to-be-vacant Granada site, and they’ve raised the idea of creating – making the most of the considerable site – a new ‘family neighbourhood’ for the city centre. Interestingly, official efforts were actually being made to re-populate the city centre as early as the 1970s, with the purposeful inclusion of the Cromford Courts as part of the original design for the Arndale. But against the realities of getting families to settle in the city centre – the chicken and egg scenario of supplying family services in  new neighbourhood (if you don’t provide the services, families don’t move in, if they don’t move in there’s no need for the services),  the vanishing financial possibilities for any large scale redevelopment that isn’t a backed by a single large investor, and a general observable reluctance for young families to remain in the city centre – it is encouraging to see the idea floated by those who could make it happen. Moves are also afoot on the other side of the city, with Manchester Grammar School committed to supporting the creation of new quality school in New Islington to attract families to the neighbourhood.

It’s not much yet, and development of all kinds is as slow now as it’s been in the city for perhaps 30 years, but it’s cheering to see these baby steps. The greater challenge will be to make sure that of the quite homogeneous demographics of the city centre –  18-35, professional and well-off – more than the first one changes – I want to see fully mixed neighbourhoods in the middle of Manchester.

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