Manchester Friends of the Earth (FoE) organised a social, political, and artistic event which took place on 21 September in a humble car park space on Thomas Street in the Northern Quarter. They planned to give a single metered space a symbolic makeover to emphasise their belief that too much of our public sphere is lost to cars.

The event was part of international PARK(ing) Day, which seeks to highlight the misuse of land in urban spaces by bringing together citizens, campaigners, and artists. Together, they plan to work out how better these places can be used to satisfy community needs, rather than lend priority to what they see as the inefficiency brought by mass car usage.

FoE wonders: “How much better life could be if we designed our cities to move people, not cars?”

They believe that the current prioritisation of a single mode of transport – the private car and, by extension, parking – is swallowing up far more resources than it is worth.

The inspiration behind this day is a 2005 project by a San Francisco art studio, Rebar, which set out to build a temporary public park. 13 years later, the task remains the same, as they stress the need for proper debate on the monetisation of space in cities and the morality of giving in to a policy of pollution and unsustainable development.

Globally, the trend towards car-free cities has been gaining traction, with even major capitals pursuing a total ban altogether. Oslo, Norway is one such city. It expects to have totally phased out cars by 2019. Followed by Madrid, Spain in 2020, these places aim to achieve this by investing heavily in public transport links and ambitious cycle lane networks.

Burnham’s ‘New Deal’, Beelines, and Businesses on their Bikes

One step Greater Manchester is taking shows a new focus on alternative transport links, namely the Beelines project. Mayor Andy Burnham has enlisted Chris Boardman, promoting him to Cycling and Walking Commissioner, and he has begun the campaign for a £1.5bn scheme to build the vast network which would connect all ten authorities in the region.

In a press release in June, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) announced it would allocate 1,000 miles of routes as well as “75 miles of Dutch-style segregated bike lanes” which would be completed in ten years’ time.

However, as they underline their commitment to the idealistic situation currently found in the Netherlands, the Mayor, Commissioner Boardman, and Government Minister Jesse Norman all concede that public health and air quality are the driving forces behind the plan.

The Mayor also launched a new deal for Greater Manchester which could represent the start of Manchester’s move towards a better management of resources and space in the city centre. The Congestion Deal proposes £400m investment to “tackle bottlenecks, provide new roads and deliver new smart traffic signals”.

Admitting you have a problem is the first step towards solving it, and the Mayor’s Congestion Deal also acknowledges the “significant impact” it places on people’s lives in the city, whilst advising the public to be proactive and choose essentially non-car transport, or reduce their own car journeys: “We need to be better at adopting innovative ideas, and making use of new technology. Crucially, we need to do more to get people out of their cars and encourage them to cycle, walk or use public transport.”

Alongside the macro policy-ambitions and the investment in infrastructure, TfGM’s Travel Choices initiative is tackling the situation on a micro level. In conjunction with the Business Travel Network they are offering £10,000 grants to businesses who wish to “encourage employees to make sustainable travel choices”. These, like the Congestion Plan, appear to be ways of offering a choice to both public and private bodies as to how their employees ‘use’ space when in the city – the presumption always being that there are too many cars, too little space.

The infographics within the Congestion Deal further represent the exasperation legislators appear to feel over the growing impact of cars in the city and its knock-on effect:

Congestion Deal

The conclusion to take away from the Beelines Project, the Congestion Deal, and the Travel Choices plan, is that there seems to be a multifaceted – possibly even joined-up – approach being made by city-regional authorities to start fighting back against a crisis which is not only costing us time, money, and resources, but also, crucially, our lives.

The PARK(ing) Day Manual reads like a manifesto for the future of cities through an attempt to reclaim the public realm. The appeals of Manchester Friends of the Earth embody a serious attempt to bring about a necessary change in direction for our shared environment in the city.

Lucas Jones