Can anyone save Piccadilly Gardens?
‘Like a kitten that had got hold of a ball of wool and tangled it all up’
By Mollie Simpson
If the comments in the “We Grew Up in Manchester” Facebook group are anything to go by, the Piccadilly Gardens of yesteryear was a gorgeous utopia. There were rose gardens, brass bands, couples holding hands by the fountains, rowdy guys with Mohicans crusty with hairspray getting drunk on cans of cheap lager and pissing in the corners… Hang on, what?
“It was a grubby little sunken garden full of punks,” says Richard Heap, a graphic designer in his forties who hails from Stockport but works in the city centre. “We went nowhere near it.” Dr Morag Rose, an urban planning expert who has long been sceptical of the nostalgia around the gardens, tends to agree. “When I speak to women who lived in Manchester a long time ago, they didn’t feel safe there,” she says. “It was never that perfect.”
Responding to my public callout for views about the future of Piccadilly Gardens, longtime Mill member Anne Forster, who grew up in Manchester in the 1960s, doesn’t even think they should be gardens any more, favouring the idea of a paved European-style main square with “large planters and low-maintenance plants to soften the hard landscaping”.
What most people do agree on, however, is that the Gardens are currently a mess. Hemmed in by bus and tram stops, crisscrossed by ugly fences and shipping containers and populated by troubled souls and earnest evangelicals waving leaflets warning about the end of it all, Manchester’s urban space is a place many Mancunians don’t relish going in the daytime and actively avoid at night. Recently, I was standing outside a coffee shop when a man ripped all of his clothes off and started sprinting around the perimeter of the Gardens screaming and waving his arms in the air.
“Is Piccadilly Gardens the Worst Public Space in the World?” asked a YouTube video by the content creator Bee Here Now just over a year ago, calling the use of the site a “giant wasted opportunity”. On Reddit, the state of “PG” is one of the most popular topics on the Manchester forum. “I’m curious as to how and what led to us having this abomination of concrete, fences and dying grass instead of a nice park or city square,” is how one of the recent discussions began, drawing the answer: “So we can have this same thread 83 times a week”. Another participant in the discussion suggested building an underground clink and having police patrol the Gardens 24/7. “It's a hive of scumbags, robbers, drug dealers and abusers of homeless people.”
Last summer, Manchester City Council announced they had chosen the landscape architects LDA Design to create new designs for Piccadilly Gardens, which will be made public sometime in 2024 so residents can have their say. We’re still no closer to knowing when that will be, but LDA told me there will be a point “in the near future” where we can chat about “great news and ideas for the space”.
But this week I told my editor I’m not willing to wait for the bureaucratic wheels to turn. I think about the future of Piccadilly Gardens most mornings when I walk past them on my way to Mill HQ. It’s simply too pressing a topic for me to leave it to a design firm known only by an acronym. The time for filling in the council’s official consultation form will come, but as we know, councils tend to only consult on things when they have already decided what to do. The moment to have a big public conversation about the future of the mad, strange, sometimes fun, sometimes violent, always controversial phenomenon of Piccadilly Gardens is now.
So buckle in for a variety of views from lots of people I’ve interviewed in recent weeks — including cops, councillors, teens hanging out in the Gardens — and even a poll you can vote in to have your say.
The council has committed £25 million to the redevelopment (so let’s mentally budget £100m for the job) and recently started removing the concrete ceiling from the much-maligned pavilion, creating a more open pathway into the gardens. The panel that selected LDA praised their initial designs, commending plans for improved children’s play facilities and better links to London Road.
Mark Graham, the lead designer on Piccadilly Gardens at LDA, said in a press release that he was “thrilled” to be working on the redesign. “The city deserves a beautiful public space that showcases all that is great about Manchester and brings the city together,” he said in a council press release. Graham told me via email that “we are very limited on what we can share at the moment” but that LDA will be in touch in the future when they’ll be able to share “great news and ideas about the space” (wise choice: it’s risky to speak about great public controversies with a journalist on the phone). In the press release, Graham went on: “We want the Gardens to feel strongly Mancunian, in a very special way that delivers a lasting legacy for the city.”
Some wags might joke that the Gardens presently feels pretty Mancunian, but I won’t engage with such bigotry. After spending some time on LDA’s very beautiful website, I spotted the company’s motto: LDA “creates great places where people belong”. But which people do we want to belong in the remodelled Gardens?
Right now, there are plenty of groups who do feel like they belong in this space, including hectic cliques of teenagers in the summer (as brilliantly captured by my colleague Dani a couple of years ago) and a rotating cast of rough sleepers and Deliveroo drivers who congregate on the benches near the Starbucks after finishing their jobs. It’s assumed that the council wants a broader (and more affluent) section of Mancunians and visitors to enjoy hanging out here too. But is that possible, given the proximity of the city’s largest bus and railway stations? And if the area smartens up, as many people hope, where do the current denizens of the Gardens go?
