Nearly ten years ago, I spent three days walking the Manchester Ship Canal. Here’s what I learnt

The ship canal in Manchester, 2009. Image: Getty.

Most of a decade ago I took a three day minibreak to walk the Manchester Ship Canal. Almost everyone I told about the trip seemed confused by my motives, and Darren, my walking companion, said that most of his friends presumed we were doing it for charity.

We weren’t. We were walking between two large British cities in order to explore our country’s industrial heritage, both its rise and its decline, and to take a hipsterishly unique holiday from our hipsterishly low-paid jobs.

We met at Manchester Piccadilly just after noon on a Monday in mid-November, arriving from different parts of the country. We made our hellos, bought some water and headed west into the city. We walked along famous Canal Street, then dropped down to the towpath alongside the Rochdale Canal where we skirted Victorian warehouses, modern skyscrapers and some recently-constructed houses.

Soon, the buildings started to recede and we arrived in what appeared to be a wasteground between Manchester and Salford. This area, criss-crossed by the evidence of disappeared railway tracks and crumbling factory buildings, turned out to be an island.

Men fished beneath concrete flyovers and piles of rubbish indicated that eating, drinking and probably sleeping happened there. I couldn’t tell if the detritus had been left by homeless people seeking shelter or youths having an unsupervised party. This level of grime, so close to the modern city, was odd, but set the tone for the forthcoming journey.

Darren and I clambered up an embankment and entered Salford, the small, industrial city now home to incongruous studios for the BBC and ITV. These big, new buildings are located in an old port district, at the tail end of the Manchester Ship Canal. They loom over an area almost void of people – the modern edifices shine, but their doors do not open or close with regularity.

We wove over bridges straddling the loading docks of a 19th-century harbour and through empty car park after empty car park. We left MediaCityUK, where many of the UK’s most popular television shows are produced, and immediately encountered a sewage works.

The size of the complex was almost as impressive as its smell, the facility clearly being where the majority of Manchester’s human waste is processed. I clambered onto the grass verge to peer through the fence, but there was nothing further to observe by proximity. We wandered on, through a small industrial estate and into Eccles. Sadly, we found nowhere selling the eponymous cake.

Our path veered towards the Manchester Ship Canal, the man-made, river-sized waterway we were to walk parallel to for the rest of the day. Built at the end of the nineteenth century, too late to be as useful as it was expensive, the Ship Canal was constructed to provide Manchester with direct sea access. Unfortunately, railways had risen in importance and speed as the canal was dug, and even at the start, the produce of Manchester’s many factories could reach Liverpool and the open sea was quicker and cheaper by rail. To be financially viable, the canal would have required constant use for many decades; this didn’t happen.

And so, the canal is not just an impressive and dispiriting testament to the dissolution of British industry, to the country’s industrial decline over the 20th century. It is also a harrowing example of the British inability to look to the future, of the country’s innate and damaging conservatism.

Continuing our journey, Darren and I walked beside the giant canal, its dirty water eddying below us. By the side of a motorway slip road we saw a sign warning local residents of sewage in the canal, explaining that the volume of waste within the region’s Victorian sewers is so high that human waste has begun to overflow. I cannot decide if the presence of human shit within it adds or detracts from the canal’s symbolic resonance.

Walking on, we passed a giant lock, the same as in a regular canal but ten times the size. We passed a small airfield surrounded by ruined buildings. We passed areas cleared for construction that had never been built on, we passed factories pumping out smoke and noise, and then, as the sun set, we passed fields growing what appeared to be potatoes. Eventually we arrived in Warrington, where we had a budget hotel room booked for the night. We ate an awful meal in the downstairs restaurant, being too tired after our seventeen-mile walk to go elsewhere. We went to sleep early. There wasn’t much else to do.

The morning we awoke to was cold, and we dressed and checked out as quickly as possible, hoping in vain to finish the second day’s walk before darkness. We reached the centre of Warrington and found a large cemetery, boasting at its gate that it held the grave of George “I’m leaning on the lamppost at the corner of the street” Formby, the banjo/ukulele (banjolele?) playing singer from the 1940s.

