UK: Can Manchester Roll With The Punches?

Last Updated: 4 February 2015
Article by Jon Lovell

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

The following is a transcript of a provocation delivered by Jon Lovell to the UK Green Building Council City Conference in Manchester on 21 January 2015. It is intended as a stimulus for conversation and an exploration of the relevant issues. We'd love to hear your thoughts.

If we get caught on the chin, do we drop to the deck and take the count, or do we stand firm and come back fighting? But more than that, do we have our guard up, so the punches don't land?

That's what this is about, this subject of resilience. It is a question of our adaptive capacity in the face of risk. Risk, as we know, takes many forms, but we're essentially talking here of our exposure – as a city – and our vulnerability – as a city to the various hazards of global change and local impact. In whatever form they might take.

Those risks; those impacts can be explosive.

We proved in '96 and the years following that we have what it takes not only to bounce back, but to come back stronger. Our resilience – as a city – to the shock waves of the bomb has become a defining feature of our contemporary history. 

Other risks can be more systemic in nature. They may impose longer-term stresses. So when the credit crunch hit, how did we fare? There's no doubt we have been challenged, and continue to be so, but relatively speaking we've performed well. Moreover, we've embraced the opportunity presented by the tectonic shifts in economic policy to transform our relationship with Whitehall, and have secured a new era of local empowerment and autonomy.

If we take these two examples, our resilience appears exemplary. In fact, we are a UN global role model.

If you consider the hallmarks of what it takes to be resilient, many resonate with our perceptions of Manchester. We celebrate the longevity and stability of the City's leadership. We recognise our institutional strengths; our Combined Authority for the ten Greater Manchester boroughs that enables us to deliver coordinated civil contingencies. 

Perhaps above all, we take pride in Manchester for its unadulterated attitude. It's spirit. The force of our can-do positivity that drives us forward together.

But we can't claim to have the accolades all sewn up. If we return to the boxing analogy, we are dropping points for a key defensive feature: our infrastructure. Our roads, our rail, our grid are not what they should be. And neither – perhaps especially – is our Green Infrastructure, particularly in the core of the conurbation. In the face of the coming onslaught of climate change, we have our gloves well and truly down.

Look at this map of evapotranspiring land cover across GM. It's nothing unexpected. The denser the urban development, the less prevalent the green infrastructure. It's an inverse relationship typical of pretty-much any conurbation.

But take a closer look and the problem – the vulnerability – becomes more apparent. This area of Gorton on the left, for example. A concrete desert exposed to the upper quartile of urban heat island effects. At the same time, very high levels of social vulnerability – the top quintile for GM in all categories.

Trafford Park, outside the city boundary, I know. Inert rooftops, acres and acres of tarmac, and with surface water run-off risk in the highest quartile under future emissions scenarios.

And the city centre itself, again exposed to heat stress, yet virtually devoid of multi-functional green infrastructure.

But does it necessarily have to be thus?

I would argue that it does not. This is simply a failure of policy, of planning and of urban management. But we can reverse the situation, and build greater adaptive capacity into our urban system. 

To quote a new Machine Head track, the Imaginal Cells – that's us! – "have a different view of the world". We're saying "there's another way to do this. There's a better, brighter image that's much more successful than the one we're doing." 

So, my vision for us today is that we usher in a massive programme of urban greening, on an unprecedented scale. Let's take our streets, our roofs, our walls, our underused and neglected spaces and make them truly green. Let's turn this into the greenest city in the most literal of senses.

And I think I know where to start. I've seen glimpses of what our future could be like. Inspired by the awesome Highline in New York, I say let's take an outmoded piece of ageing, grey infrastructure and turn it green.

Let's make the Mancunian Way the greatest public park in the sky anywhere in the world. And let's take that as a catalyst for radical transformation in our urban core. 

We embody many of the hallmarks of a resilient city, but our infrastructure lets us down. We should overcome that deficit in the most ambitious and creative way possible. 

We know we can do it. And we know the multitude of benefits it will bring – enhanced resilience being only one.

Thank you.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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