“Spanish cities are the kings of public space to me,” Hayley Flynn says. “They’re the kind of cities where you get your lunch, or an ice cream and you’ll quickly find a bench to sit down. It doesn’t cross your mind that you would have to wander around looking for one.”
Being able to comfortably rest without payment or fear of being moved on should be built into every city, Flynn tells me. Her ‘anti-tours’ around Manchester city centre, which have been running since 2012, encourage visitors to become city planners for the day, thinking critically about who benefits from decisions about street design and city planning.
“I’d always hoped that the tours would be a way to feedback to the council,” she says. “But it doesn’t really work in that way, unfortunately.”
Flynn speaks passionately about the importance of welcoming public space in Manchester, often visibly frustrated at what she sees as missed opportunities and short-sighted planning decisions. I contacted Flynn through Twitter, where she writes about urban developments under the moniker Skyliner.
We talk about the politics of a street bench: how few and far between they are in areas without shops and how their designs discourage prolonged use.
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“Almost all seating that you’ll find has the armrests and things that you initially think are just there as a comfort thing, but inhibit your ability to use that furniture in a different way,” Flynn says. “You have to sit up straight and how long are you comfortable doing that for? Not very long is the answer.”
Academics Gordon Savičić and Selena Savić talk about the idea of ‘unpleasant design’: the inability to lean back on a park bench is not a design failure, it successfully deters the public from using that bench as anything other than a temporary perch. The message to people who have no choice but to occupy these spaces – rough sleepers, disabled people, pregnant women – is clear: you may stop for a while, but we want you to move on.
This is not a side-effect of the bench’s architecture, it is proposed, tested and implemented for this purpose.
Cold, steel bolts protruding from wooden slats, awkward angles and sloping seats are design decisions. Walking through Manchester with this in mind makes the city’s very deliberately marketed propensity for ‘doing things differently’ ring very hollow.
Getting from Deansgate to Ancoats means navigating glowing advertising pillars which vie for attention and obstruct the pavement. Metal studs jut out of kerbs and plant pots and harsh fences divide public and private space.
“We’ve got things like anti-homeless spikes on ledges and in doorways,” Flynn says. “Some businesses have tried to say that they’re for the pigeons. I think it’s just so patronising to try and persuade us that it’s not there for anything other than dissuading humans to sit down.”
She points to the spikes installed outside Selfridges in 2015 which were removed after widespread public outrage. At the time, the shop said they were to ‘reduce litter and smoking’.
“We need to get rid of that whole anti-social rhetoric around being able to sit down or use a toilet,” Flynn says. It’s worth mentioning there are no stand-alone public toilets in Manchester city centre.
I ask if there are parts of the city centre use public space well. “In terms of good seating, I’d say that Chinatown is probably leading the way for me,” she says. “Unfortunately, that’s been picked apart as ‘we’ve got all this seating, but people also come there to do drugs’, so they fenced off some of the seating last year. That’s not the solution, you know?”
Flynn tells me about Greengate Square in Salford, which is designed as an amphitheatre. “It had a lot of potential to be a good space and then everything that was seen as extra or costly was cut back and that made the area less welcoming.”
Fountains had acted as a buffer for traffic noise and were a focal point for people sitting on the stone steps. “There were people who went there to do Tai Chi and it was a tranquil place,” Flynn says. “Now, people don’t go there because there’s no attraction – you’re meant to be watching an activity.”
Places like Stevenson Square have recently benefited from a rejuvenated café culture and are often lively meeting places, especially in the evening. Flynn is wary: “I guess people are still saying ‘pedestrianisation’, but to me it’s ‘beer garden-isation.’”
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“That is an element of the city that we need. It’s great for those businesses – I don’t want to be critical of that – but the only seating we’ve ever had there was in the bus stops and the bus stops have now been removed.”
It was unnerving, whilst walking through Spinningfields, to see a sign prohibiting cycling and skateboarding which had been erected by a private land management company, rather than a publicly accountable council. A pseudo-public space, where a business can decide what is acceptable behaviour and enforce it.
We end by talking about how cities like Manchester need to change. “I just go to places in Spain to think of great examples. It’s hard to think of one in particular because every street, even every backstreet, has got it nailed,” Flynn laughs.
“There’s a bin, there’s a chair, there’s a toilet over there and you can just sit and watch the world go by. I think that’s where we need to get. We don’t need to have one amazing space; we need every small space to have all those elements.”