Or rather, why we cannot see flowers in the rain
If you look at Norman Ainsworth’s cine film clip from 1960, this is close to the Piccadilly Gardens I remember. Look at the shoppers taking time out from Pauldens, the shops on Oldham Street, or between buses. As you can see, it was a proper green lung in the centre of Manchester. In my formative years, I remember riding on a donkey named Prince. Its sunken gardens and floral displays offered respite from the diesel fumes. There was even public toilets (a rarity these days).
Then, something changed. As Manchester city centre started to benefit from its regeneration (after the bomb hit Arndale Centre), pedestrianisation made for easy transfer between buses and trams. It was claimed that Piccadilly Gardens started to look dowdy and dated, attracting the ‘wrong ‘uns’ to ‘town’. The sunken gardens didn’t fit in with the city’s modern-day vision.
By 2002, the sunken gardens were eschewed in favour of manicured lawns and concrete. The present gardens’ focal point became the fountain which – alas – seldom works. The widening of pavements around Piccadilly Gardens made for an improvement on its previous layout.
From the 2011 clip, spot the difference. The gardens remain popular with its shoppers. The present pedestrianisation scheme is good for occasional farmers’ markets. Though it remains a rendezvous point, there is something missing besides elegance.
Though the gardens offer decent access to tram stops and bus stands, there is no room to “stand and stare”. Transfer from the 216 stand to the Altrincham tram is a rushed affair. The gardens’ layout forbids contemplation. Its design conspires against taking a quick breather for reading, drawing or smoking. It screams “move along”, unless its lawns are breached by outdoor attractions or market stalls. There is nothing to lift the senses.
This is exacerbated by the wealth of brick and concrete. One Piccadilly Gardens obscures the view of The Portland Hotel; at one time, residents could have had a view of the gardens. The aspect of the city’s Victorian buildings are degraded by the brick edifice. Worse, the concrete ‘Berlin Wall’ structure obscures the view of (the reinvigorated) Piccadilly Plaza and the stands on Parker Street.
Space is lost. The ‘Berlin Wall’ and One Piccadilly Gardens could be a metaphor for the privatisation of our public spaces. The latter nuzzles into the gardens like a man-spreading 18 stone commuter in the peak hours. With his bag sat on the next seat. On the five to six from Manchester Victoria to Huddersfield. The former seems like a physical barrier between community and commerce.
Though the merits of Rice, Pret a Manger and Caffe Nero are superfluous to this post, I would have liked to have seen their units on the outer perimeter of the gardens. Surely, the extra offices could have used the long demolished Labour Exchange building on Aytoun Street? Personally I wish One Piccadilly Gardens didn’t exist because of how it imposes itself. For many people, this is the first part they see of Manchester city centre. On alighting your 192, 201 or tram, its bulk shuts off any vestige of nature. (We had orange and white buses when I last saw a squirrel).
Whoever takes on the role of designing a new-look Piccadilly Gardens ought to consider the greater use of tree cover. Its paths seem to be at odds with natural perambulatory patterns (notice the mud across the grass). As for the Berlin Wall tribute act, that has got to go! The occupants should be given the chance of moving to replacement buildings which better respect the lines of the gardens’ perimeter – and complement the Victorian and Edwardian style buildings. The Remembrance Tree can stay (that is my favourite part of the new-look gardens; the fountain, whilst in working order is second).
Oh, and if the wall goes, how much would it cost to hire David Gilmour to perform its demolition ceremony? Less than Alicia Keys did at Heaton Park (a common peeve among the MEN’s letter writers)?
Not just Piccadilly Gardens
The look of Piccadilly Gardens is due to a wider picture: the continued expansion of Manchester city centre since the Victorian times. The argument in 1850 is just as valid as the one for 2016. Every nook and cranny used for commerce: warehouses in the 1850s, offices, hotels and flats in the 2010s. Which is why the claustrophobic nature of Manchester city centre puts a few people off visiting.
Compared with Sheffield, the centre of Manchester has little green space. Apart from Piccadilly Gardens, there is Parsonage Gardens off Deansgate; also the green spaces around the National Football Museum; St. John Street near MoSI; Vimto Gardens overlooking the railway viaduct from Piccadilly station.
Sheffield has the Peace Gardens, overlooking its town hall. Next to it is the indoor Winter Gardens, on the site of the 1977 ‘egg box’ extension. Then you’ve got the cathedral grounds. Many of its modern streets are wide tree lined stretches. As for Greater London, well, we’ve got the Royal Parks which offer much needed R and R in the cities of London and Westminster. Hyde Park offers a clear boundary with Kensington, as does Buckingham Palace Gardens.
Things could have been a lot different had the 1945 City of Manchester Plan had been enacted in greater form. Its plans for Piccadilly Gardens would have seen a second Piccadilly Gardens on the site of Newton Street. This would have formed part of a City Circle Road as a roundabout. The original gardens, probably would have been similar to the 1960 film. On what is now the site of the Bridgewater Hall and the Briton’s Protection pub, would have been more gardens, again thanks to enhanced road infrastructure.
So far, the Manchester Evening News‘ petition to Manchester City Council has had over 10,000 signatures. We hope it sends out two signals: one, the state of what is many people’s first impressions of Manchester. Also, the greater issue that Manchester city centre is lacking in green communal space.
To sign the petition, find out more in the Manchester Evening News‘ story on the state of Piccadilly Gardens.
S.V., 03 March 2016.