Manchester Highlights from the UVic Urban Europe Field School (May 28 - June 2, 2018)

Manchester was our first stop on the UVic Urban Europe Field School. Fifteen geography students and two instructors arrived at separate times but formally met for the first time on May 29th at 4:00 in the lobby of Hatters Hostel on Chambers Street. Our hostel was in the Northern Quarter of Manchester which was the trendier, hip part of town with a vibrant nightlife and tons of interesting independent shops, bars and food joints. Tamara, Sawyer and Justine led the group to Sackville Park, to give a bit of insight of why a field school on Urban Sustainability might go to Manchester in the first place. Manchester is the birth place of the Industrial Revolution, which brought about discussions of free market capitialism and liberalism and in turn, the beginning of humanity's catapult into the Anthropocene. With an ecologically unsustainable past, our mission in Manchester was to learn about what the city was doing in order to become a sustainable city. We talked briefly about the well documented and long industrial history of the city and then moved on to the more recent history of the city. We touched on important geographical details, like how it is surrounded by the Pennines Mountains and how there were some very important scientific discoveries made in the city (we will touch in those in more detail later in the post).

Industrial Skyline

Our first morning in Manchester we went on a tour with Ed Gilnert to learn about the city's industrial past. Manchester is famous for being the first modern industrial city, and till his day, the people of Manchester (Mancunians) take pride in the city's history. The city was considered an unimportant municipality until the start of the Industrial Revolution, to which Manchester became the central power-house of the cloth industry. Cotton was a very important material and is now considered a symbol for the city, as the cloth industry thrust Manchester into modernity, though some may say, at a price. Warehouses, cotton mills and factories fill Manchester's urban landscape, many adapted for modern use, while others stand as a derelict reminder of the past.

Our guide, Ed Gilnert.

Here is a video explaining Manchester's transition from an Industrial City to a Modern one with footage from our tour with Ed Gilnert:

The Industrial Revolution had high amounts of human migration, because suddenly all the work to be done was in cities, and people would move to where the work was. Ed asked the group why we thought Manchester became the industrial phenomenon it did. The physical geography of Manchester is the first part of the answer, as it is at the centre of all North West England's villages, all of which had been participating in the cloth industry in some way or another. North Western England also has the best weather for cotton, because it can best manipulated best when it is damp. Also, Manchester had one of the first railways that allowed for the transport of people and goods. The railway was stretched to Liverpool, a port time that would import the raw cotton goods from far away, tropical climates. But, what do we think of when we think of the Industrial Revolution? All the pollution that was produced! North Western England lies on top of a huge reservoir of coal. Coal mining became the most important extraction industry for Manchester, when they moved away from steam powered machinery, to coal powered machinery. The pollution created by the coal made Manchester's industrial city a living nightmare, and has been documented by famous authors like Charles Dickens and, of course, Freidrich Engles.

Left: Friedrich Engels Statue in the HOME square of Manchester. Right: A copy of the Condition of the Working Class in England

We met Ed Gilnert at the Friedrich Engels Statue on the edge of the city centre. Engels wrote his famous book The Condition of the Working Class in England after visiting the same parts of the city we attended on our tour. Engels was horrified by the slums in which the "manufactory" workers lived and worked in. Ed took us to one of the worst of these slums on our tour known as "Little Ireland", as Irish immigrants were employed at high rates, but due to intolerance, paid at lower wages. Little Ireland was made up of about 200 cottages, of which was meant to house up 4000 people. Engels describes the experiences of the inhabitants of Little Ireland in his book as follows:

"The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors, and rotten door-posts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench must surely have reached the lowest stage of humanity.”

