Imagining an alternative future for Greater Manchester

By Mark Burton and Carolyn Kagan

reposted from Greater Manchester Housing Action website, 11 March, 2020

Manchester from a green setting in the north

For some years now, Greater Manchester has been trying to agree a grand plan for land use: the Spatial Framework. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), and other bodies, including Manchester City Council, have promoted a model based on highly specialised zones, for retail, commerce, warehousing and logistics, housing and amenity, the whole dependent on moving people and goods around quickly via roads, motorways and public transport links, all assuming high levels of “economic growth”. Opposition has focused on the housing models and on the erosion of green space, in the green belt and elsewhere. We know what we are against, but do we know what we could have instead?  

An alternative model. 

In an attempt to bridge this apparent gap we recently ran a workshop. 25 people came, including campaigners on environment and urban living. Some were professionally involved in these questions and all were interested and/or active citizens. We introduced practical work with some provocations about how other cities and towns are “doing things differently”. We then set two challenging tasks. The first was to draw pictures of an ideal city region in 2038, focussing variously on mobility, green and blue spaces, energy reduction, resilience to climactic shock, housing and population change, and work. The second task was to write a ‘letter from the future’ explaining how this future had been achieved. 

These tasks generated lively discussion and a great deal of material. We took this away and produced a composite “letter from the future” that both describes a credible future city region in 2038, and how we got there. 

Key ideas include: 

The polycentric city region. 

This draws on two main sources. Firstly some of the ideas of the garden city movement, combining the best of town and country to create healthy communities with opportunities to grow food, strong cultural, recreational and shopping facilities in walkable, vibrant, sociable neighbourhoods, varied local jobs within easy travelling distance of people’s homes. Secondly, the more recent concept of the twenty minute neighbourhood, as developed in Portland and adopted in Melbourne.  It’s a simple idea, neighbourhoods in which we can all get the goods and services we need within a twenty minute walk of our house. 

A more localised economy. 

We have long argued, and continue to, that we should rebalance the economy by providing for more of our needs, as feasible, locally, rather than depending on carbon-intense and potentially vulnerable globalised supply chains. This would also include more locally sourced food, energy and money for needed investment 

The bioregional idea. 

The boundaries around the idea of Greater Manchester and conurbations called ‘City regions’  are arbitrary and not inevitable. If we are interested in blurring the boundaries between town and country, and in creating a more sustainable and localised economy, then it makes sense to include the hinterland of the conurbation – the ‘eco-region’. This is, in essence, what the bioregional concept is about.   

Zero carbon. 

Our alternative model envisages a lower-energy and zero-emissions Greater Manchester, where private motoring and aviation are greatly minimised, domestic heating is emission-free, and so on, and we indicate the kinds of differences in everyday life that zero carbon entails. 

It is not primarily about housing, although we do mention an increase in social housing, the leading role of social housing providers in decarbonisation, and  the increasingly likely population displacements both locally and from further afield. We suggest an increase in sharing between households, a key strategy for living better with lower consumption of materials and energy, and also a way of reducing material poverty.  However, the overall design of settlements has profound implications for housing provision, and in particular we question the current emphasis on building high rise flats in the urban core, in any case likely to become unviable as the bubble of speculative finance for construction collapses. 

The change process. 

Our letter also suggests how Greater Manchester was able to fundamentally change its economic and social model. We suggest a coming together of factors, including current moves towards carbon reduction, emerging moves to displace car travel with active travel and public transport, and some of the alternative perspectives already present. These are catalysed by the gathering climate crisis, with severe impacts here, and by changes at governmental level, here and nationally, partly in response to that challenge and to the broader social, political and economic crisis. Some ways in which different sectors could work together are explored, for example on decarbonising domestic heating and guaranteeing homes that are warm enough but not too hot. 

This is just one plausible future and one path to it. More dystopian futures are at least as likely but by working and struggling together, we can achieve something much better for our region. For that to happen, we need to have a broadly shared idea of what we actually want, and our work is a contribution to developing that alternative. We’d be interested to know what you think.


You can read our Letter from 2038 here:  

This entry was posted in explainers, Greater Manchester, housing, land use and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Imagining an alternative future for Greater Manchester

  1. The National Forest Gardening Scheme gathered around a similar question in Manchester last September, kindly hosted by Friends of the Earth. We have been using the systemic nature of these gardens as a metaphor in other local authority areas to connect up the actors in the local food system together with the local authority officers. This has been transformational in Worthing and Adur for example where the local authority realised it need to transform its mindset from being guardians or local regulation to becoming enablers of connection and local thriving. Let us know how we might support your vision.
    Best wishes

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