A tale of two cities: the Manchester that loves and hates wild nature

When Queen Victoria came to the throne, the area that is now Alexandra Park in south Manchester was a lowland raised bog, a mossland. The neighbourhood next to the park is not called Moss Side for no reason! It seems the land was not very suitable for farming although we can see from the 1848 map that the area was divided into fields. People used to wash thatching rushes in the pools, according to one account. Interestingly with the high rainfall in recent months, areas of the park are reverting back to their former state.

recent flooding in the park

recent flooding in the park

Then development started to happen. In the mid 1800s the area nearby was drained and developed into Whalley Range, one of the first Manchester suburbs by banker and businessman Samuel Brooks as a “desirable estate for gentlemen and their families”.  And in 1870, with the swampy areas drained and streams culverted, Alexandra Park opened to the public.

These developments happened in a socio-economic context of rapidly expanding industrial growth and imperial power. It was an age that believed in the forward march of progress and civilisation, in the ability of humans to harness the power of nature through science and technology. God had given humans (or at least Christians) dominion over nature – it was there to be controlled and exploited for human ends.

This theme of control and domination over nature and over less civilised people – lets not forget slavery had only recently been abolished – is evident in both the stated intention of the park and in its design. According to one source, the intention was to “promote a simple moral purpose – to keep families together in shared recreation. The reality, however, was probably more mundane – to dissuade men from spending their day of rest in alehouses”. In other words, it was intended as a form of social control. The park is typical of a Victorian aesthetic, the formal design seeks to instil order on nature, to tame its wildness, to provide a safe manicured version.

Alexandra Park lake 1900

Alexandra Park lake 1900

150 years later Manchester City Council plans to ‘restore the park to its former Victorian glory’ reintroducing formal areas and increasing the amount of recreational areas at the expense of the wilder natural areas, felling around 400 trees and clearing over 3 acres of habitat currently supporting protected and priority species.

Despite huge local opposition to the proposed scale of tree felling and habitat destruction (over 3500 people to date have signed an e-petition), the council intends to march on with its plans regardless, all the while claiming it has local support but without actually supplying any verifiable evidence of this. Hardly a shining exemplar of participatory democracy.

As a local resident and coordinator of a voluntary community wildlife group, I’ve joined others in voicing concerns to the council and in raising awareness of the implications of the council’s plans for the wildlife living in the park. However, it was through research I was doing for my PhD that it dawned on me what was actually going on: a fundamental clash of values and ethical perspectives.

Biophilia values + intrinsic 

On one side there are people, including me, who recognise that nature has intrinsic value, in and of itself, regardless of its usefulness or otherwise to humans. They care about individual plants and animals as much as they do ecosystems. People feel psychologically connected to and part of nature and seek to live with it. This has been called ‘biophilia’. [1] Wild nature is to be revered, it is awe-inspiring and full of mystery.

In terms of ethics, human prioritisation is not a given and so there will be situations when human interests don’t win out, and we act in service to other species, habitats or ecosystems. This is an ecocentric ethic.

Biophobia values + instrumental 

On the other end of the spectrum are those, including I would argue the council, who see nature in instrumental terms – it has value only in as much as it serves human needs and desires. If it’s in the way or otherwise inconvenient then the answer is to get rid of it. People perceive themselves as separate from nature, and regard humans as having primacy and superiority over nature. In this way it echoes the Victorian mindset, which perhaps explains why the council is so keen to restore the park back to its Victorian design.

This way of seeing nature has been called ‘biophobia’ because in contrast to above, it is founded on a fear of nature, of its wildness and mystery, but it is also generated by greed. It is destructive and exploitative [2]. Unfortunately for the planet, this mindset is dominant in our society – indeed it is this very mindset that has brought us to the point of ecological crisis.

A further characteristic of the instrumental mindset is how nature is thought about in the abstract as ‘biodiversity’ and so the suffering of individual plants and animals is often dismissed as relatively unimportant. This is essentially a utilitarian ethic – the overall good of the community trumps individual rights. What matters is not the means but the end outcome, measured by a totalling of gains minus losses. This approach underlies ecosystem services valuation, which I’ll talk more about in another blog. There is an argument that the marketising of a common good such as nature corrupts and degrades it. [3]

Who do we think we are 

Psychology research finds that there are 3 key aspects of human identity that influence our behaviour towards the environment: (i) values,  (ii) perceptions of who or what is part of our in-group and out-group, and (iii) how we cope with fears and threats brought on by environmental challenges. [4] So for example:

  • Seeing nature as part of your in-group leads you to accord inherent value to nature and to treat it better
  • Concern with gaining power, status, financial success and external reward make you less likely to care about nature
  • People may cope with negative emotions triggered by environmental problems through various defence mechanisms such as denial, apathy, seeking diversions, limiting their exposure to information that may create anxiety, projecting blame or responsibility onto others, and by denigrating the out-group to try to justify negative behaviour towards it

These are all things that can be seen in the situation with Alexandra Park. There is a lot of money involved, £5.5 million of public funding in fact, and for sure there are egos in the council who want the kudos of making this happen and the economic benefits that ensue. Denying our legitimate concerns, ignoring the petition, projecting blame onto others (the council is still trying to claim the Heritage Lottery Fund insisted they fell trees as a condition of funding even though the HLF has denied, in writing, the truth of this) could be understood as tactics that help those at the council who are forcing these plans through to feel better about themselves. Some local residents who support the plans, based on their comments that I’ve read, appear to have deliberately limited their exposure to information that would cause them to challenge their position.

