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Pint-sized Manchester

Phil Griffin flags up the last week of a remarkable CUBE exhibition looking at how cities can shrink as well as grow

Published on January 21st 2008.

Pint-sized Manchester

This is counter intuitive. Surely cities are expanding. Bursting even. We’re all ‘street’ aren’t we? And anyway, isn’t Manchester the 21st century renaissance city, and isn’t Liverpool, reigning European Capital of Culture just bursting with growth hormone? Well, yes, there are recent signs of reversal of fortune, but it’s probably too early to tell for sure. In the second half of the last century Liverpool and Manchester shed roughly half their populations. For various reasons one out of every two Mancs and Scousers left, and were not replaced. This, if you are really serious about your city, the serious business is halting that decline.

In the second half of the last century Liverpool and Manchester shed roughly half their populations. For various reasons one out of every two Mancs and Scousers left, and were not replaced.

Philipp Oswalt, an architect based in Berlin, has since 2001 run The Shrinking Cities Project on behalf of the German Federal Cultural Foundation. He and a team of artists, architects and urban planners have been to Ivanov (3000 kilometres northeast of Moscow), Leipzig, Detroit, Manchester and Liverpool. Between 1930 and 2002 Liverpool shed 48.5% of its population, Detroit lost 51% since 1950. Oswalt has contrived to make an exhibition out of ashes such as these. He and his team have done so triumphantly.

Shrinking Cities is on three sites: the Renew Rooms in the Tea Factory in the Rope Walks, a Site Gallery annexe in the Britannia Pavilion at Albert Dock, and CUBE (Centre for the Urban Built Environment) on Portland Street in Manchester. Three appropriate locations. It is not so much an exhibition as an extra mural urban studies course. By no means worse for that. This is art (and there is a lot of art here) with serious intent. My user-guide is this: take it a block at a time. But take it soon, the shows close next Saturday 26 January. For instance, I suggest, in this US Presidential election year, you take a look at Detroit. Motor City, Motown, Acid House, Manchester on Michigan. Birthplace of the Model T and Techno. Shrinking is hardly the word that describes the present day existence of this once top of the world template of the market economy. Even, as one of the short films here shows, the corpses in their coffins are leaving town.

There are four Detroit videos, and four photographs by Stan Douglas, including a wonderful barely credible image of the Michigan Theatre, jewel in the Downtown of 1930’s Detroit, now a nearly deserted car park. For these pieces alone the exhibition richly rewards a visit. Kelly Parker has made a film she calls Coda Motor City. It intercuts TV ads for cars with a day in the life of Marcia, one of 48% of Detroiters who don’t own one.

Marcia is African American, probably in her late fifties. She carries the surplus body weight of most poor Americans. She carries it slowly along snow-covered pavements. There is virtually no public transport system in Detroit. She carries it painfully up the stairs to her walk-up apartment. She goes to church. Most poor Americans do. The church – many churches – is America’s welfare system. Marcia is spirited. So is the guy in the film who scavenges wrecked autos. Hundreds of them. His dad did it. He says it’s in his blood.

Perhaps elements in Manchester City Council didn’t welcome the Shrinking Cities Project. Neither is it in tune with Liverpool 08. I can understand that. Here and now, it is not the song these cities are singing. For three years in the last seven, Liverpool has recorded net gains in population, Manchester slightly more. Both cities have new positivism that is vital for continuing growth. If it is anything at all Shrinking Cities is a corrective. And it is far more than that. I’ve rarely seen hard, thoroughly researched, genuinely collaborative material presented so creatively.

If you want to know more about the problems faced by Liverpool and Manchester since the empire and industry that brought them prosperity in the first half of the last century withered and disappeared, spend some time with Shrinking Cities. It may not be the song we want to hear today, but like some plaintive soundtrack by Tom Waits, it will draw you in and attach you to greater understanding. Not many exhibitions do that.

Shrinking Cities: International Research
CUBE — Centre for the Urban Built Environment, Manchester 113–115 Portland Street, Manchester
Monday–Friday, noon-5.30 p.m, Saturday noon–5.00 p.m. www.cube.org.uk

Shrinking Cities: Polarisation
Renew Rooms, The Tea Factory 82 Wood Street, Liverpool
Monday–Friday 9am–5 pm

Shrinking Cities: Interventions Site Albert Dock, Britannia Pavilion, Liverpool
Wednesday–Sunday, 10am–4pm

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8 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

mark mJanuary 21st 2008.

hardly a suitable posting name SV.

Shrinking violetJanuary 21st 2008.

Manchester is shrinking alright: in morals, law and order, decency, honesty and respect. I suppose thats the price you pay in a greedy solicitor infested city such as ours where many peoples very careers and livlihoods are based on the perpetuity of deception, murder, theft and rape. Its disgusting. Imagine if everyone represented themselves in court? This bunch of lowlife cockroaches who are completely devoid of morals wouldnt have half the power they seem to possess and would die out. I hope people start seeing them for what they are soon.

JayJanuary 21st 2008.

The Greater Manchester population figure has remained stable around the 2.5m mark for many decades. But Shrinking Cities does flag up the hollowing out of the major centres as John Ware comments is even happening in Japan. This does tend to live areas sometimes miles deep with sink populations.

Jonathan Schofield - editorJanuary 21st 2008.

Anonymous, indeed it does finish soon. That's why we've put it up, because we want to get people along for this last chance to enjoy it. Last day is Saturday 26 January.

John WareJanuary 21st 2008.

Did I say "developing countries"? I meant "developed countries". Cities in developing countries are, of course, seeing population increase.

AnonymousJanuary 21st 2008.

I believe Shrinking Cities exhibition at Cube finishes this week, after a run of a few months. If you want to go - which you should - you'd better be quick.

John WareJanuary 21st 2008.

Thanks Phil. This article, and exhibition, raises important issues. The shrinking city is happening across many developing countries. I had the opportunity to visit the Urban Design Centre Kashiwanoha in Japan, recently. kashiwanoha (30 mins outside Tokyo) is the only city in Japan with a growing population. Cities like Tokyo are projected to have a massive population decline over the next years - mainly because the baby boom generation has now started retirement. Exhibitions like Shrinking Cities in Cube get people thinking about the state of our cities and their future.

HowardJanuary 21st 2008.

Always good to get the thought process stimulated Phil but do these figures reflect the population growth in what might be described as the city region. I obviously accept the stat on the city as currently defined by its boundaries but what about the outer suburbs and towns that one way or another see Manchester as its hub and (postcode snobbery apart) are certainly an economic part of Manchester

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