‘They’re in the way’: Manchester rebels against grey advertising boxes – The Guardian

‘They’re in the way’: Manchester rebels against grey advertising boxes – The Guardian

Earlier this year, Manchester city council declared ambitions to become a pedestrian paradise. “We want walking to be the main way people get around the city centre,” proclaimed the town hall’s transport plan. “Pavements and public spaces will be high quality, well-maintained, green and accessible – catering for everyone, no matter what their age or mobility.”

Yet this autumn, 86 mysterious grey boxes were plonked on pavements across the city which did pretty much the opposite. Measuring more than a metre across, the metal monoliths obstructed the footway, failing what transport engineers call “the double buggy test” while upsetting wheelchair users and aesthetes alike.

Mancunians, who normally like to pick a side, were unusually unanimous: they hated the boxes. They were not placated when the council stuck big labels on the front explaining that they were temporary features “as part of the installation of upgraded digital advertising displays”. The boxes, apparently, were covers to protect the wiring as the new hoardings were hooked up to the mains.

On Monday night one crusading resident decided to stage a pedestrian fightback. Armed with a stack of paper and some wallpaper paste, they stuck fly-posters on at least 30 of the advertising boxes.

Some drew on Manchester’s radical history by updating a Suffragette slogan to point out the chasm between the council’s rhetoric and its actions. “Words: ‘Walking will be the main way of getting round the city’; Deeds: ‘Fuck you pedestrians, here’s a big grey box.’” read one. Another simply said: “Fuck these stupid boxes.”

Poetry it was not. But this act of revenge quickly drew approval not just from Mancunians but pedestrians around the country who feel they are fighting a losing battle over pavement space.

Whether it is electric car charging cables acting as trip wires, alfresco cafe tables or plain old antisocial parking making walking a nightmare, there is an increasing resentment about the encroachment of clutter on pavements – particularly at a time when the government is trying to get more people out of their cars and on to two feet or two wheels.

Tom Brooke, a 32-year-old nurse, was taking photos of one of the boxes in Piccadilly Gardens on Tuesday to show his friends “because they look ridiculous”. He doesn’t drive and likes to walk: “They are in the way and what is the point of more advertisements? We already have a lot of advertisements in the city already,” he said.

Nadia Kerr, a solicitor who specialises in representing cyclists after accidents, said that while riding her bike recently she nearly crashed into a pedestrian who had stepped into the road to avoid the grey box of doom. “I was sympathetic to her options, although she ought to have looked before stepping into the cycle lane,” she said. “Street clutter is a real issue and needs good planning just like any other public realm.”

Bev Craig, who next week will become leader of Manchester city council, said she could understand the allegations of hypocrisy but that the advertising earned the cash-strapped local authority £2.5m in rent each year – plus “between a couple of hundred thousand and half a million profit annually”.

Turning down £3m was not easy at a time when the council has had to cut £40.7m from next year’s budget after 11 years of government cuts, she added.

Of the 86 sites, 81 had been home to old backlit paper advertising columns and units for 20 years, a council spokesperson said. Planning was granted for the upgrades after taking into account “highway safety for each individual unit as well as the historic impact of their placement, including how pedestrians move on the highway”.

Chris Boardman, the Olympic cyclist turned travel commissioner for Greater Manchester, said: “Councils are dealing with competing demands, and one of them is the dire need to raise funds. Advertising in public spaces is a reasonable way to meet that need. But I don’t believe it must or should be at the cost of those traveling on foot.

“To help everyone, there needs to be an overarching plan that ensures all departments involved in looking after our streets know that pedestrians don’t just need to be accommodated, they need to be valued and prioritised. I think with minimal imagination and strong political leadership, it’s perfectly possible and practical to achieve both outcomes.”

Stephen Edwards, interim CEO of Living Streets, the walking charity, said: “Our pavements should be wide enough for everyone to pass each other easily. When footways are blocked, it forces people into the carriageway and into traffic. Our research shows that people are more likely to get out and support their local economy when their streets are clutter-free.”

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/nov/24/theyre-in-the-way-manchester-rebels-against-grey-advertising-boxes