Map of Little Ireland

Today, Little Ireland is the heart of a trendy, art community, paying tribute to both the area’s dire past, as well as looking towards a hopeful future. It’s apparent that the city is keen to reinvent itself away from what Engels would have seen in his day, as it is best known as a world leading producer of football and music. The two football (soccer) teams, Manchester City (Ed’s preference) and Manchester United compete for the affection of Mancunians, and they certainly love them back. A few of us had the chance to visit the Football Museum while we were there. For those of us who don’t really care for footy, the live music scene did not disappoint! Famously, we learned that bands like Joy Division, New Order, and Oasis originated in Manchester, so the ‘80s dance parties were especially fun to take part in!

Clockwise from top: Joy Division, Oasis, and the National Football Museum

Kindling Trust

After the tour with Ed and a quick lunch break, we headed over to the Kindling Trust HQ to talk with Chris Walsh about the urban agriculture initiative. Kindling Trust is a social enterprise project based out of Manchester, which tackles the issue of food poverty and the social problems that lead to it by running several urban farms and community garden projects, such as Farmstart. Kindling Trust aims to create a new kind of supply chain by eliminating the distributor, where most of the profits accumulate in the current food system. Kindling trust accomplishes this by selling food straight to the consumers, which in most cases are restaurants and institutions.

Our group with Chris of Kindling Trust

Chris identified many challenges in changing the food system, with scaling up urban organic agricultural projects one of the main issues. Currently, Kindling Trust has many informal farming operations that draw inspiration from Copenhagen agricultural models, however they have struggled to find enough volunteers to scale up operations. Another issue with scaling up is the difficulty in managing organic farms, which can be very labour intensive. Methods like permaculture and companion planting can be difficult to execute at a large scale. Kindling Trust is currently looking to purchase or lease farmland close to Greater Manchester and uses agro-ecological methods of farming.

Although Kindling Trust has a long way to go to achieve their vision of ‘a just and ecologically sustainable society’, what Chris and others are doing to improve food sovereignty and the health of their community is very inspiring. We saw many parallels to Victoria’s own Chris Hildreth and his TOPSOIL project, which is also an urban farming initiative aiming to improve food sovereignty, health, and change the food system. Kindling Trust approaches issues surrounding social inequalities from the ground up, involving community members in farming projects, working with charities, and closing the gap between producers and consumers through various projects outlined on their website.


On our third day of the field school, the class had the pleasure of boarding the train out of Manchester for a day trip to Chester. In contrast to the post-Industrial city of Manchester, Chester came into itself in medieval times as a trading hub. It has a unique cityscape because of its two tiered commercial space, with shop access from below and above. Our tour guide, Tom Jones (the original, he claims) explained that the shops had followed this design since their creation, and that retail has always been Chester central economy. It is now a bustling tourist attraction, but the beauty of the medieval architecture managed to wow all of us on the field school.

Tom Jones in action

Tom Jones was also a fabulous story teller, stopping in front of a building that had been built in the 1600s to tell us about a paranormal encounter from his wedding night! From a sustainability point of view, our trip to Chester was enlightening about how pre-industrial citizens used materials and resources. Our reading by Gibson (2005) explains “ancient” forms of sustainability would have been to support stability, ie, keeping up with the traditions that have worked in the past, and rejecting innovation. Tom Jones explained that much of Chester’s ancient history, like it’s Roman influences, are undetectable, because when new groups would conquer the city, the old relics would be used to create the new ones, almost like an ancient recycling. Today, Chester takes its history and heritage very seriously, and we were very happy to have Tom Jones as a guide to introduce us to that heritage.

Manchester's Worker Bees

Examples of the Bees

What became obvious as we traversed the streets of Manchester, is that the city has a mascot; the worker bee. The bee is symbolic of Manchester's Industrial Working Class and determination. However, on May 22, 2017, the bee became a more solemn and important connector for Mancunians. After a bomb went off at a concert largely attended by young people, Manchester was shaken to the core. The bee became a symbol of solidarity and hope for peace. As is shown above, the Oasis song "Don't Look Back in Anger" was paired with the image of the bee, to encourage Mancunians to stand strong against terrorism, but not to retaliate against those who were not involved. Unfortunately, after the event, reports of Muslim hate crimes went up by 500%. The city is still in mourning a year later, let's hope they don't look back in anger.

