A Masterclass in Wheel Reinvention

Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester.

Things are changing in Manchester. There are construction projects going on, and there’s a proposal for a Metrolink “Second City Crossing” (SCC) as an integral part of the future extension to Manchester’s existing Metrolink light rail. This is not like our tram system in Melbourne, or many other cities I’ve visited. The trams are more like a tram-train hybrid. They look like trams, and share the roads with cars, bikes (although, very few) and pedestrians. But they can only be boarded from the raised platforms dotted around the city – the doors are about 700mm off the ground. They’re not like any tram (or train) that I’ve seen.

Subtle... huh? Public notice announcing consultation for SCC project. Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester.

Currently the transport authority is in the public consultation stage for its SCC, so I went along. Befitting my arrogance, I thought they might benefit from an outsiders perspective. I’m pleased I went, it was interesting (for me, not so much for them).

I wondered why they chose the route that they did. I imagine cost was a deciding factor, but I thought their stated objectives could be better achieved with an extension beginning at Deansgate in the South, rather than St Peters Square. The truth is though, I really only went along to learn more about public consultation. I think I picked up on a thing or two.

One of the outstanding things about this process was that it overwhelmingly emphasised the positives. In fact, there was no mention whatsoever of any adverse impacts of the scheme. There was no mention of the projected (or proposed) cost, nor were there any technical challenges identified. There was a claim that the SCC was designed to help reduce congestion on a system that faces a trebling of passenger numbers over the next few years. Problem is, the proposed extension contains a bottleneck at each end. There were no congestion easing measures in it’s design, from what I could see.

This got me thinking about consultation processes in general. Having not properly engaged with one previously, I’ve come to understand that there is some logic in the exhibitor holding back information in the early stages. This ensure that the feedback provided is less clouded by data that may or may not be relevant. Perhaps this has been a well prepared consultation after all. By not giving too much away, they’re able to compare the public’s candid contributions with their detailed proposals. A process without too much detail could reveal a consensus between what respondents want, and what’s proposed.

Even an award winning urban design treatment won' t make people go where they don't want to. Castlefield, Manchester.

My visit to the consultation briefing brought me full circle in my day exploring a number of Manchester’s more renown public space developments. I visited Piccadilly Gardens, the Millennium Quarter, Castlefield and Salford Quays. All of these areas were perfectly presentable, and each have been the subject of different urban or landscape design awards. I visited Exchange Square too – the location of the new second Metro stop for the SCC. But my reaction to this place was a little less circumspect.

Exchange Square isn’t actually a square at all, it’s a triangle. Notwithstanding this, the original design concept and delivery was good. Building it in the first instance involved closing and reclaiming a street reservation, then building tiered seating, a water feature and a couple of interesting art installations. Simple as it sounds, the space is very well used, attractive and functional.

Spot the (white) elephant in the... er, square? Exchange Square (or what's left of it), Manchester.

Before I visited Exchange Square, I was entirely unaware that the City of Manchester had decided that this perfectly functional, well designed and attractive public space needed one of those unsightly, oversized, noisy, permanent and (mostly) ridiculous observation wheels. This one however, was the worst I have seen so far.

Let me go on the record as saying that the London Eye is good. I’m prepared to admit that at the time, I thought building it was a pretty simplistic attempt at creating a tourist attraction in a city loaded with tourist attractions – but it’s been a runaway success. Even now, more than ten years on, it attracts enormous crowds (and equally enormous queues). The London Eye is good.

But then the copycat wheels began to pop up all over the world. On this trip alone, I’ve seen these things in Hamburg, Dublin and now Manchester. I would add Melbourne’s miserable attempt to the list too because I drove past it on the way out from the city to the airport. Except, it’s less like a wheel, and more like a large stump. These wheels are unimaginative, unoriginal, and in most instances, patronising to the cities they are commissioned to showcase.

A spot to sit and watch the wheel go round, perhaps? Cathedral Gardens, Millenium Quarter, Manchester.

I asked one of the attendants at the SCC consultation about the wheel that dominates Exchange Square. She said, quite diplomatically that the wheel would have to move very slightly to make way for the new Exchange Square SCC stop. But she also let it slip that although the location and operation of the wheel was outside the jurisdiction of the authority planning the SCC, the future of the wheel remained uncertain anyway, because the operator had recently gone in to administration. I can’t be sure, but I think she said it with a smile. Oh well, c’est la vie.

The wheel in Manchester looks temporary and entirely unnecessary. Actually, it just looks shit.

Melbourne (and Manchester), tear down your wheels. And do something more befitting of your creative reputation, and spirit.

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