Where next?

So how do we overcome this clash of values? I don’t know. Acknowledging that this is what is going on is a start, though I’m not convinced the council would admit to biophobia – not when it has an espoused goal of being the ‘greenest city in England’. So instead we each try to influence the media and the public, and to outmanoeuvre the other. In the meantime contractors are moving in to fell healthy trees that have lived a lot longer than we have, and clear habitats where hedgehogs are hibernating, bats would soon have been foraging and birds nesting.

These losses are terrible, not just for the wildlife concerned but also for us – our health and sense of wellbeing is closely related to how connected we feel with nature, as a now substantial body of evidence is proving [5]. Tree felling is painful to witness: there is something special about trees as the only living thing in an urban environment that lives longer than we do. And some of the trees in the park are very old, from before the time the park was even built.

And for what exactly are these losses? For restoring a park to some idealised idea of Victorian design. Unlike us today, the Victorians were not experiencing the biggest extinction of species since the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The magnitude of the ecological crisis of the 21st century would have been simply inconceivable to people 150 years ago.

I’d like to say I feel hopeful, but the approach of the council towards nature is echoed in their treatment of local residents who have voiced concerns and seek further consultation. We have become their ‘out-group’ that they denigrate. Dismissing and ignoring the objections of over 3500 people, the council (and indeed our local councillors) seem intent on forcing these restoration plans through, no matter what the cost to democracy. Sadly, I can understand why so many people don’t see the point in voting.


A further bit of theory:

Lakoff (2010) identifies 2 main contradictory moral systems in political discourse about the environment: conservative and progressive, which broadly match the two positions outlined above (the conservative frame also regards the market as the highest authority). Dunlap (2008) thinks we are in the midst of a ‘paradigm war’.

Lakoff argues that a large proportion of the public is bi-conceptual: we have versions of both of these value systems in our brains, but apply them to different issues. The paper by Crompton & Kasser (2009) goes into detail about the practical interventions we can make to help shift society away from a destructive mindset and towards one that supports pro-environmental behaviour. More info at http://valuesandframes.org/

As Giles Hutchins just reminded me “we are all of like-mind/heart just some are more inured in the prison we call civilisation than others”.

So it’s about uncovering and bringing forth that part of ourselves that has always been connected with the rest of nature. Which links beautifully to recent articles by Jo Confino with zen master Thich Nhat Hanh on Guardian Sustainable Business on mindfulness, sacredness and love. If you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend you do – a real delight to see spirituality being discussed in a sustainable business context. 🙂


[1] Wilson, E. O. 1984. Biophilia. Harvard University Press

[2] Crossman, J. 2011. Environmental and Spiritual Leadership: Tracing the Synergies from an organisational perspective. Journal of Business Ethics. 103 pp. 553-565; Holst, W. 1997. Aboriginal Spirituality and Environmental Respect: A Perspective on Traditional Amer-indian Views of Nature with Special Reference to the Meaning of ‘‘The Land’’ in Northern Cultures’, Social Compass 44(1), 145–156.

[3] Sandel, M. 2012. What Money Can’t Buy: the moral limits of markets. Macmillan

[4] Crompton, T & Kasser, T. 2009. Meeting Environmental Challenges: the role of human identity. WWF

[5] For example see: MIND Ecotherapy report 2007; The National Trust Natural Childhood report 2012; also this blog on nature +wellbeing

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20 Responses to A tale of two cities: the Manchester that loves and hates wild nature

  1. This is a fantastic post which describes the situation perfectly.

  2. Great post. Perfectly sums up the inherently “biophobic” mindset that enables the council to trash our precious trees and dwindling wild spaces. Sadly, it was this very same mindset which allowed the council to destroy the last urban wild space in Hulme: http://valiantveggie.wordpress.com/2011/09/17/the-shrieking-violet-article-about-birley-fields/

  3. Dave Bishop says:

    Spot on, Nadine! But to those who would succumb to apathy, and other negative emotions, I would say, don’t give up! Keep fighting and taking every opportunity to expose and publicise the Council’s biophobia!
    I should also say that I have no sympathy at all with people who don’t vote. It’s because a huge swathe of the electorate don’t vote that we’ve got virtually a one party state in this city. If all of those who currently don’t vote spoiled their ballot papers (by writing “none of the above” on them, for example) then we might see some changes. A refusal to vote is actually a vote for the status quo and achieves nothing!