As both Darren and I are curious and somewhat morbid men, we entered the cemetery through its wrought iron gates and tried to find George. Gravestones and statues cast long shadows through the early morning mist, and a few paces into this silent field of tall Victorian tombs, the Gothic atmosphere started to scare me.

Eager to leave, I claimed I didn’t want to see George Formby’s grave as much as I wanted breakfast, and Darren believed me. We abandoned the search for the rotting musician and went into Warrington town centre. I breathed a sigh of relief and a mental note to stop reading The Walking Dead.

A small cafe served us a huge amount of food for a tiny price; we gobbled it down and left. We exited Warrington through its industrial district, then spent an hour walking along a straight road flanked by factories. Many businesses here were part of the aluminium trade: recycling as well as smelting from ore. As I once worked within the metals industry – as a proof-reader for an online trade directory, which was every bit as exciting as it sounds – I knew that the extraction of aluminium requires large amounts of electricity, so was half-expecting the next structure we encountered.

A short distance into the countryside to the west of Warrington is the imposing Fiddlers Ferry Power Station. Eight huge chimneys loomed on the horizon and grew as we approached, most of them pumping out white smoke that rose into the clouds and disappeared. We first glimpsed the power station an hour before we reached it, a towering hulk of concrete able to convert matter dug from the ground into the energy demanded by the aluminium smelters, light bulbs and iPads of the North East. I took out my phone and tried to photograph the towers and their acrid breath, but before I could find a good angle, a security guard ran over and demanded I stop.

All that was visible was the shell of a chimney and the cars parked at its base. I doubt anything within my sightline was secret, and believe the guard was trying to exert power only because he felt he should. His employers were at no risk of industrial espionage from a couple of mud-spattered, coffee-stained and weary – Darren was even limping – hipsters, but this man’s role dictated that he had to approach us as if we were a threat. “No one does walk these roads recreationally, that’s why we’re doing it,” we responded to his questions. He wouldn’t let us walk away until he’d seen all the recent photos on both of our phones. Even after he’d done that, he watched us suspiciously, stood outside his little hut, until we passed a curve in the road.

Once out of sight, we took as many photos as we wanted of the hulking industrial tubes.

The hours that followed were surprisingly bucolic. We strolled through small villages, past farms and large houses, somehow gaining in altitude as we neared the coast. In a town called Widnes, we decided to change our route and visit Liverpool John Lennon Airport and enter the city from the south.

We arrived at Liverpool’s extremities in the early afternoon. Suddenly, Darren and I passed from dry farmland into a housing estate, where we witnessed almost stereotypical evidence of Liverpool’s reported poverty: shopping trolleys scattered outside houses, the remains of a fire on a grass verge, empty beer and cider cans, fag ends, aggressive dogs, peeling paint and dried excrement.

The estate receded as we hurried along the road, the airport runway behind a high fence and bramble-covered dyke to our left. We were hungry, but once at the airport’s sole terminal could only buy an insipid lunch. The highlight of our time there was Darren managing to get us a discount on some Starbucks coffee. We didn’t stay for long.

Liverpool from the Mersey, 2015. Image: Getty.

Although I hadn’t been to Liverpool before, its edges felt familiar: petrol stations, supermarkets, warehouses, chain hotels, retail parks, factories, traffic lights, car parks: the essential ephemera of a city’s extremities. We walked through these clogged and car-filled streets, wide because they were built where nothing else existed. Darren’s limp had increased in severity and our pace was slowing. Soon, we passed back into a residential district, and the rest of our journey was bordered by housing, not all of it occupied.

