The Fairfield Social Club, at Mayfield, Manchester, is a unique 21st Century re-invention of a dying Victorian concept, the working men’s institute - a place to gather and socialise and, on occasion, be educated and entertained.
It’s housed not in a traditional red brick building (most of them have long since been demolished or re-purposed) but in a cavernous railway arch beneath what used to be a railway platform bearing trains from the now abandoned Mayfield Station to the suburbs of South Manchester and beyond.
Like its 19th century models, Fairfield Social Club is a place to gather, eat, drink. But it has a more eclectic mix of international cuisine than our Victorian forebears would recognise and a drinks list that encompasses much more than stout or pale ale. It’s a social club for the 21st century, in short.
It was fitting that this vibrant reinvention of both place and concept should have been host to a U+I conference which examined the future of cities.
Mayfield, with its buddleia growing wild this summer over the abandoned platforms, will over the next decade become an entirely new Manchester neighbourhood. A £1bn development with a park, with offices, with homes, with restaurants, with shops, and, most importantly of all, with people.
But what will it really be like? How will it really function? How will we use it as residents, workers, visitors?
Those were the questions we aimed to address at the Fairfield Social Club before an audience of 150 people from business, community and public-sector organisations. How do we build now for the city of the future? How do we design now for the city of 2030? How will we want to use space, materials, buildings 10 or 15 years from now? What will our needs be? How do we anticipate them?
We brought together an eclectic and challenging mix of thinkers and doers. They came from the worlds of academia, music, design, architecture, planning, retail, engineering, civil society, transport.
Despite this disparity of expertise, opinion and insight, key themes emerged.
We can build now for the future if we are creative, if we are challenging and if we are collaborative and prepared to work in partnership. And we must not be afraid of the prospect of future generations reinterpreting our vision to improve and refine what we have created.
It is also clear that our thinking has to embrace so much more than the hard, cold facts of return on investment or commercial viability. Our thinking must begin and end with this question: how do we ensure that we are delivering meaningful, authentic social value?
So taking a person-centred approach to development is key. Building communities for everyone, creating the environments in which people can fulfil their personal potential.
That means ensuring facilities are fit for living, serving diverse communities with diverse needs. It means ensuring we create high quality public spaces and green space. That we remain agile and flexible, looking to anticipate and also to flex where we need to as we develop over time in a rapidly changing environment.
And we must be inclusive. If we gentrify, we fail. If we disconnect from local communities, we fail.
If we focus on those aspirations, then we know we will deliver great places. Places which will work for the 2030 city. For our children and, indeed, for our children’s children.
With thanks to our chair, Jessica Middleton-Pugh, Editor of Place North West, and our participants: David West, founding partner, Studio Egret West; Stephen O’Malley, founding director, Civic Engineers; Joanna Rowelle, director of city planning, Arup; Catherine Dewar, North West planning director, Historic England; Sara Grohmann, partner, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios; Tom Walker, partner, Gillespies; Joanne Roney, chief executive of Manchester City Council; Tom Younger, UK & Ireland city lead, Uber; Cathy Parker, professor of marketing and retail enterprise, Manchester Metropolitan University; Steve Oliver, chief executive, Music Magpie; Jonathan Downey, co-founder, London Union; Sarah James, membership development officer, Civic Voice.