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  • Severine Cochard

On the origin of spaces

Within the range of my middle age lifespan, I have already seen many changes to familiar spaces.

I have in mind two contrasting examples.

The first is Mayfield, sited along the banks of the River Medlock, wedged between the railway line into Piccadilly station and the Mancunian Way. When I first moved to Manchester this area was for me the archetypal decaying urban district of Victorian warehouses and more modern industrial units. I didn’t know the Medlock was even there. It had been lost through Victorian industrialisation, with culverts and buildings along its banks making it disappear from the city’s landscape. I don’t think anybody called it Mayfield then. It is now heralded as one of Manchester’s most ambitious urban developments. It will include Manchester’s first new public park for 100 years, with 1,400 new homes having this new park as their back garden. This transformation will bring biodiversity back into the city as well as creating an appealing environment for investors. This type of spatial change is about local and national politics, international business, as well as the work of architects and developers trying to re-imagine the city. There are many powers at play. I’m excited about what this will look like and whether birds, bats and insects will like it too.

In contrast to Manchester, I come from a department of France, the Meuse, classed as hyper-rural by the French government. Villages there have a very low population density, with many empty properties. They are away from any international business interests. My native village was most populated in the 19th century, when I imagine all gardens were tended. When growing up, there were still quite a few productive vegetable gardens and orchards at the back of most houses. Some of these have now become ‘rewilding projects’. All this happening without fanfare or European subsidies, simply through the power of abandonment. Here too, I’m interested in what these spaces will look like in the future. I can tell already that birds, bats and insects are loving it.

Both examples have made me think about how we use and shape land over time and particularly the traditional model of house and garden. In both cases, the idea of maintaining a garden attached to a house is no longer sustainable. In Manchester, there is simply too much housing demand to warrant individual properties with garden. In Meuse, they aren’t enough people to look after the gardens in the first place.

Landscape architect John Wyer argues that it’s time we ditched our nostalgic view of house and gardens. He highlights how urban pressure for traditional type of housing often end up creating garden boxes which are not adequate for human use. They also lead to more hardscape (with artificial lawn and paving) and physical barriers with fences, making them also inadequate for most wildlife.

The Covid crisis has magnified our need for outdoor spaces and nature, so now is a good time to rethink the future of gardens. Is it still realistic to expect our own bit of private outdoor space, forever fragmented and fenced off from neighbouring plots? Can we keep on redefining and shaping our gardens like we would re-decorate a living room? How do we weave wild areas through all spaces?

Mayfield is giving me hope that public / private finance can be a positive evolutionary force for nature. My village in Meuse reminds me that all human construction are only temporary experiments.

Severine works as a garden designer in Manchester. She is interested in nature in the city and the making of more sustainable gardens

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