Climax City

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URBED at 40 – What we learned from Hulme

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Unlike the other locations in URBED’s 40th anniversary tour of the country, Hulme was never an URBED project. The redevelopment of what was billed at the time as the biggest council estate in Europe has however been a huge influence on our work even if we were never employed to work on it.


The Homes for Change scheme

As I explained at the start of the event, Hulme was where I worked as as a planning officer prior to joining URBED in 1990. It was also where I lived and where I together with others such as Charlie Baker and my wife Hélène he helped to set up the Homes for Change Housing Cooperative. This was subsequently used as a case study in URBED’s 21st Century Homes research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and formed the foundation for the Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood or SUN Initiative that was to become a central part of URBED’s philosophy for much of the 1990s and 2000s culminating in our book published by the Architectural Press.

In David’s initial presentation he traced the history of Hulme from its origins as a hastily erected neighbourhood of by-law housing build on the boggy land (which is what Hulme means) south of the industrial city. This was a neighbourhood of more than 100,000 people and boasted a high street on Stratford Road with a thousand shops and pubs that was the rival of the city centre. The 1960s saw this swept away in Manchester’s slum clearance programme to be replaced with 6 large council estates and thirteen tower blocks while the shops of Stretford Road were replaced with an embattled shopping precinct of eight vandalite-clad lock-ups. The finale of this great redevelopment was the completion of the Crescents in 1972, great sweeping blocks designed by the architects Wilson and Womersley, modelled on Bath and named with no sense of irony after the architects John Nash, William Kent, Charles Barry and Robert Adam.

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It was recognised very early on that Hulme was not fit for the purpose for which it had been designed, namely to house the families displaced by the slum clearance. The council started moving families out after a child fell from one of the walkways within a few years of the crescents being completed. The vacated flats were let to anyone who wanted them and those that were not let were squatted. It filled up with an eclectic mix of students, artists, criminals and drug dealers alongside older residents who hadn’t been moved out. For a brief period it became Manchester’s Christiania or Kreutzburg home to the city’s waifs and strays but also the seedbed of its regeneration (see my post on the regeneration of Hulme). It was in Hulme that the local television presenter and impresario Tony Wilson took over an old bus drivers social club to create the Factory. Within ten years this had spawned Factory Records and the Hacienda Club that made ‘Madchester’ he coolest music city in the world for a brief summer of drug-fuelled love in 1989. It is not to great a stretch to trace Manchester’s recovery from the brink of collapse, the growth of its media and creative industries, even it being chosen as the BBC’s northern base, to the anarchy that reigned in Hulme in the 1980s.

IMG_5148.JPGIt was for this reason that many Hulme people resisted the plans to redevelop the estate for a second time in the 1990s. In Brian Robson’s presentation he pondered the lessons that can be draw from this redevelopment, responding in particular to questioning from the floor that had been critical of the city council’s roll. He recounted a story from a few years after Hulme when councils across the county were asked to put forward proposals for New Deal for Communities funding. Brian had been involved with Bristol’s bit which involved a series of workshops with community groups across the city. In Manchester by contrast the decision was made in a half hour meeting that decided that East Manchester was next in line for regeneration. The Bristol process took months and succeeded at setting every community in the city against each other, it may have been the right thing to do but it wasn’t the most efficient. This sums up Manchester, it gets things done and is very single minded but isn’t interested in building consensus and only really listens to voices that agree with its policies. This may be the attitude that built the original Hulme in the 1960s but it also got it redeveloped and has undoubtedly been successful in the regeneration of the wider city. This is the dilemma of the benign dictatorship.

Hulme guide to developmentThe council’s vision for Hulme was to create an urban quarter to apply the lessons that the leadership had drawn from their visits to Barcelona as part of Manchester’s doomed bid to host the Olympics. It is hard to understand today how widely this was opposed in the early 1990 by highways engineers, housing associations, the police and a number of tenants groups. It was at this time that Charlie Baker set up the Hulme Community Architecture Group and was engaged to work with the tenants of Hulme 2 which was the first estate to be redeveloped. The techniques that he developed with David Rudlin including plasticine modelling and possibilities slide shows have been central to URBED consultation techniques ever since. The two of them were subsequently commissioned (not as URBED) to write the Hulme Guide to Development. For a brief period this was applied to the whole of the city while a city-wide document was drawn up. These urban design policies have changed the way that development takes place in Manchester (in the face of fierce opposition, at least initially). The reason, once more, is Manchester’s political muscle and its deafness to opposition, even when it comes from its own officers.

Hulme at its lowest point was also a place of great opportunity. URBED set up its Manchester office in the Work for Change, the workspace element of the Homes for Change building and grew to become the global brand that it is today! However Fay Selvan told an even more remarkable story of the Big Life Company a social enterprise with 300 staff and a £4m turnover that grew out of community initiatives in Hulme. This started life as a small operation supporting drug users and other vulnerable people through redevelopment. Through force of will and no little entrepreneurial flair, it persuaded the NHS to give it the contract to run the area’s new health centre and later built the Zion Health and resource centre and taking on the Big Issue in the north. It’s most recent initiative has seen it take on two new academy schools and to grow into the city’s largest social enterprise.

Of the music, media, urbanism and social enterprises that have transformed Manchester almost all have their roots in a short and very dark period of Hulme’s history. It is a case study in Jane Jacob’s idea that even at their lowest moment, cities contain the seeds of their own recovery. URBED can claim no credit for any of this. However this is also our story since URBED’s Manchester office, which is now our main office, grew from the same soil and the story of Hulme and Manchester has been a huge influence on our work making us the company we are.


One thought on “URBED at 40 – What we learned from Hulme

  1. Pingback: URBED at 40 | Climax City

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