“It’s easier to see the strategy with hindsight. If you go right back to the 1945 plan for Manchester and start from there, you wouldn’t end up here.”

– Bernard Priest, Manchester City Councillor.

Manchester has long been known for its fighting spirit, and after the fall of the Industrial Revolution in the early 20th Century, the City had to build itself up like a phoenix from the ashes. Even a couple of decades ago, Manchester was all sludge canals and gang shootings in the suburbs. Now, it’s a different story. Shimmering skyscrapers soar, cranes puncture the slate-gray skyline, luxury flats gleam above the run-down mills, and even the New York Times is penning pieces about Manchester’s indie gem – the Northern Quarter. According to the branding of the city, the future is bright.

Suddenly flooded with eager young faces migrating back from London where rent prices have hiked a staggering 10.6%, Manchester has been hailed as the UK’s second most creative city – a fact that left some blinking in surprise, especially when pinned against favorites like Edinburgh with its Fringe Festival and Liverpool with its former Capital of Culture Award.

Manchester Council’s Chief Executive, Sir Howard Bernstein, has played an integral role in shaping the city for the past two decades. Bernstein, born and bred in Manchester, entered his career in an era when the solution for regeneration was to build council houses on every surface. It was Bernstein and team who etched out the idea for using the city center as a tool to attract a wealthier crowd. Part of this strategy was geared towards making Manchester a hive of culture, or as Sue Woodward, Manchester’s Creative Media Champion puts it in an article for Creative Brief, a place of “enterprise, ingenuity, endeavor and a dollop of cheeky Northern cockiness.”

The document laid out by the Manchester City Council entitled Reframing Manchester’s Cultural Strategy, launched in 2002, shows an awareness of the city leaning in towards a more creative future. Peter Saville, the creative director Bernstein hired to make the city more attractive, told the Urban Design Observatory that: Manchester was the world’s first industrial city, literally inventing the modern city. The city has always been a centre of innovations. 200 years ago, it attracted the most powerful minds of the time.” He believed that making Manchester the place to be was less about the city and more about the people it attracted. He explains: “A city needs thinkers, creative and disruptive minds among its inhabitants. So, a city that wants to rebrand itself must invent itself and needs to offer these creative minds the setting they are looking for.”

A Cleaner Face for a Dirty Old Town

With the largest single site university in the UK and a wide range of creative individuals carving out their ideas, Manchester is a place of many faces and seems to be attracting the thinkers and minds Saville was seeking. Along with swathes of creativity and a healthy dose of academia, you also have a city famed for its football, music scene, and multiculturalism. It’s astonishing to see how Manchester has managed to reinvent itself and very few spirits seem to be dampened by the rain. Ewan MacColl’s lyrics for “Dirty Old Town,” famously penned about Salford and Manchester with its references to gas work walls, old canals, and spring in the smoky wind, takes on a note of romantic hope rather than despair.

This theme of possibility echos throughout Manchester, maybe because the city boasts a student population of 40,000. It’s a young city, and its branding seems to be a magnet for energetic entrepreneurs looking to be part of an affordable city in bloom.

MediaCItyUK, Salford Quays, Manchester. Credit: David McKelvey.

Once upon a time Manchester was one of the wealthiest cities in England thanks to the industrial revolution and the churning of cotton. Yet the momentum soon ground to a halt as British production fell into decline. Factories rotted in the shadows and communities struggled. The IRA bomb that ripped-apart the city center in 1996 left Manchester to face the darkest hour it had seen up until that point. In the wake of a torn apart city, it was decided that Manchester wasn’t going to be an industrial city anymore, but a place built on knowledge and creativity. The city started to invest in its cultural status, the BBC moved to Media City bringing plenty of jobs, and as the university grew, so did the opportunities.

Along with the growth of media, the city also became a calling port for international music. The Madchester era has certainly played a role in the branding story, a narrative backed by the introduction of the Manchester International Festival. According to statistics from I Love Manchester, 2015 saw 697,000 music tourists flock to the city, generating £140 million in revenue.

