What does public space mean in the city? And what part does the public play in shaping it? These were the questions in a Guardian Live debate held at the University of Manchester’s School of Art, as part of the city’s annual Design Festival. The discussion was chaired by Professor Rachel Cooper with Ali Grehan, the city architect of Dublin, Katie Tonkinson, a partner at Hawkins/Brown, a Manchester based architects, who are creating a rooftop garden in the Northern Quarter, and Manchester United footballer turned property developer, Gary Neville.

The public can get ‘design’ confused with ‘styling’ – what an individual building looks like, rather than how useable it and the place it occupies are. So, the public debate on a public space such as Piccadilly Gardens centres on not liking ‘that concrete wall’, rather than asking, “Why are the Gardens much smaller than they were? (A big, bland office block got built there.) Or, “Why didn’t the Council knock down the concrete wall years ago?” (It’s not theirs. A finance company bought the big, bland office block and got a 200-year lease on the concrete wall. It matters who owns a place.)

Circle Square by David Dunnico

Manchester is held up as a successful example of post-industrial regeneration. You only have to look up and see all the cranes. But when you look around at people sleeping rough, you have to wonder why we are building more apartment blocks for young professionals. Look down, and if you are standing in places like Spinningfields, First Street or NOMA, you will find yourself standing on private property. These and other parts of the city are POPS – Privately Operated Public Space. Don’t bother asking the Council where these privatised, pseudo-public places are. The Guardian did and the Council refused to tell them.

There’s a joke that the bombs of the Luftwaffe and the IRA have done more to shape Manchester than any planner or architect. Now it’s property developers who are behind the city’s explosion of building. Gary Neville is easily the best known, but not wholly typical of them. He was the first member of the panel to respond to a question about homelessness in the city. Neville had let homeless people stay over winter in his redevelopment of the Stock Exchange Building. But he conceded that despite his money and best efforts, he couldn’t solve the personal issues or change the social and policy decisions that have caused the massive rise in rough sleepers. Key amongst these are the near-end of publicly provided social housing, cuts to benefits and the closure of services that stopped people becoming homeless in the first place.

First Street by David Dunnico

Neville lives in Manchester and wants to bring up his family here. But he says the building boom is doing nothing to make the city centre more family friendly. He is critical of developers with Excel spread sheets that tell them to build still more high-rise apartments for young professionals. Gary Neville said he was willing to take a cut in profits if it meant better quality buildings. Others on the panel reminded him that the “quality” of a building isn’t just about what cladding is specified, but how well the building works, and crucially what it adds or subtracts to its neighbourhood. It was left unsaid that St Michael’s, his planned 134-metre tall tower development, includes the inevitable mix of 5-star hotel, apartments, office space, shopping centre and inevitably lacks of any affordable homes, social housing, community spaces that are needed.

It’s impossible to talk about social housing or high-rise buildings without mentioning Grenfell Tower. The audience questioned whether any social housing should now be high-rise. Developers are unlikely to welcome lower density building. A few days after the debate, there was a fire in Parkway Gate – one of the five high-rise student accommodation blocks built in Manchester by private developer Unite. Over 50,000 students in 28 cities live in Unite’s developments. Thankfully, no one was hurt in the blaze, but people fleeing the fire claimed the fire alarms had failed to sound.

The opening event in this summer’s Manchester International Festival was Jeremy Deller’s, ‘What Is The City But The People?’ In debating ‘The Public’s Realm?’ we are asking what happens to the people who live in our city, when it is owned by consortiums of speculators, most of whom will never visit the places they own.

Rat Street by David Dunnico

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David Dunnico