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St. John's Sunshine - mosaic

Remaking the fabric of the city

The first two parts of the research, already summarised here on the Platform, set out why transforming the material fabric of the city matters and why we need to understand not only the dominant agenda for retrofitting the physical fabric, the built environment and the infrastructure networks of Greater Manchester but also alternatives to this. It developed 30 profiles of alternative retrofit projects, providing a rich body of evidence to extend and balance the Remaking the Material Fabric of the City (RMFC) research.

This article is based on the third part of the research that engages with the ways in which Greater Manchester is being transformed through ‘retrofit’ work, and summarises the eight lessons that we can learn from the alternative approaches described by the 30 profiles.

  1. There are very many attempts to re-make the city in practice: The city is a diverse place and efforts to physically re-make it are illustrated by 30 profiles which summarise how they are being used in ways which may be at odds with their historical purpose. For example; transforming a museum roof into a roof garden, experimenting in lived sustainability in a suburban house in Sale, installing a ground source heat pump in a cathedral and revitalizing old industrial infrastructures such as canals, reservoirs and railway lines.
  2. This involves changing the use and value of sites: These are many profiles that aim to make a 21st century relevance of 20th and even 19th century urban assets and infrastructure. For example, the Saddleworth Hydro project uses existing technology and infrastructure (including a reservoir, a pipeline and a gravitational system) to generate community hydro electricity; the Fallowfield Loop has been reconfigured from a railway line to a community-based walking and cycling asset, and many community gardening schemes and orchards find new community-based purposes for under-used or overgrown land.
  3. The role of local motivations and local aims is central: There are many different aims expressed across these initiatives, from generating local energy, growing local food, pooling collective buying power and building local decision-making structures. These all focus on forms of localism which involve people taking ownership of their own energy, food, buildings and infrastructures, often in ways that are not driven primarily by a profit motive.
  4. Bottom-up and collective forms of organisation are often mobilised: Although many of the profiles are bottom-up initiatives of collective, informally organized local groups, many are more formally constituted. Forms include registered charity, co-operative, Mutual Society, Industrial and Provident Society or Community Interest Company. St John’s Sunshine, for example, is an innovative project bringing together church, community and energy generation in Old Trafford, registered as an Industrial and Provident Society.
  5. Many of these organisations also connect at a city governance and at a national level: There are some limits to defining projects as individual, local and discrete. Many of them are interlocked with other initiatives, for example the Green Roof on the Whitworth Gallery is governed by multiple relationships and is also part of the Oxford Road Corridor scheme. National, EU and metropolitan scales are important for many projects in, for example, the labyrinthine funding relationships needed to realise their aims. Project leaders need to negotiate multiple priorities and relationships, and the ongoing search for funding not only creates a pressure but also can lead to new collaborations and social innovation. For example, people with complimentary expertise worked together to identify and address the Ellenroad Engine House heating problem.
  6. Local priorities shaped by mainstream priorities - there is a relationship between the two: The language of competition that has dominated mainstream society for the last three decades is prevalent in these community retrofit initiatives. There is a desire to be first and to be distinctive. For example, the first community-owned hydro scheme in Bury (Bee Sustainable), the first community-owned high head scheme in England (Saddleworth Hydro), the first community-owned hydro scheme in Greater Manchester (Stockport Hydro), the first cathedral in England to have a ground source heat pump (Manchester Cathedral), or the first UK scaled-up application of the Passivhaus standard in existing buildings (Erneley Close). Being ‘first’ brings the benefits of increased profile and interest, but can also focus critical attention.
  7. Local capacity to act is developed over time but is also fragile: A main lesson from the profiles is the long timescales involved in developing many community retrofit initiatives. These can be seen in the twists and turns of their biographies, often over a decade or more, such as Affetside Millennium Green Trust Community Venue, Reddish Vale Community Garden, the Leaf Street Community Garden and Ellenroad Engine House. Long timescales also bring the challenges of sustaining interest in a scheme over time; the loss of key individuals who move on or away; the ends of funding streams, and changing national agendas and social infrastructures which provide short-term support. Every retrofit initiative has a story which illustrates its fragility and susceptibility to external change.
  8. A much better understanding of the social and technical remaking of the city is needed: These wide ranging efforts to remake the city are not just a technical exercise. Remaking the city is important not just in terms of the physical structures of the city, its buildings, pipes and wires. There are many physical sites of remaking but the use of these sites is being re-imagined by a variety of social interests. Local re-imagining is based on many motivations which inform ways of organising at a local level and which also respond to external pressures for competition and positioning for external funding. We need a much better understanding of the relationships within and between these initiatives, and with metropolitan and national priorities and structures. We also need a better understanding of these initiatives over time rather than at a point in time.

These eight lessons give us a framework for understanding the ways in which alternative efforts by local people to remake the city are expressed. They also start to illuminate the various rewards and challenges that such projects encounter in their relationships with a network of support and governance structures, and the impacts that these can have on realising grass roots project aims.

The sum of these 30 profiled projects and the countless others which exist across Greater Manchester (and, indeed, cities in the UK and across the globe) provide a rich and compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of remaking the city through elite-led economic growth.


Find out more:

Profiles of alternative approaches to retrofit in Greater Manchester can be found here and here.


Publicly available information online. This profile has been written drawing on work carried out through the Remaking the Material Fabric of the City (RMFC) research as part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform, funded through Mistra Urban Futures.

What’s ‘The Alternative?’

Find out here about the background, purpose and content of ‘The Alternative?’ series of articles on Platform.

Disclaimer: The article has been put together using publicly available information and online sources as part of a larger ongoing research project. The author has no responsibility for the content or accuracy of those sites.