The rows of terraces we saw often had crumbling brickwork, smashed windows and graffiti. The dog turds I’d earlier noticed continued to be a problem, and there was more litter on the floor. I don’t like being faced with negative stereotypes in real life, but, alas, Liverpool did appear run down and dirty. The roads we strolled down were less clean than the industrial estates we’d walked through in the morning; the sign warning about sewage in the Manchester Ship Canal cleaner than the signs welcoming visitors to Liverpool.

The streets felt emptier than they should have been – the November evening wasn’t particularly cold, and we were approaching the city centre after five. Old buildings surrounded us on every street – brick warehouses a century old, rusted machinery beside railway tracks, houses with wood-covered windows, cracked paving slabs and-

I don’t know why I’m doing this, describing Liverpool as a wasteland. Because it wasn’t, once we reached the centre – there we found lots of vibrant and modern bars, shops and restaurants, but many of these neighboured vacant shopfronts.

To compare Liverpool to Manchester, back then in the early years of the Coalition government, there was a clear difference in recent investment. Whilst parts of Manchester sparkled, glass buildings gleam and money seems to fall off the polished steel, this wasn’t the case in Liverpool. Things were dirtier, and the inconsistent cleanliness of a handful of manicured streets (and the Albert Dock) emphasises, rather than hides, this problem.

The issue, for me, isn’t the dirt itself, but the attitude displayed towards it. Liverpool sweeps litter under the metaphorical rug, more literally moving it into the spots outsiders are unlikely to see. Though the square close to Lime Street Station containing the library and the rather good Walker Art Museum is beautiful and striking, when one walks a few streets away the mirage disappears. A little more dirt in the pretty places and a little bit less in the others would be more honest.

Please don’t misinterpret me: I had a lovely time in Liverpool. We stayed there overnight and didn’t leave until the following evening. We drank in a great cocktail bar (Berry & Rye, Berry Street), enjoyed good food (pick for fellow vegetarians: The Egg Cafe, Newington), visited some varied museums (the International Slavery Museum shouldn’t be avoided, the Museum of Liverpool may as well be) and found a great second-hand bookshop (Henry Bohn Books). We saw famous and impressive places (the Cavern Club, the Royal Liver Building), but also noticed a lot of evidence of cracks patched over rather than repaired.

There were many things I liked about Liverpool – its dirt felt more authentic than Manchester’s gloss – but in many ways it reminded me of the part of the country I grew up in: the West Midlands. There we have the same – grime, councils unwilling to clean it, buildings that once provided the livelihood for hundreds now roofless and overgrown with weeds. Opposite the single platform of my end-of-the-line, hometown station (Redditch) is an unused warehouse. Every window, in “first thing you see getting off the train” splendour, has been broken for decades, probably by teenagers who have since grown into adults who lack local industry to employ them. (Nb: this has recently been demolished.)

Obviously, it’s different. Liverpool’s slow decline is tied more tightly to the nation’s decline after the loss of the Empire, whereas it was merely the passage of time that diminished (not quite destroyed) the area I grew up in.

Walking through Liverpool was like getting the train from Redditch into central Birmingham: everything gets cleaner and more populated as one moves forward, everything on the edges forgotten, or at various stages in the process of being forgotten.

Liverpool is a charming city, its people are friendly and it has a lot to offer the casual tourist. That it faces the same fate as a mid-sized, satellite town in the Midlands seems unjust. But where would the money needed to revive Liverpool come from, now it no longer arrives by sea?

Industrial decline is something that can be easily seen in the UK, near to the heart of every town and city. Heavy industry (and colonialism) was what made the country prosperous – and now it is gone, the lack of enterprises that offer steady mass employment is causing resentment and conservatism. Liverpool, once one of the world’s richest cities, shouldn’t be dying. But, to an outsider, it really feels like it is.

In films and in novels, I like decline, I like tragedy. I like seeing things fall apart. But Liverpool is a city, not a character, and it is unable to hide either its charms or its mistreatment. There is nothing uplifting in seeing its decline.

Go to Liverpool, I urge you. Spend some money, pick up some litter. It may be on its knees, but it’s not yet dead.


How China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?

Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  

(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.