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Walking as Resistance

A series of walking tours in Manchester show how neoliberal urban space systematically excludes anyone without money – and some unexpected ways to fight back against it.

While some of the attendees of the Skyliner tours are architects, planners, writers and academics, others are simply Manchester residents looking for a different way to understand or re-connect with the city. (Joe Cleary / Unsplash)

It’s not a stretch to say that examining the changing skyline of Manchester is something of a perverse obsession. The 2020 docuseries Manctopia cemented what many communities have felt for a long time now: Manchester is a deeply unequal city, and it increasingly feels alienating to those who once celebrated it as a beacon of difference. A tidal wave of new luxury housing, designed to be rented to a population set to double in the next five years, feels emblematic of the problem. Grassroots groups are heading out, on foot, in search of missing connections to place and the people who inhabit it. There is of course a longstanding relationship between walking and resistance: the 90th anniversary of the mass trespass of Kinder Scout, which secured rambler’s rights for all, was celebrated last year. Increasingly, examples of urban walking as ambulatory resistance are occurring across the city.

Dr Morag Rose founded the Loiterers Resistance Movement in 2006, a collective who go out on weekly derives and drifts through Greater Manchester and its surrounds. Dr Rose is an academic, a performance artist and a community organiser. She also organises walking tours, though she isn’t a tour guide in a conventional sense. ‘I’m really interested in walking together as a starting point for conversations with the city, and the environment, and whoever you encounter,’ she says.

At street-level, Dr Rose’s derives, drifts and loiters opt for a slower pace. In his 2018 book Palaces for the People, Eric Klinenberg writes that ‘those who opt to travel more slowly than they have to are often still regarded as mildly eccentric. Success in the rat-race as in athletics is about arriving first.’ In our hyper-accelerated cities, it is transgressive, suspicious even, to move slowly, deliberately, and against the path-of-least-resistance infrastructure which consciously or subconsciously shapes our day to day engagement with the city. Dr Rose is careful not to lean into Manchester exceptionalism. While she considers the city to be distinctive, her practice is very much about simply ‘dwelling in a place, and feeling it’.

‘Psychogeography’ is something of a contested term, having come in and out of popularity over the years. Coined by Guy Debord in the 1950s as a response to Baudelaire’s flamboyant and unhurried ‘flaneur’, it suggested playful and spontaneous ways to examine the urban environment. Dr Rose explains that her psychogeographical walks often employ spontaneous methods: rolling dice or certain signs might dictate the route. As for Dr Rose’s more typical tours, there’s always a critical thread. The impact of gentrification on cities, neoliberal policies or access to public space are recurring themes. ‘When I do a tour they are always political, with a small ‘p’. I want to use those tours to take theory for a walk.’ Alongside organisations like Morag’s, walking with a critical lens is thriving elsewhere in the city. Via her Skyliner blog and tours, Hayley Flynn unpicks the politics of public space, street furniture (or the absence of street furniture), planning and property development. This might sound niche, but her Saturday morning tours are wildly popular.

On a cold morning in November, we set out on Flynn’s street art tour. By her own admission, it is her most mainstream in terms of content. Hayley likes how street art demands our attention, however fleetingly, and makes us have an encounter with the city. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t believe these pieces should be beyond criticism—over who it depicts, who it leaves invisible.

She points out works which form an all but forgotten street art trail, explaining the commissioning decisions which led to their creation, and subsequently the creation of the Northern Quarter as a bohemian neighbourhood. She talks us through the radical history of Stevenson Square, and questions the motivations behind locating a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in the much more polished St Peter’s Square, populated with financial institutions, rather than a location central to her activism. She points out public squares disguised as off-limits places and points out the influencer-ification of the city centre’s already limited public housing (you can book a Love Island-style stay in these former homes).

While some of the attendees of the Skyliner tours are architects, planners, writers and academics, others are simply Manchester residents looking for a different way to understand or re-connect with the city. For Hayley, one of the barometers she uses to track change in Manchester is street furniture. One of her tours is dedicated entirely to where benches are located. There are very, very few places to sit in places like the Northern Quarter, and she is critical of the measures brought in by the council in the face of Covid lockdowns, which purported to pedestrianise vast areas of the city centre, but instead installed something Flynn calls ‘beer gardenification’, where streets have been taken over by the outdoor seating of adjacent bars and restaurants. It’s a distinction which throws into light the differing experiences we have of the city based on wealth, age, class and culture. These spaces are only really accessible if you have money, are legally allowed to drink, or come from a drinking culture, she explains on the tour.

It’s all about access, and not just access for certain bodies. On a recently commissioned Engels walk of the city, in partnership with the Working Class Movement Library, Dr Rose explores how a deeply important memorial to the victims of the Peterloo Massacre is designed to be climbed, but is utterly inaccessible to those, for instance, who use wheelchairs. Rose explains the work she does as ‘queering and cripping the city’, shifting the assumed experience away from that of the straight, the white, the able-bodied and the wealthy.

Both Dr Rose and Flynn have experienced criticism from those who try to control a singular Manchester story, which is male, white, and limited. The work they do is a walking, evolving criticism, which forges a connection to the city that is layered and meaningful. It is no surprise that what they do is reaching people in a moment when safe, free public spaces are vanishingly few.