By Jez Hall
A little story about Levenshulme’s secret lake
(this piece leads on from Jez Hall’s first think piece for our Manchester debate ‘Place: the sum of parts?’)
It doesn’t even have a name yet. A post industrial reservoir that fed a 19th century bleach works. Closed many years ago the site became derelict and nature invaded, reclaiming the space, forming a pleasant urban lake. All hidden behind an abandoned railway line and our local ‘tip’ (grandly re-named a waste recycling centre). I have lived locally for 25 years and never heard of it. It was a hidden local gem 10 minutes from my door.
Over years, hidden from public view, local fishermen took up residence and stocked the lake themselves. Teenagers broke in to drink, light fires, throw stones into the water. Doing what teenager do. Such informal use stayed quite limited, as this was well hidden private land. But slowly the fences decayed.
It is said that once the private owner tried to re-develop the site. But environmental surveys showed rare protected newts had moved into the lake. Development stalled and the fences collapsed. Informal tracks became established footpaths. Recently the secret lake came into wider local awareness through conversations on social media.
It was immediately pointed out that being private land no-one was picking up the litter dropped by the informal users. The site was both ‘beautiful’ and ‘a complete mess’. Sparking off local campaigns around littering on the high street a spontaneous community action took place. About 50 people congregated and cleaned up the lakeside. Over 50 sacks of rubbish were removed by volunteers in just one hour. Homemade signs encouraging greater civil responsibility were erected. Local youths looked on, perhaps a little bit uncomfortably. Regular clear ups continue.
In a small way the community organisers were ‘exerting’ their own ‘right to the city.’ And were regulating the behavior of the previous informal occupants. But maybe the new visibility of the site now the greatest potential risk to it? If I was the private owner, seeing my property becoming ‘collectivised’, a new commons, my urge might well be to resist the invasion, to rebuild the fences now, before it is too late.
We will see if the next step in this mini-drama is a community reclaiming ownership and the land reverting in perpetuity to informal self managed common use. Or become protected under the ‘wing’ of the state as a formalized country park. With by-laws and rules on lighting fires; the happy fate of nearby industrial land. Or developed into privatised, tidy, fenced and defendable homesteads, like much of the latest incarnation of Hulme.
Who holds the rights to our city? We can decide.
Jez Hall is a founding director of Community Interest Company Shared Futures and a freelance consultant http://www.sharedfuturecic.org.uk/
Place: the sum of parts? The Glass-House Manchester Debate takes place on Wednesday 11 November 6-7.30pm.