Northern Quarter, Manchester
Category: The Great Neighbourhood Award 2011
Assessor: Bob Young
Date of Visit: 2010
1. While physically the neighbourhood itself is largely a product of the city’s development during and since the industrial revolution, the place the Northern Quarter is a product of a dialogue, of indeed a partnership, between the City Council and local businesses and residents in the mid-1990s. It is a prime example of place making in the literal sense
2. A mature governance framework now enables the City Council’s ambitions to be interpreted, moderated and melded with the myriad interests and aspirations of the communities of the Northern Quarter by its arms length City Centre Management vehicle CITYCO
3. The Northern Quarter’s history and its architecture have helped to shape its physical character and many of the uses it provides a home to and the area’s interplay between production, showcasing and consumption is probably unique in the UK
4. The NQ is indeed unique and distinctive, evincing a sparkling facet of Mancunian culture and identity and it provides a powerful example of cultural expression. displays a palpable strong sense of place and belonging, however dealing with the prevailing environmental challenges of parts of the neighbourhood with ongoing dereliction in the west and north and intrusive traffic penetration in the south and east remains a work in progress
5. Students of the creative industries who have emerged from the local colleges are entrepreneurial, setting up galleries, bars and music venues. Their evident hard work, intuition and business acumen has created value out of neglect and their efforts have intertwined with the risk taking of entrepreneurial developers and investors to energise a process which has shaped an urban environment of international significance yet one in which the winners remain sensitive to and accommodates the needs of the vulnerable and less fortunate
The Northern Quarter (NQ) is characterised by a strong municipal leadership and an equally strong business and cultural dynamic the interplay of which over the last 20 years has driven the renaissance of this complex neighbourhood, formerly encompassing the city’s wholesale markets and retail centre, as it recovered from the out migration of these major uses in the 1960s and 70s. The release of huge amounts of vacant floor space, a collapse in footfall and investment starvation delivered falling values and low rents – a combination of which, together with a fairly relaxed attitude on the part of the then City planners, created an attractive canvas on which nascent businesses and a brash Mancunian creativity combined to form the foundations of a new destination at the start of the 1980s.
It appears that during the 80s a virtual anarchy pervaded the NQ whilst the City Council was distracted by Mrs Thatcher’s assault on municipal localism. However, when the City Council emerged all the stronger and more purposeful in the I990’s with its municipal tram initiative and a determination to master plan and manage the City out of the economic doldrums, this was not wholly appreciated in the NQ. Here apparently, initial resistance to the Council’s new found appetite to deliver “big” local government stimulated the disparate ambitions and scattered interests of those who had been rebuilding the neighbourhood to form the NQ Association to engage the Council and influence its aims and activities. The NQ Regeneration Strategy of 1994 is held by those with long memories to represent the outcome of this engagement and it appears to have established a durable and flexible framework for change which subsequently enabled the NQ to weather the bombing of the adjacent Arndale centre and Corporation Street in June 1996 and to attract substantial UK Government and European subventions as well as genuine private investment.
Over the last 15 years since the IRA bomb, the City as a whole has exhibited a surge in confidence and collective self belief without parallel in the UK. The palpable municipal dirigisme that has developed, driven and steered this exemplar in whole city place making and has projected it towards the first division of world cities has cocooned key neighbourhoods with a benign imperative to ratchet them up to match the City’s expectations of their potential. The Northern Quarter par excellence displays how that process has been managed to secure overwhelmingly popular economic and environmental progress whilst accommodating dissent and managing conflict.
Indeed even amongst the dissenters there is an acknowledgement that the City Council has largely protected the area from the “developer greed” of the “Naughties” compromising the character of the area. A mature governance framework now enables the City Council’s ambitions to be interpreted, moderated and melded with the myriad interests and aspirations of the communities of the Northern Quarter by its arms length City Centre Management vehicle CITYCO. This framework also oversees the needs of vulnerable young partygoers who have missed the last bus and day drinkers and substance abusers whose apparently unshakeable attachment to the neighbourhood has become a Manchester institution.
Whilst crime and street nuisance, unsightly gap sites and derelict buildings remain serious issues and the transformation achieved in many other parts of the city centre, such as Canal Street and Castlefield, has not yet become a feature of the NQ, its individuality has been thankfully maintained against the forces of corporate exploitation, so much a feature of elsewhere and so feared in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast for instance. The Northern Quarter clearly exhibits ample evidence of inclusivity and fairness. Its strength lies in it being truly a place where the independent sector holds sway. It is a working neighbourhood and an international destination in its own right, a place where local people and visitors from afar can buy high quality, unusual products, stay in expensive hotels or cheap hostels, enjoy excellent music and food, and be stimulated by the youthful edginess and alternative offering that has become a feature of the Manchester “Buzz”.
The NQ is indeed unique and distinctive, evincing a sparkling facet of Mancunian culture and identity and it provides a powerful example of cultural expression which hits all the Academy’s buttons. The NQ displays a palpable strong sense of place and belonging, however dealing with the prevailing environmental challenges of parts of the neighbourhood with ongoing dereliction in the west and north and intrusive traffic penetration in the south and east remains a work in progress.
All age groups were in evidence at different times of the day and night during our visit but we found that street vibrancy and active frontages in the west and centre of the NQ give way to a lighter footfall with less overlooking but with more dominant vehicular traffic and bus activity in the east. “Grittily urban” aptly describes the prevailing character of the NQ though in a couple of places a stand of mature trees softens the uncompromising intrusiveness of a sixties multi storey car park. However our hosts sadly acknowledged that Stevenson Square remains riven by through traffic as the City Council continues to struggle with achieving comprehensive rationalisation of the access and servicing requirements of the City centre’s businesses.
The NQ provides an outstanding example of an environment conducive to the creation and distribution of wealth. Galleries, bars and music venues have in many cases been set up by students of the creative industries emerging from the City’s colleges. Their evident hard work, intuition and business acumen has created value out of neglect and their efforts have intertwined with the risk taking of entrepreneurial developers and investors to energise a process which has shaped an urban environment of international significance yet one in which the winners remain sensitive to and accommodates the needs of the vulnerable and less fortunate. Manchester’s welcome to inward investment and challenge to existing local landowners and investors to back the City’s vision by taking more risk has been enormously successful. The impact of investment has been successfully moderated however by the City’s approach to urban design coding, conservation area declaration and city centre management through CITYCO’s hands on clienting of design servicing and maintenance of the public realm.
Business and residential stakeholders we met acknowledged that the churn of a 24 hour mixed-use mixed-tenure dynamic local economy necessitated a modus vivendi requiring tolerance and understanding from everyone and they believed this was generally in evidence. The exploitation of the robustness of many of the buildings, especially for residential, loft and leisure and the intriguing insertion of new uses into the listed shells of the markets is an exemplar of the sustainable use of space and resources. The NQ exhibits leading edge examples of sustainable new buildings as well as conversions of existing that have employed environmentally conscious techniques and materials.
It would be hard to find a better connected neighbourhood in the UK exhibiting as it does a strong offer of transport modes and accessible destinations. Uses and places appear to have danced with each other in the NQ over the last 50 years and that process continues. Many of those uses have now changed creating a new transect which still reinforces the NQ’s distinctive, though different, function and flavour.
No formal established links but we observed evidence of a rich and rewarding two way flow between the businesses and urban creatives and the City’s colleges. We found the exposure and interaction craft and design creatives with a strong and diverse music scene was leading to an alignment of interests to develop a shared prospectus for mutual benefit. This has been encouraged by the City Council’s sponsorship of a broad cultural agenda the apotheosis of which is the Manchester biennial Festival
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