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Festival celebrates Manchester square's radical past & future

The Ladies Room, organised by the National Trust, celebrated the radical history of the square through Mancunian women past and present.

Part of Manchester’s month-long Wonder Women event, the mini-festival featured talks, workshops, tours and performances, all located in or around the square.

As well as showcasing some creative female talent, The Ladies Room explored the current status of the square; what was once an important meeting point for protest marches, the Suffragettes and some of the city’s most radical figures is now little more than a set of underused bus laybys and boarded over toilets.

Audiences were invited to question: how can we make better use of the square?

The focal point was a pop-up garden with deck chairs, table tennis, bar and interactive Suffragette placards, offering a unique glimpse into a possible future for the square, one where it’s used as a genuine public space.

Designers from Planit-IE and Civic Engineers, who previously worked on the Ancoats Urban Village, presented their compelling vision for the future of Stevenson Square.

They proposed turning the square into a picturesque green space, breaking away from the current street layout and encouraging vehicle drivers to slow down and think about their interaction with the space. Granite would blend into gravel, emphasising the shared and open nature of the space.

Clusters of trees and soft hanging lights would create a friendly, welcoming atmosphere – all aimed at making the square a destination, a place where people can convene and relax, without necessarily spending any money.

Rosanna Barton from Planit-IE said: “It’s essential to keep the character of the space so we would continue the graffiti and street art elements, allowing people to come and leave their personal mark.”

“The Northern Quarter is a quirky neighbourhood, and we wouldn’t want to take that eccentricity away by over-polishing things,” said Civic Engineers’ Stephen O’Malley. “We wouldn’t want to make the NQ slick or too refined. We need more rawness and more ambition.”

He added: “We need to think more realistically about how space is balanced and allocated. Engineers need more poetry, creativity and artistry in how we design town centres.”

(Unfortunately this vision was a purely fictional plan created for the event, though that didn’t stop one resident from voicing their concerns over not being consulted.)

Fortunately the Rooftop Project is a real-life green space on Stevenson Square, which was launched during The Ladies Room. An initiative of people passionate about greening disused hidden spaces of the city centre, the rooftop was gifted by office block 24NQ to bring tenants together with residents, businesses and community groups.

At The Ladies Room the rooftop garden was used for kite-making workshops, a performance of the She Choir, film screenings and sketching groups. It’s accessible until December and is expected to be used for star gazing, yoga sessions and urban gardening workshops.

Other speakers at the event included award-winning Prestwich-born author Emma Jane Unsworth, The Guardian’s Northern editor Helen Pidd, BBC Radio 6 Music reporter Elizabeth Alker and BBC North West Tonight presenter Beccy Meehan.