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May 15 2017

Manchester's Urban Sprawl


Urbanisation or urban sprawl is the process where an ever increasing percentage of a country’s population migrate to economic hubs, mostly towns and cities, leading to the spread of residential development over rural land. This culminates in a city and its suburbs growing into the surrounding countryside creating a greater footprint for each of a country’s major conurbations on the landscape. The statistics demonstrate that for the first time in history, the majority of people live in urban settlements.  There are now in excess of 417 (based on 2014 figures) ‘medium sized cities’ (population size of circa. 1-5 million people) across the globe, with a further 515 smaller settlements (population sizes of 500,000 to 1 million people).

Modern day Manchester is a prime example of this expansion. The actual city centre is relatively small in comparison to some of its urban counterparts in that you can walk from Castlefield to the top of Ancoats in about 40 minutes.  The effects of this ‘urban sprawl’ are demonstrated most markedly by some of the more popular residential locales to the south of the city centre, particularly along the Oxford/Wilmslow Road corridor. These ‘inner city suburbs’ such as Rusholme, Fallowfield, Withington, Chorlton and Didsbury, were all at one stage villages in their own right. Taking Rusholme in isolation which, up until the early 19th century, was a village lying in the countryside 2 miles to the south of Manchester. It’s a remarkable demonstration of what can happen in just 150 years or so!

This part of Manchester was dominated by two large estates – Birch estate was owned by the Anson family and the Platt Hall estate, owned by the Worsley family. You can still see some the area’s heritage through the street names; Anson Road, Birchfields Park, Birch Hall Lane, Platt Lane etc. Rusholme at the time was a village whose residents were chiefly reliant upon agriculture and cottage industries such as hand-loom weaving.  As Manchester embarked upon its path to being an industrial behemoth, the village occupations of weaving and farming were inevitably phased out in favour of larger scale industry such as the cotton mills for which the city would soon be world renowned. It was at this point that the mills, along with engineering and chemical works, in the city centres began to lure people away from their villages as people sought potentially higher earnings.

Unsurprisingly in the many cases of mass urbanisation rural land becomes the ‘sacrificial lamb’ that must clear the way for suburban expansion. In Rusholme’s case, farmland has demonstrably been consolidated into two main green areas; Platt Fields and Birchfields Parks. Perhaps one of the most illuminating statistics about this area, firmly underlining Manchester’s expansion over the past century comes in the form of population growth analysis.  The 1831 census listed Rusholme’s population as 1,078. By comparison the 2011 census shows that the population of the area had expanded to 13,643.

Regrettably some of the city’s historical features have also been sacrificed as part of the urbanisation of these suburban villages. Examples include Birch Hall Farm House which was demolished in 1926 and Platt Abbey, built in the early 1800’s, which became a hotel but was also later demolished in 1950. Given the subject matter of urbanisation, the Platt Abbey site is now marked, somewhat poetically, by two flat blocks; Platt and Worsley Court.

Going forward, Manchester City Council has demonstrated an active commitment to the preservation and maintenance of a number of the cities historical assets. Such a notion certainly bodes well for the future in preserving the heritage and character of the city. Not so positive however is that the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework has highlighted that some of the cities Greenbelt may well have to be sacrificed in order to meet the expanding city’s housing requirements.

With urbanisation becoming ever more prevalent across the globe, it certainly seems like it would be a mistake to focus on settlements solely sprawling outwards into the countryside. Many cities cited for their effective design have not sprawled but instead turned their focus towards networks of high-density neighbourhoods interconnected by efficient and affordable mass transit systems. Perhaps the most notable example being New York. Another ‘mega city’ (population sizes of 10 - 20 million people) that has avoided urban sprawl is Seoul.  In a somewhat frank demonstration of their city growth philosophy, the mayor of Seoul dismantled the main highway through the city centre stating  that;

‘Seoul is for people, not cars.’

Conceivably in the future, Manchester can take inspiration from the two aforementioned cities. Certainly the bus lane upgrades down Oxford Road and expansion of the MetroLink are heading in the right direction for the ever expanding city.  Hopefully the conservation of the cities more iconic buildings remains high on the council’s list of priorities and Manchester’s historical past won’t be lost despite its new face and significant expansion!


Around Town Flats give thanks to Bruce Anderson and the Rusholme Archive for the replication of images and historical information used in this blog.


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