Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Natural Marketplace

The parks and green spaces of Manchester seem to be gaining an increasingly prominent status within the city as a place where community and environmental action mingles with open space and good old fashioned peace and bloody quiet. But is it that easy? What pressures are put on them by their location and their function? And what is one park, Platt Fields Park in Fallowfield and Rusholme (now halfway through its centenary year), doing to try and thrive in this 21st Century where the twitter on your i-phone is more anticipated than the twitter of a sparrow (LOL)?

There has been a new project launched by the UK Government to try and place a monetary value on the Natural World, the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Its aim, and I quote, is to be “the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and continuing economic prosperity” ( Basically, they decide how much the Natural World is worth to us in pounds and pence. A piece of woodland? That'll be a fiver to you sir. A marshland with a peat underlayer that might act as a potential store for excess carbon? Fifty quid and a wink. Easy.

But the real issue here is the commodification of the Natural World around us. This comes in two ways – first, there is the placing of monetary value onto ecosystems and green spaces. This, according to some, will allow us to appreciate the true value of such things, and, actually, remove them from the marketplace by ascribing value designed to protect it. However, there is the reverse argument that it simply draws the Natural World into the marketplace, opening it up to be used as a 'thing' to be traded or exchanged based on its current value.

Second, is the idea that green spaces must compete with other resources for funding, preservation and a right to exist. They must prove their value for money by making repeated funding requests and proving what they do for the community, or be damned. There is no longer an idea of inherent usefulness in having green spaces.

Also, this has the effect of making us 'consumers' of green spaces to the extent that we expect things from them, as they are paid for by our money. We therefore expect value for that money. “This is our park, I paid for it with my ruddy council tax," etc, much the same argument we would use to justify bin collections every week or roads with no potholes.

So how does Platt Fields Park in particular survive and adapt to this paradigm shift in the thinking about green spaces?

In an interview with Anne Tucker from the Friends of Platt Fields Park, she explained that the park has many different interests to accommodate and to fend off. “Juggling different people’s needs from the park is the trickiest thing,” she says. “Problems are noise levels vs peace and quiet; dog lovers vs dog haters; fireworks (popular vs effects on wildlife); lake uses (fishing vs boating vs leave it alone); duck feeding vs excess of Canada geese; pathways v grass...” It seems that so many groups use these spaces that it is hard to get the balance right, as everyone has an expectation of what their local park should offer them. This expectation increases with the increased function and use value that parks must have to compete for limited Council resources.

Other interests want simply to change the use of the park altogether, or at least parts of it. “Over the years, there have been some attempts to encroach on the park by developers – most notably the gradual taking over of more of the park by Manchester City FC Sports Complex. There was a big fuss over this so another attempt in 2004 to make a temporary car park for hospital employees to park in and be bussed to the hospital while the MRI/St Mary’s were being rebuilt – it got cancelled with a huge campaign.”

On the up side though, Anne comments that, “nowadays if anyone wants anything like that, Manchester Leisure says ‘no’ immediately!”

When you go to Platt Fields Park, as I was lucky enough to do during the Easter Holidays, there certainly is a lot going on, and a lot of different communities using the park. Joggers, young families, groups of young people on the skate park, old men and their dogs, cyclists, people just going from A to B, and students, all seem to get something out of the park. There are cycling workshops, art days, guerilla gardening, community festivals and loads more stuff to try and get people involved in a productive, local way. And yet, all around, there are signs of the city still present, leaning over as if waiting for Nature to let its guard down. Student Accommodation looms up on one side, the MCFC Sports Complex on the other. The noise of traffic on Wilmslow Road is never far away.

All in all, despite the new pressures Platt Fields Park finds itself under, it tries its best to compete (yes, ‘compete’) for attention in our busy city where space is at a premium. I would have to say that its value lies not in its monetary worth, or its usefulness to various interested parties, but simply as an antidote to the dusty, glum routines we find ourselves swept along by if we don't keep our wits about us.

Words: Andy Rees
Pictures: Ian Pennington

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