How Is This Only Temporary?
The transient nature of cities provides permission to hide behind temporary experiences, but how healthy is it to live like this? We're in the midst of a global pandemic and to instil a glimmer of hope we are encouraged to view it as 'only temporary'. However, is there any hope in the contrary? When the green and social spaces that we need now more than ever are only temporary how do we attempt to embed the positive effects of these initiatives and make these more permanent features of our city?
Written pre-pandemic we invited one of our trustees, Dr Rebecca Taylor to reflect on some of the temporary initiatives she experienced whilst living in Manchester’s city centre. She encourages us to consider how our experiences might inform future decisions and the design development of our much loved city.
As an Affiliate Researcher of The Institute for Cultural Practices at The University of Manchester, Rebecca has recently contributed to the GHIA research project and report Nature and Ageing Well in our Towns and Cities (2020).
The research makes for a compelling read regarding the non-monetary value of green spaces and has revealed both positive and negative impacts associated with caring for green spaces across Greater Manchester.
We’ve invited Becca to share her view on ‘the temporary’ and given the rapid development and transient nature of Manchester she frames some useful questions that will equip us for meetings with governing bodies and developers.
Kate Bradbury’s book The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (2018) is my starting point. It’s an intimate memoir of ‘love, loss and muddy hands.’
As is sometimes the case, I stumbled across Bradbury’s words at a time in my life when I was experiencing a family bereavement. Inspired by Bradbury’s musings on how she reclaimed her garden for wildlife, and her sanity, I dutifully went on the hunt for her books. In The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, she talks candidly about her relationship ending and of being uprooted from her home and garden. With all her possessions in storage Bradbury says,
“I tried being a sort of nomad gardener; I gardened in an allotment, the shared house I lived in for a while, the gardens of friends who let me stay with them for a few weeks at a time. But it wasn’t the same. You can’t form an attachment to temporary things, fall in love, be so careless with your heart. Well, you can, but it only causes you more pain. And I try to avoid pain, on the whole, these days. Why plant things you will never see flower? Feed the earth that will never feed you?”
Firstly, I had to remind myself this is her story, but her words carried immense power for me personally, particularly the phrase ‘you can’t form an attachment to temporary things’. It stirred in me the rebellious riposte of “yes I can!” and “well, I do…”. A large part of my professional experience has drawn on the design of temporary experiences. And I cannot deny that I enjoy consuming temporary experiences as a form of entertainment – immersive theatre, films and television programmes, exhibitions, festivals and concerts.
But it seemed that my activism, which focuses on caring for and protecting the life of green and social spaces, ran somehow contrary to this notion of ‘temporary’ explored by Bradbury. I could see sense in her warning against forming an attachment to temporary things. How could I be so careless with my heart?!
The spaces we find for ourselves and then occupy as community activists are indeed only temporary. However, in order to genuinely care, we have to form an attachment.
From a growbox to a rooftop garden to a pop-up park, the value of the temporary is in showcasing the life of its characteristics, features and intentions. But how much of this life and vitality is then transferred into the design and aesthetic experience of what becomes of the next iteration of the space?
I’m not sure I can answer this question in this article. In fact, I only want to go as far as using this opportunity to share four examples that come to mind when I think of my encounters with the temporariness of space.
Upon first glance these examples may appear void of ‘green’. They are ‘concrete’ examples. Each in some way has taught me the benefits and challenges of community-led, creative uses of social space.
When I was a resident of Manchester there were buildings that provided me with a sense of space, place, interaction as well as connection with people, humanity, creativity and self-expression. These otherwise neglected or unused spaces evoked a great sense of social action and determination to care.
The first to attract my attention was the Dobbins Department Store, Oldham Street. Destroyed by fire in 2013 this plot of land soon became development opportunity. The intentions of the private land owner conflicted with the needs of the local community who had been galvanised into action to fight back. It was not long before a car park was profiting from the building’s rubble. The ParkStarter initiative begged the question – why another car park?!