Some readers will have lived through three different incarnations of Piccadilly Gardens and may be sceptical about Graham’s “showcasing all that’s great about Manchester” ambitions. But plenty of people I’ve spoken to for this article are hopeful that we might get something positive out of this process — perhaps even (whisper it quietly) a central square that the city can be proud of.
In the essay Urban space and civic identity in Manchester 1780-1914 : Piccadilly Square and the art gallery question, James R. Moore writes that the “Piccadilly Question” started as early as the mid-19th century. He recounts “successive attempts to organise, rationalise and improve not only the physical fabric of the square, but also the activities of those enclosed within it.”
Then fast forward to around 100 years ago, when Manchester was debating what to do with the space left by the demolition of the former hospital and lunatic asylum that stood here. One suggestion was to build a grand opera house, but the conductor behind those plans ran out of money. Other proposals imagined a great art gallery or even a cathedral. Instead, temporary gardens were planted to fill the massive gap along Piccadilly.
The beautiful postcard views of the Gardens that are often shared in local Facebook groups show an attractive sunken garden in the middle of the 20th century, which by some accounts was a popular place for a time. But by the 1990s, the area was associated with antisocial behaviour and crime, leading to the 2002 redesign we are living with today, including the concrete Tadao Ando pavilion, which is supposed to protect the main space from the bus and Metrolink hub, but which has become a lightning rod for public criticism.
Before the council enclosed the Gardens a couple of years ago with hideous fences and shut off large sections to create rarely open bars, the space was still a very popular gathering point that still looked reasonably attractive on sunny days. When The Mill objected to a major public space being closed to the public for most of the year, the council cited safety concerns, arguing that its events made the area easier to police. It is an area, after all, that has become associated with crime.
Heading into the square after dark quickly brings you into contact with a certain kind of chaos and unpredictability. An office worker who I find smoking outside Pizza Express tells me a couple of his colleagues have been robbed walking home through the gardens. “It’s quite a nice place to pass the time in,” says Anna, an employee at the Korean street food restaurant Bunsik, “but it’s not safe in the night.”
A former Greater Manchester Police detective, who worked with the force for two decades until last year, recalls a particular type of crime in the Gardens that sounds a bit nicer than it is. “We called them ‘hugger muggers’” she says. “They hug a drunk person and then steal from them.”
At the end of September last year, Greater Manchester Police launched Operation Vulcan to police Piccadilly Gardens, with a broad remit covering anti-social behaviour, violent crime, theft, exploitation and drug dealing, promising to create a “hostile environment” for criminals and be “relentless” in their attempts to improve the area.
When I met Mike, a security guard at the Spar on Market Street, last year, a group of teenagers had been running amok in the gardens, lobbing eggs at the police. He told me such disorder was a common pattern at the end of each academic year, but paled in comparison to the kinds of crime he saw around the Gardens day-to-day.
Now, Mike says things are different. “It does feel like it’s improved a lot,” he tells me via text. Over the years, he’s seen a lot of pickpocketing, women reporting being harassed and intimidated and plenty of shoplifting, but now, he says an increased presence of police on the streets has made the area feel safer.
The team at Blank Street Coffee, a coffee shop tucked neatly under the pavilion that opened last summer, chat to me while they make their very popular blueberry matcha lattes and serve out almond croissants. George, a barista, says he was sceptical when he was offered a job in Piccadilly Gardens. “It was kind of like a dealbreaker for me,” he says. What was reassuring was the commitment the local police had to dealing with antisocial behaviour in the area, which has made staff and customers feel safer.
Have they encountered any problems? Blank Street Coffee is one of the only businesses in the area that doesn’t have its own security guard, which made the team feel nervous at first, but they say they’ve been impressed with how responsive the police are to problems when they need to radio them in. Occasionally, drunk people will wander into the coffee shop and refuse to leave, and some teenagers had a fight nearby last week, but they say the occasional incident isn’t a problem.
The team are also frank — Blank Street Coffee didn’t choose to move to Piccadilly Gardens for “the vibe and atmosphere”, but for its footfall. According to Manchester City Council’s deputy leader Luthfur Rahman, 150,000 people pass through Piccadilly Gardens each day, and Vaughan Allen, the chief executive of Manchester’s Business Improvement District, says that because of this, “it’s very rare to have an empty unit for long” in the area.
