The Rooftop Project: Finding Space to be Curious-in-Action in Manchester
Today, a mass-collaborative, co-designed community rooftop project launches in Manchester’s Northern Quarter and for the first time is made accessible to the public for The Ladies’ Room radical history event.
“Escapism…” “…expansive possibilities…” “…a different perspective…” “…riding mattresses into the garden.”
These images of sanctuary, imagination and mischief are some of the thoughts and memories associated with experiences of being on a rooftop. They were offered by the community members of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, at the first ideas and action session held at 24-26 Lever Street, where with tenants of the building, local residents, businesses, organisations and community groups were tasked with reimagining the building’s vacant rooftop, with a view to transform it into a publicly accessible community space.
Whilst The Rooftop Project has been made possible by a broad and varied mix of people, the opportunity began with a conversation between three people who care about Manchester’s City Centre - Atul Bansal, Rebecca Taylor and Beth Knowles brought their professional backgrounds and their personal passions together; “it very quickly became less about something that could happen, and was suddenly something that is happening” says Rebecca Taylor who sees the project through the lens of an active and curious resident, trustee of New Leaf and action-researcher associated with HighWire at Lancaster University. With a background in designing brand experiences for people, Rebecca has now shifted her approach to designing with people and says, “that first session was vital to the project, it set the tone for the features of experience that would further define what a rooftop means to people, what it will be used for and why its presence as a social space is important to people”
The ideas in that first session provided the starting point for what would become ‘a mass collaborative effort’ of co-designing a social space for Manchester’s Northern Quarter - an initiative created by a mix of people passionate about thinking imaginatively about disused, hidden spaces of the city centre.
In a city centre becoming saturated with commercial venues and ‘zombie car parks’ local residents have been campaigning for the need for green, social spaces. Rebecca says that it’s a concept in its early stages but “…it appears to me that people are being curious-in-action… those involved very closely in the project so far share a desire to take action, knowingly or unknowingly through design and in doing so it feels like we are experimenting with a different type of activism that Fuad-Luke calls ‘design-led activism’.”
Beth Knowles, co-founder of A New Leaf city centre greening group, and a co-instigator of The Rooftop Project says “It came about through having conversations [about Manchester’s public space] with Atul on the balcony of 24 Lever Street in the summer. He asked what he could do to help, pointed to his flat roof and asked if we wanted that as a pilot, to pilot the idea of using rooftops as an innovative way of bringing people together in a greening space rather than fighting over car parks and fighting over very expensive limited spaces in the city centre on the ground.”
The aim of The Rooftop Project as a publicly accessible space is to connect people who work within the building with local residents and groups actively involved with local activism, such as greening groups, charities and cultural/learning organisations of the Northern Quarter, Manchester, through a year-long timetabled programme of community events, which reflect the ethos of the project. This collaborative, community ethos has been evident so far through the co-design process and co-creation of the space.
Through a mix of public events, tenant meetings, and volunteer action days, the rooftop of 24-26 Lever Street has been transformed into a welcoming, inclusive and versatile space. Rebecca reflects on the process: "The success of the project can only be measured by the curiosity of others. This has to be one of the most exciting projects I have had the pleasure of being involved with, the journey so far has been highly reflective and highly inquisitive.”
Atul Bansal explains:“The NQ is built around the desire to help people I think. When somebody has a problem, or a task, or they’re trying to do a project, I always felt that if they put a flag out and said help, people in the NQ, even though they’re competing with each other, would all come together and try and help them.”
This was certainly the case with The Rooftop Project, with an immense number of companies and groups coming together to provide materials and labour needed to make the project a physical reality. From plants to planters, AstroTurf to decking, and even the heroic appearance of a crane at the eleventh hour, when The Rooftop Project put out its flag, Manchester wholeheartedly responded.
The rooftop overlooks the Northern Quarter’s Stevenson Square, an iconic space, which has a radical history of providing a meeting space for protests, speeches and readings – suggesting that local activism has been very much part of the fabric of Manchester's past and present. As a celebration of this history, particularly relating to Manchester’s female radicals, Saturday 28th March will see Stevenson Square playing host to talks, tours, workshops and performances by current women in dedication to historical female figures, in a day-long event, The Ladies’ Room. The Ladies’ Room will also be looking at and encouraging others to think about how we can make better use of the square.
As part of Saturday’s The Ladies’ Room event, The Rooftop Project will host a programme of events, including urban sketching, kite-making, a choir performance and a special screening of William H. Whyte’s ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’. The Rooftop will be open throughout the day for the public to experience, consider and discuss the potential of this unique space and others nearby.
Hayley Flynn, National Trust’s City Curator and organiser of The Ladies’ Room, highlights their shared values: “Our aim in the city is to promote the protection and creation of special spaces. The Rooftop Project shares and fulfils these same values.”
Saturday’s event will mark, to some degree, the end of The Rooftop Project’s first phase, but very much the beginning of another, as the space’s 12 month public programme kicks off, before being reviewed at the end of the year in terms of its social impact. There are talks of big things for the space over the coming months, including star gazing, urban gardening and mindfulness sessions, but the future of the project is still very much in the hands of those who choose to contribute to it. Atul explains: “I think my biggest concern is that, when we open it, people will think that it’s finished, and it isn’t. It’s a space that lives and grows and changes.” Further to this Rebecca and Beth both continue to see “The Rooftop Project as a platform, a blank canvas, an opportunity for all those who engage in the project in some way, shape or form, to be curious of social space, more importantly to be curious of making space in the city to be social for social good.”
The dynamic and open nature of this space means that its possibilities are vast, but its success lies in the way people get involved over the coming year. Whether it’s as a curator, workshop provider, creative contributor or an active guest, The Rooftop Project extends both the invitation and call to action, creating space for you to be 'curious-in-action'.
This article has also been published by Platform