Owing to my interest in creative communities I soon became aware of Rogue Studios at Crusader Mill. A hive of activity, artists carved out studios with paint splattered walls. Paper cuttings, ceramics, sculpture, textiles, photographs, sketches, scribbles – all matter of material and equipment filled the space and the senses with a vivid reminder of how we can all make a mark in the world, be experimental, take risks and play with our ideas.
Another space that had a similar vibe also popped up in NOMA – The Castlefield Arts Forum at Federation House. In 2014 the digital festival Future Everything challenged our notion of City Fictions and utilised the space as a maker space and series of crafting the future workshops. MMU students and the infamous UnitX module resided there, making the most of the scale of the building. Subsequent community forums have only fostered curiosity for such scale and proactive use of such a rough and raw space.
As the creative chaos of Federation House subsided, The Wonder Inn becomes my fourth and final ‘concrete’ example of temporariness. I remember having to squeeze in from the highly polluted street of Shudehill through a tall, narrow, heavy wooden door and into what felt like a welcome retreat, a space that offered great intrigue. Before long I had subscribed to the community’s ethos – ‘creative wellness’ – and I came to listen to music, watch films, attend talks and events, exhibitions and meetings, sometimes just sitting for a moment, on my own, absorbing the energy of its social life.
Less than a decade later and these spaces no longer exist. Or not in the form in which I can recall connecting to them.
The transient nature of the city and urban environment promotes the coolness of the temporary. It’s edgy and trendy to provide temporary solutions. What better excuse do we have to make mess and express ourselves? After all, it is owing to its temporariness that it can be cleared away, cleaned and …forgotten?
In addition to these ‘concrete’ examples lies a very unique, natural, green and wild example of temporariness. The NQ Growboxes are situated in Piccadilly Basin and will be entering their 10th (perhaps even their 11th or 12th) season this spring. This little haven reminds people that amongst a concrete cityscape you can experience the temporal nature of seasons and the precariousness of such initiatives. Exposed to (all) the elements, the NQ Growboxes provide local photographer Sarah Marshall with many great and astonishing examples of the resilience of nature. Marshall’s inquisitiveness of urban nature is shared through the lens of her camera. This documentation of wildlife surviving and thriving is a valuable record of the biodiversity that lives in and amongst the mess and chaos of Manchester’s City Centre.
We don’t know when this community intervention will come to an end, but we do know the impact of its presence is and has been felt amongst a number of people who have engaged in its existence. How might this temporary initiative influence the imminent design and development of Piccadilly Basin, if at all?
Indeed, the aesthetic of the temporary or the wild can inform the design of its ‘forever’ use. A great example is the Ruhr’s Industrial Heritage Trail in Germany, specifically the Landschaftspark. Located in Duisburg-Meiderich this public park was designed in 1991 by Latz + Partner, ‘with the intention that it works to heal and understand the industrial past, rather than trying to reject it.’
As we enter into Spring, I would like to awaken a curiosity in each of us that focuses on the attachments we do form to spaces. Whilst everything seems (and is) temporary, rather than bury our memories, stories and encounters of the temporary, how might we maintain and protect them in order to better motivate our social action?
In Kate Bradbury’s book, the author recalls revisiting her family’s back garden she so fondly remembered as a child and seeing that new owners had built upon it,
“To see a world, my world, buttoned up, buried like that, destroyed me. That vision of my childhood lost beneath asphalt has never really left me. It may even have something to do with why I’m here now.”
As an award-winning author and journalist, Bradbury is a spokesperson for nature and wildlife not just through words but in and through her actions. I would like to encourage us therefore not to dwell on the destruction and the voids that spaces might leave.
These spaces do not own our memories, we do.
Let’s consider what effects and influences the life from within the temporary has had on our motivations, sense of purpose and creative spirit.
I urge you to ask yourself – How might your experiences of temporary spaces inspire the design of spaces that are built to last? And how has losing something inspired you to preserve and conserve the life of something else?