City-Regions of regions of cities?

On one of my daily walks across the campus of the University of Salford, I came across something that really encapsulated some of the current thinking of the local area. It was a piece of cardboard, maybe 5 inches by 15, wedged in the grills of the heras fencing that surrounded the Maxwell Hall development. On this cardboard someone had scrawled “Manchester ≠ Salford”. I really wish I had taken a photo, as the following day it had gone. To put this into context as to why it was there, the front of Maxwell Hall faces A6 (Chapel Street), and on the front of the building is the huge University of Salford logo – the green circle with the lion (nicknamed the Peugeot Lion for obvious reasons). The building is now under wraps, presumably to unveil the University’s new logo, which reads, “the University of Salford, Manchester“. The merits of the new brand are not up for debate here, but what it plays into I think is more important – in that is a prime example of the sprawling ‘city-region’.

Allan Scott, a geographer from UCLA is perhaps the main protagonist of the term City Region (you can read bits of the book he edited on the topic here). Put crudely, a city region is a collection of urban areas that are geographically proximal, and that make a conscious decision to become ‘networked’ in one way or another (on a formal political level, economic or even informally). Los Angeles is an example often heralded as a city-region, although perhaps more recent developments in China, particularly the developing Hong Kong-Shenzhen city-region are more relevant examples. The notion of the city-region is one that is politically current as well, many national and regional governments are seeing the economic benefits of creating these vast networks of urban behemoths. Places with one single vision and goal, but a detriment to the variety of urbanities present.

The relative size of the UK makes creating city-regions something of a quandary and a political no-go area, as Manchester and Liverpool (for example) are individual enough to not want to be considered a ‘city-region’ on any political or official level, even though they share many transport and economic networks. So the city-region in the UK takes on a slightly different meaning – those cities that have grown, sprawled to incorporate neighbouring towns and cities. Croydon for example, until 1965 was one of the largest cities in the UK, it is now part of Greater London and many would argue has lost any identity it once had as an individual city. Transport links to Central London and the continuous urban landscape makes it less obvious where Croydon begins or ends. Salford then, it is argued is going the same way of Croydon – about to be swallowed up by it’s Leviathanical neighbour. And the rebranding of the University has not done much to appease these fears. But whatever your line of reasoning for or against Salford’s integration into Manchester, surely there is a case to said that the two can exist together, as individuals and as part of an eclectic, diverse but networked conurbation?

Too often, the singularity of city branding (I love X, Y or Z – see here for a great critique), catalysed by the desire to be considered a ‘world’ or ‘global’ city, more often than not belies the diverse, multipilicitous and inherently ‘messy’ urban identity. Salford has some very important assets – the obvious examples being MediaCityUK, the football and cricket teams, but also some extremely vibrant ‘grassroots’ artistic communities such as the Islington Mill. The slow encroachment of Manchester’s spheres of political and economic influence into Salford is seen as threatening the ‘Salford-ness’ of these institutions, but this need not be the case. We can have our cakes and eat it, if we start to acknowledge that cities do not and should not have a single brand identity. Celebrating difference at the political level is unpopular as it is not easy to ‘package’ and sell to investors. However, by celebrating the vibrancy and diversity of all of Greater Manchester’s urban centres – Ashton, Oldham, Bury, Salford etc – there is the opportunity to develop a region of cities, rather than a single city-region. Cities that have links and shared economic, cultural, transport and political interests, can also places of expertise in their own right.

It would a brave city council that championed their city as somewhere that contained multiple, fractured, diverse but connected cities that defied categorisation and shirked labeling, but it would be a refreshing change to the homogenous, monochrome city branding exercises that we see presently.

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