For Vaughan Allen, the issues with anti-social behaviour and crime come down to one factor — that high footfall, the result of being the city’s biggest transport hub. He reminds me that the authorities tried to make Shudehill the starting point for the night buses a few years ago but it didn’t work: people have spent decades catching night buses from the Gardens and some of them have parents and grandparents who talked about getting night buses from the Gardens. And so the night buses were moved back. The “psychogeography” of a city is hard to shift.
It’s often the case in large cities that social problems cluster around the large bus and train stations, and there’s a sense from some of the people I speak to that this issue may frustrate any attempt to turn the Gardens into a more welcoming space. “If you’ve got the high footfall, you’re going to have people with issues,” Allen says.
The fact that Piccadilly Gardens sits next to a giant transport interchange has baffled and irritated urban experts in equal measure. The influential American urban planner Kevin Lynch wrote in his study of urban identity in 1960 that public squares should act as a refuge away from heavy traffic. Piccadilly Gardens does the opposite of this, placing residents directly next to traffic. In 1996, the civil engineer Martin Stockley sat down with a handful of coloured pencils to trace each bus route coming in and out of Piccadilly. The resulting design was like “a kitten that had got hold of a ball of wool and tangled it all up”.
Greater Manchester’s bus system was privatised at the time, which meant the council, along with various engineering and design teams, were limited on what they could do to compel bus companies to drop people off in a different part of the city centre (“Without either a lot of diplomacy or a bit of bullying from the city,” Stockley says). Now that Andy Burnham has brought Greater Manchester’s bus system back under public control, the local authority can decide the routes they take and the fares they charge.
Some think this presents an opportunity for Manchester to start shifting this congestion to other parts of the city centre. That wouldn’t be a dramatic overnight change, but it would give the gardens a bit of room to breathe, and make things feel calmer, less busy and overstimulating.
People like Allen sound optimistic that the Gardens could have a very different vibe if it was redesigned (ideally with fewer buses) and better looked after by a council that was at least deriving some revenue from the Gardens from the occasional big event. “To make that space work as it evolves is going to all come down to how it is managed, day by day,” he says. He hopes it could become something much more significant in Manchester, our own version of Dam Square in Amsterdam. What would that require?
“I would pretty much pave all of it,” says Martin Stockley. “I’d pave it in a way which gave you a permeable surface so that you weren't just collecting water.” Many people love the green space, but it makes the gardens expensive and difficult to maintain. “Why do we have little patches of grass, which turn into kind of muddy patches?” Stockley asks.
Broadly, Vaughan Allen tends to agree. “I would much rather the entire thing was paved over,” he says. Everyone wants more green space in a city like Manchester, so getting rid of one of our few green spaces might feel counter-intuitive. But the area of a city – particularly a rainy city – with the highest footfall is not necessarily the most appropriate place for a park.
The optimistic case
Stephen O’Malley, a civic engineer who worked on some of the biggest public projects in the city, says he remembers the area around Mayfield Park had been derelict since the 1980s. The ambition to create a new public park on the site was daunting, but they were confident that the area was “full of character”, set back from the roads and close to underutilised waterways. Now, it’s a thriving public park.
Piccadilly Gardens has its own complexities and issues, but O’Malley believes it could go on a similar trajectory to ambitious public projects in areas like Ancoats and Mayfield that suffered from decline and social issues. “It’s quite easy to be negative or despondent about Piccadilly Gardens,” he says. “But it has to be considered in the context of all the positive stuff the city has achieved, and the progress it has made.”
Allen has seen a sneak preview of the new designs from LDA and hints that he was impressed with the ambition. But, he caveats, “I think it’s going to come down to how it's managed, once it's in place.”
Since I asked for people’s views on this story, my email inbox has been flooded with thoughtful emails from Mill members giving their thoughts on the Piccadilly Gardens question. There is still some scepticism about whether the city council can perform the magic required to turn the shabby gardens into a flourishing town square.
Mill reader Robin Hamptonmere suggests replacing Piccadilly Gardens with an “obsidian black spire” that reaches 600m into the sky and brings “a noticeable chill to the surrounding streets”. “The tower serves no purpose, like the wall or the whore pits before it,” he writes, “but whenever someone proposes a taller building to hide the tower or attempts to demolish the tower, it pulses and grows another hundred or so metres.”
Peter Black, a Mill reader who worked for the now-defunct Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive in the 1990s, is more optimistic about the chaos of the space, and the possibility of using that for good. “The Gardens cram a lot of uses in a relatively small space. Even my daughter loved the playground. A lot has been said about anti-social use. A space that is such an important passing and activity space will inevitably attract all sorts,” he says. “But essentially I think the Gardens provides a huge range of interest and activity and I don’t think Manchester should do anything to lose that animation.”