    • cultureprobe says:

      It’s interesting about apathy – Crompton & Kasser (2009) say it’s not that you don’t care but that because the situation feels to you at that moment to be hopeless, that you cope with that feeling by pretending not to care. So it becomes an issue of how to regain a sense of agency

    • Jonkino says:

      Isn’t spoiling your ballot papers a another form of “refusing to vote”?

  4. Jonathan Crinion says:

    Hi Nadine, Good post. This is where my PhD started, except it was Dartington and North Woods. Same clash of values – those of us that saw a beautiful forest full of wildlife and Dartington who renamed the forest as a wood lot with a number and proceeded to ‘manage the forest’ or in other words decimate it completely. In my case Dartington is a Trust and owns the land and are free to do what ever they wish. On the rest of the estate they bind the trees and make them into classical shapes, and manicure the landscape with an endless flurry of powered machines and tools. Its very sad.

    It occurs to me (and I’m not sure how to evoke it), that a third solution outside of the duality of positionality is to present an alternative that works for both sides and both sides will have to give a bit. I’ve been thinking for example, that it might be possible to propose upgrading Alexandra Park to a more contemporary landscape design. In other words something inbetween leaving it natural and decimating it. This could be done by hiring a professional Landscape Architect – (if you can find the right one) – that will have both the knowledge of natural landscapes and how to make appropriate human interventions. My argument would be to speak the same language as the steadfast traditionalists and convince them that times have changed and that a more sensitive contemporary intervention is needed, which will actually better than what they are proposing and more appropriate for the times, with less ongoing costs etc etc… I’m thinking here of a Landscape Architect that I know of that designs National Parks in Canada for example.

    I see this process as conversationalist, in that the landscape architect becomes the facilitator between the two groups bringing them together in one space to be heard and then creating a plan that acknowledges both views and ideas. The plan becomes ‘co-created’ with each side understanding how the process evolved and concluded and each side having to make some concessions. The facilitating Landscape Architect’s costs and fees should be shared equally between the groups so there is no hegemonic control and they are answerable to both parties.

    In writing this it sounds to me like facilitated ecological mediation and I suspect it’s something we are going to have to learn how to do really well in the future.

  5. cultureprobe says:

    That would be the ideal Jonathan, however a conversation can only happen if other parties listen! Sadly things have moved too far for the solutions you suggest to be entertained – contracts already in place, too much money to be wasted by hitting pause and rewinding to the start. If we’d been able to be properly involved from the outset we’d have an international exemplar of 21st century ecologically responsible urban park design..

  6. Love the article. Thank you. To people in favour of the tree felling I’ve being saying ‘But all those little creatures and those beautiful trees’ and they come back at me with mental positions rather than feelings. I can’t go near the park… it’s breaking my heart. So glad to know I’m not crazy or alone. Will keep on keeping on and hope sanity prevails.

  7. joskin69 says:

    A brilliant article.

  8. sian james says:

    This is great article. Lets keep going with this.

  9. normanc25 says:

    The avenues of mature trees provide an essential definition of the paths and thoroughfares of the park and help to create the vital ‘safe haven’ besides the all-day traffic on Princess Road.
    Modest expenditure could achieve significant improvements – enhanced drainage for some of the more boggy grass areas, careful management of neglected corners and upgraded facilities in line with community wishes.
    Is it naive to ask if all relevant Councillors – at ward and executive level – have been regularly lobbied about local feelings?

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  11. Pingback: Repost: A tale of two cities- Alexandra Park, biophilia and #Manchester City Council | manchester climate monthly

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  13. really good post . The effect of increased noise and air pollution from the Parkway is something that particularly worries me about the felling of the trees. I also really hate the way local protestors have been pilloried by the supporters of these plans as if our opinions are less worthy in some way…

  14. Erinma says:

    Great post… life in a concrete jungle is stressful….couple of relevant reports on benefits of green/ trees to mental health and rural verus city living (impact on brain/ mental health): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2006988/A-rural-life-better-Living-concrete-jungle-really-stressful-make-vulnerable-depression.html#axzz2Jsg6UQAT and http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/en/news-media/releases/pages/urban-trees-report.aspx#.UQ-AFOjGJ0E I lived in the city centre of Manchester for nearly two years and literally pined for greenery: http://everyoneandeverything.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/life-friendly-residency-chinese-arts-centre/

  15. alanhill says:

    One of the more ludicrous aspects of this move by the Council is the aim to ‘restore’ the park to its original Victorian design. This is at a time when the Council are slashing jobs across the city, more heavily in parks and open spaces than other areas. When the original Victorian design has been realised is the Council then going to provide maintenance staff at Victorian levels – ie around 20 full-time gardeners? I think not. Left to wildllife conservation, the park requires the least level of maintenance. The formal design will go to pot in no time at all because there will not be the staffing levels to maintain it.

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