Making Space for Creativity 

In 2014, The Guardian published an article highlighting a study on sub-region economic growth from Manchester Monitor. The study estimated that the creative industries could bring 23,000 new jobs to Manchester in the next decade. Between 2001 and 2011, the population of the city grew by 20%. The Council, keen to welcome this influx of young professionals to help build the city’s creative image, invested heavily in luxury flats, bringing murmurs of gentrification and complaints that the city’s true creative spaces were being pushed out. Professor of Human Geography and Director of Manchester Urban Institute (MUI) Kevin Ward tells us: “Rather than a traditional gentrification story, Manchester City Council could try to make sure that housing is affordable and the design for the houses are for families, to bring variety into the city center.” In the same breath, he goes on to add that in the UK, families seem to flock to the suburbs to raise their kids and the city centers remain geared towards the young.

Manchester Digital Laboratory (MadLab) is a good example of those bright spark creative enterprises forging roots back in the city, who are also on the brink of being pushed to the fringes. MadLab is the pinnacle of a success story, showcasing why Manchester deserves to be hailed as the next creative city. Sitting in one of the Northern Quarter’s trendy bars sipping a flat white and gazing across at their former weaver’s cottage space in one of the most popular streets in the area, founder Rachel Turner tells us: “When we moved in this area was dead, it was all tumbleweed and crackheads. Now that it’s getting trendy and there’s loads of bars and shops, we have experienced rent rises. We played a part in bringing people here and now we are suffering.”

The already-established Northern Quarter and up-and-coming Ancoats are the holy grails of the city and one of the reasons why Manchester gets featured in highbrow travel publications like Conde Nast and the New York Times. The latter declared that the Northern Quarter and Ancoats are “blurring the lines between gentrification and regeneration.” A charming jumble of independent boutiques, vintage clothing stores, artsy cafes, and bars, the city’s Northern Quarter is another impressive example of Manchester’s rebranding efforts – so great that some say it may well become the victim of its own success. Scratch below the surface and you see that there are many umbrella-owned businesses lining the rain-slicked streets. Even Rudy’s Pizza – Manchester’s most popular indie eatery often boasting three hour queues for its chewy Neapolitan crusts has recently been sold to Mission Mars, a bar operator that owns several other brands in the city.

Yet despite the battle cries of gentrification, the two neighborhoods of the Northern Quarter and Ancoats are much nicer places to be compared to a decade ago when you wouldn’t step foot there after dark – testament to the fact that gentrification is a double-edged sword with many benefits running alongside a few drawbacks too. The benefits being that rejuvenation of the city’s most desolate spots mean better living standards for all, the drawbacks being the risk of small creative and independent enterprises being pushed out.


A vintage clothing store in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Credit: Reflected Serendipity.

Forward Thinking Without Forgetting Heritage

Other such creative enterprises are flocking to the banks of the River Irwell and Salford. Places like the Makers Quarter and Islington Mill are bread and butter examples of Manchester’s true creative spirit and both manage to blend the city’s past with its future as part of their vision. The Makers Quarter offers shared workshop spaces and pay-as-you-go workbenches for carpenters, potters, and makers of all disciplines. The founders, Sophie Mason, Andy Taylor, and Stephen Hobson, fall into that category of those who flocked to London after graduating, but decided to return to the northern city. Sophie Mason told us “We kept popping back to Manchester to visit and couldn’t believe how cool it had become. Compared to 10 years ago, now there is just so much going on.”

In the brightly painted warehouse they talk excitedly of providing an affordable space for people who want to be creative away from the computer and helping people to bridge the gap between having a skill and turning it into a business. “It’s so much more than supplying a workshop for someone, its supplying a community.” Manchester’s industrial heritage hasn’t escaped them, as Andy Taylor tells us: “I like to think we are bringing it back.” Sophie chimes in, “We are combining that creativity with that industrial vibe.”

Over at Islington Mill, this creative space is almost comparable to a modern-day version of the Hacienda – the club that was the pulsing heart of the Manchester music scene. Only, its inhabitants blend those all-night raves with artists’ residencies, recording studios, DIY festivals, and even a beautifully creative bed and breakfast space. The industrial space is staggering, changed from a dreary factory to a lush courtyard garden, pulsing music venue, and floor after floor of studio space for both local and traveling artists.