Urban Sustainability Initiatives

On June 1st we met up with Dave Barlow for a walking tour of the city. We started out on the same corner as our hostel where there was a small roof-like structure (pictured above) with some plants growing on top. Dave started out by explaining how the cities of Manchester and Liverpool have teamed up and created “A Tale of Two Cities” which is a project to bring greenspace; specifically, wildflower gardens into the city centres to increase the biodiversity of insects/ invertebrates and birds inside the city centre. His key principals for the implementation of public greenery were

• More is less- a cluttered public space can deter people because it feels too enclosed or there is too much going on in a small outdoor space.

• Mobilize, collaborate and learn; work together and feed off each others’ ideas.

• Engage and involve- bring people in to the project so they can participate and give input into what they would like to see around the city.

One thing he said that really stuck was “You can’t understand where you’re going if you don’t understand where you are coming from”. This is super relevant in the world today but especially for Manchester because they were the heart of the industrial revolution. This ties in to the next place he took us; Angel Meadows. Angel Meadows, back in the day, was known as a good place to do bad things. It was one of the poorest places in Europe; there were consistently outbreaks of hygiene related illnesses which killed a lot of people. Angel meadows was where they buried the deceased; now Angel meadows is a big public park. Like every public space there is a cost and they have found a way to pay for the upkeep using the innovative funding model, which means that every household in the surrounding development pays a small yearly fee for the upkeep of the park.

We then went to St. Peters square, one of the main squares in the Spinningfields district. In the square, Dave pointed out the trees in various locations around the sidewalks. Each tree costs abut 3,000 pounds (about $5,250 in CAD) to buy and install into the trees. The trees benefit the space by capturing much of the excess water that the sewer systems can’t handle. Not only that, but trees also provide shade and they increase the biodiversity of the space.

The last place he took us on the tour was the Manchester Cathedral where we got to go up on to the roof and see their beehives. We talked a little bit about the rooftop beehives and we were introduced to the Volition project. The Volition project is run out of the Manchester cathedral and its all about teaching people that are at very tough or low points in their lives how to become part of the working environment by first having them volunteer with taking care of the bees.

We ended off the tour with a little talk about difficulties with creating room for greenspaces/ urban gardens in a city full of heritage buildings because removing heritage stones or other built elements must go through multiple committees before it can actually be done.

Overall the tour was very informative on how to go about implementing natural spaces into the built world; how it works, who it benefits and what it does for the people or species that interact with it. Implementing nature into the built environment can be a challenge and it can be pricey but in the end, like Dave mentioned; nature based solutions are always cost effective and worthwhile.

Conclusions and Take Aways

By the end of our stay in Manchester, it was clear just how full of history, life, and pride this city is. Transitioning from the city world renowned for its horrible conditions and pollution during the Industrial Revolution to the modern and vibrant place it is today was no easy task, especially after going through the process of deindustrialization in the 70s and 80s. The urban spirit of Manchester, may be partly responsible for the city's success, as Mancunians fully stand by their gritty history and proudly display the worker bee emblem in many aspects of their lives.

Manchester is a city that is still going through revitalization, with a growing economy and population. Although issues like gentrification are beginning to rise, Manchester is still a relatively affordable place to live, and retains its vibrant arts, music, and sporting scenes. The new housing developments and repurposing of industrial buildings are helping to keep this history of Manchester alive and visible, while adapting it to future needs. The city is also experiencing a rise in sustainability initiatives and improvements of the public realm, as Dave Barlow showed us.

Manchester was a fascinating place to embark on our European tour, and really gave context to how modern society formed through the Industrial Revolution. As the birth place of arguably capitalism and communism, it would be hard to not be blown away by the significance of this once small English town.


Created with an image by Sefgrt - "loch 92 dukes 92 manchester"

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