Blog: 29 November 2016Creating neighbourhoods: Lessons to learn from Manchester

Steven Whitehouse

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Steven Whitehouse

Urban Design Associate Director

Manchester office

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It has now been 20 years since the IRA bomb devastated Manchester City Centre. Since then, Manchester has been at the forefront of growth and regeneration; culminating in the residential population of the City Centre soaring by 20,000 in the decade to 2011.  This rapid increase is even more remarkable when considering the population of the City Centre in 1990 was in the region of just 500.  As the City continues to grow and expand beyond its inner ring road, now seems like the perfect opportunity to reflect on its successes and the challenges it faces in delivering balanced city centre neighbourhoods. 

2002 seems like a lifetime ago, I have vague memories of the City being hit by several earthquakes, the Manchester Commonwealth Games, and Manchester United not winning the League.  I can also remember ambitious regeneration plans being unveiled to transform the mills of Ancoats and equally impressive plans to deliver the adjoining New Islington Millennium Village. Both these developments show just how long it can take for good design intentions to evolve into successful neighbourhoods. Iconic architecture, tough industrial looking public realm design and historic landmarks have sat tellingly alongside derelict buildings and vacant land.­­­­  Now, as almost 14 years have passed, the areas are beginning to mature into truly liveable urban neighbourhoods - offering quality housing, public spaces, public transport connectivity and community facilities all within touching distance of Piccadilly.  The arrival of Islington Primary School is a rare and welcomed example of a new primary school in Manchester City Centre and surely a necessary ingredient to help this area become Manchester’s first balanced city centre neighbourhood.


In Castlefield, arguably the City Centre’s original residential neighbourhood, Manchester has successfully cultivated a thriving community through supporting business activity and continued investment in tourism, leisure and the evening economy.  Not surprisingly, the area has long since been synonymous with Manchester’s younger, often transient, city dweller.  Its clear desirability amongst this demographic has allowed the perceived boundaries of Castlefield to expand beyond the seemingly impermeable barrier that is the Mancunian Way and with some degree of success.  I am sure this is at least partly due to the presence of the Bridgewater Canal, and with it, the ability for pedestrians to avoid the worst of Manchester’s rush hour traffic.  Attempts at regeneration beyond the Mancunian Way in this location must be seen as a positive, especially as Manchester now starts to focus its attention towards the large areas of industrial and vacant land stretching along the ship canal from the edge of Castlefield towards Media City.  Developments such as Peel Holdings’ ‘Manchester Waters’ scheme, the future regeneration of Pomona Docks and the Ordsall Riverside Masterplan on the opposite side of the Ship Canal provide a huge opportunity to deliver a new sustainable city neighbourhood.  Ultimately, its success will be dependent on the ability to deliver not just apartments but a mix of house types, public space and all the necessary social infrastructure needed to help support a balanced community.  

One unifying aspect of much of Manchester’s future residential regeneration will be provision of Private Rented Sector (PRS) accommodation, which will play a key role in helping to address at least one major aspect of our acute housing problem.  The private rented sector should provide an opportunity to take a much longer term view to delivering new city neighbourhoods, enabling us to surely plan for the necessary social and physical infrastructure through long term masterplans.  Although this should be a priority, some examples of PRS in Manchester and other cities around the country do not transfer these longer term objectives into development proposals which are capable of the truly knitting into and enhancing our existing urban and social fabric. Perhaps this is due to little understanding of how good urban design can contribute to a developers’ value uplift in long term rental or sales. In Ancoats and Islington Millennium Village, yes this was secured via a good degree of public investment, but is this always necessary given the long term investment plan of a PRS developer and the gain to be had?

The challenge of delivering balanced city centre communities is not peculiar to Manchester. Transformational change is coming to all our cities as we seek to address the housing crisis, but each scheme proposed must form part of a much wider objective to deliver truly liveable city centre communities.

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Manchester, regeneration, PRS