Isolating in a university house for ten days or more is a new and real challenge for Manchester’s student population. My own recent experience with a indoors-stretching left me gasping for fresh air at an ajar bay window. That is, when I wasn’t guffawing at the woeful lawn of concrete slabs – my back garden.
That’s why I sought out an interview with Jack Burnett, who has been running the Instagram page 100 Manchester Parks since February 2019. Here, he regularly reviews green spaces around Greater Manchester, creating what he aptly describes as a “virtual green space” for us, amateur shut-a-ways, to enjoy.
On a bright Saturday afternoon, Jack and I sat peering at each other through the screens of our laptops and the prescription of our glasses. In my room, where natural light was lacking, I struggled to peer through my window into Jack’s well-lit and aloofly decorated setting.
Jack, with the help of google maps, began to describe what had made this history student the Roger Ebert of 0161’s green spaces. He pointed out how “if you zoom in on Rusholme, there’s a couple of green spots that actually aren’t even parks, and cycling to university, I found it weird how some parks are marked green on google maps, while others simply aren’t.
The story Jack had begun to spin before me was a relatable one: that of a young man, curious about the city that had become his new home. Apps like Google Maps make it easier than ever to find what we’re looking for in Manchester. Likewise, Instagram provides a platform allowing Jack to say “you can really easily add accounts. Why not do something silly and funny?”. As easy as that, Jack had a creative outlet, a blissful break from the academic writing being teased out of him at university.
I voiced my intrigue about what assignments had driven Jack to 100 Manchester Parks. Apparently, he had “recently written an essay on the formation of parks during the Victorian era”. According to Jack, Victorian parks were an ensemble of “tamed nature” and “a citizen space”. He pointed out how places like Whitworth park have statues of Edward VII “for a reason,” and that these spaces are, fundamentally, “very specific social constructs to make us feel like citizens in certain ways”.
This adds a new layer to 100 Manchester Parks‘ mission. As Jack put it, “to re-contextualise them a bit, trying not to see these parks for just being these beautiful, clean, nice civic spaces”. Instead, these spaces can be a common ground, on which we, modern Mancunians, find ourselves co-existing, as more and more issues separate us.
I asked Jack whether the project had affected his mental health and general wellbeing positively, expecting an enthusiastic answer.
However, Jack describes a subtler impact upon his wellbeing. There has been no dramatic improvement on his general mood because, as he says, “obviously everything’s a lot more complicated than that”. What easily comes to mind for the park reviewer, however, are the “individual moments, when I’ve had a shit day and used to go out to the park as an outlet”.
Again, I was keen on finding out about the direct benefit of exercise and fresh air on Jack as an individual and was satisfied with accounts of eight-mile, endorphin-inducing excursions by bike to review a shoddy green space. What shone through, however, were the reminiscences of sharing these individual moments with other people.
His Instagram page afforded Jack and his friends “raging discussion(s)” around recently explored and subsequently satirised parks. A happy memory of sitting in halls over a year ago had him smiling down the barrel of his webcam at this fellow bespectacled stranger.
Those who frequent Manchester’s array of parks will be well used to the tell-tale signs of disrepair. I was interested to see how such sights affected Jack on his typically merry, yet critical jaunts. On the subject of unkempt grass and disused park facilities, Jack noted that “it’s just quite sad, as the [park’s] original function was different from what it is now; It really is meant to be this community space, you know, a publicly funded community space.”
On the subject, Jack lamented that there are parks with disused “beautiful hundred-year-old bandstand(s)”. Seemingly, however, some parks are forgotten about all together: “a lot of them don’t have the funds, a lot of them literally just get forgotten about, which is just quite sad”. Forgotten by everyone except the communities in which the parks are found, the citizens deprived of their pleasant public space.
Perhaps, the small world we share here in the north-west has become dominated by huge issues, and the headlines that follow close behind, to the point where the small issues that make all the difference, wear our public spaces away.
Parks and general patches of green then, excite the image of this city, both in real life and on google maps. They also provide the pleasant backdrop for the heartwarming anecdotes Jack shared as a behind the scenes of 100 Manchester Parks.
For the rest of us, pushed outside in between inevitable stints of isolation, these spaces have become something to seek out as places to reconnect, and explore our surroundings again. Verdant oil paintings peppering the landscape of Greater Manchester, even as the edges are weathered and corners are curled by shortening days and under-funding.
Why not explore Manchester’s green spaces?