Islington Mill. Credit: TerekhovI.

With a heavy left-wing council, it’s easy to spot the two-sided struggle the city faces. The Council knows that by calling itself a creative city, it must be invested in local talent. MadLab, Islington Mill, and the Maker’s Quarter all mention positive support from the council. Yet finances are sparse, and according to an article published by The Guardian, most government art funding is being funnelled towards London, with £72 per person spent in London in 2012/13, compared to just £24 in the North West. As a result, the Council needs to turn to foreign investors who want to throw up luxury flats to keep the cash flowing in the direction of the city, even if it runs the risk of stifling the creative side. Even if it means keeping the wealth centered rather than ebbing out to the surrounding communities.

Manchester’s Multicultural Narrative

Manchester has long been a place where multicultural communities are woven into the seams. Ethnic groups in Manchester make up 33.4% of the population according to a 2016 census by Manchester Government. Cecilia Wong, Director of Spatial Policy & Analysis Lab at Manchester Urban Institute tells us that for international students and visitors, “Manchester is very multinational, you have a Chinatown, a curry mile, Polish supermarkets. For people coming here you don’t feel threatened, you feel like you are home.”

In 2013 Professor Yaron Matras ran a study for Multilingual Manchester that showed the city as one of the most linguistically diverse places in the whole of Western Europe, with over 200 languages spoken in the city at any given time. Councilor Priest also mentions that “Mancunians have a certain kind of identity, and you don’t need to be born in Manchester to be Mancunian.” Interestingly, the multiculturalism angle doesn’t seem to be a heavy feature in Manchester’s rebranding plan. Lecturer in Human Geography at MUI Saskia Warren points out that Manchester has delivered a “proud working class white image for what is an incredibly ethnically and religiously diverse city.”


Manchester’s Curry Mile. Credit: Alex Pepperhill.

It’s interesting to note that in the document laid out on the cultural ambition of the city from the Council, the following statement is included. “All too often debates about culture and community become locked into the important but tired story about how to ‘reach’ more people with the city center’s cultural offer. We need to reverse that polarity. Manchester’s cultural offer needs to be inspired by its communities, to form a DIY cultural city in which its people have a cultural voice, a cultural point of view, and myriad opportunities for cultural expression.” Again, this sentiment could arguably reflect Manchester’s ethos towards a people rather than not policy-centric approach.

People & Policy: What Does Manchester Do Differently?

“We do things differently here.” This is the motto from Tony Wilson that Manchester has carved into its soul. Yet, in an age of the media spurt and with many cities aiming to root themselves in the garden of creativity, it can be difficult to see exactly what Manchester is doing differently. Liverpool’s music tourism contributed £206 million to the UK economy in 2015, Edinburgh clips at the heels of London for the most visited city in the UK. So why has Manchester been hailed as the UK’s second city, what is it that it’s doing differently?

You could argue that rather than put on the old mask of industry, Manchester shrugged off those former labels and declared itself worthy of being the second city with all the bluff and bravado that the world associates with the northern attitude, even if it didn’t have concrete proof. As Saskia Warren explains: “Manchester is really good at branding itself. In the national imagination and internationally, Manchester is seen to be exciting, dynamic, youthful, cutting edge, multidisciplinary arts capital with an emerging cultural ecology.”

Rather than a build it and they will come” mentality, it seems that Manchester decided to “fake it so they will come and make it.” By using that famous Northern cheek Sue Watson referred to and the swagger and surety that came from the Madchester music scene, the city believed in itself and the world also started to believe the hype. Rather than proving itself through the medium of output, it seems to prove itself through its spirit. When talking about creative branding and Manchester – it’s less about place and more about personality. The city has been in the spotlight since the terrible attack on the 22nd May 2017 and with the banners unfurling to declare a City United (a play on words from the regions two largest football teams) and the world talking about the strength of Mancunian spirit, perhaps this anthropomorphic approach to branding is what the city does differently. Tony Walsh captured this in his poem about Manchester: “To survive and to thrive. And to work and to build. And to connect and create. They’ll never defeat the dreamers and schemers who teem through these streets.”

Cover photo: Rainbow over Manchester Northern Quarter, CC by Stacey MacNaught. 

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