by Lilly Hill
A report from the frontlines of the battle to save Ryebank Fields.
Walking through the football fields of Longford Park in south Manchester, with their striking view of the city’s ever expanding skyline in the mid distance, through a gap in the blackberry bushes, you suddenly find yourself submerged in a wild paradise that brims with ecological activity.
This is Ryebank Fields: 4.6 hectares of land rewilded over the last 30 years with the love, care and commitment of the local community.
Once clay pits, which were then filled in with waste, rubble, and a layer of topsoil, the green space is now home to over 1,400 trees — including ten black poplar hybrids, which are among the UK’s rarest species — an aspen grove, two community gardens and a wildlife corridor.
Ryebank exists as an exceptional pocket of natural beauty amongst Manchester’s built environment and provides an inspiring example of the power of collective care of people and land.
But it's currently under threat.
Manchester Metropolitan University, the land’s legal owners, is currently negotiating the sell-off of the land for housing development. This decision, which has come from ‘the UK’s Number 1 Sustainable University’, provides some perspective on how seriously institutions are taking the climate and ecological emergency.
In response, on the 24th of April last year, a day which celebrates a victory in the history of trespass and land access, climate activists occupied the site and set up a community camp in support of the campaign to Save Ryebank Fields.
Whilst the camp began as a smattering of tents, over the year three fixed structures — a ‘watch tower’, an ‘eco-house’ and an ‘arts space’ — have gone up, all adorned with protest art made by supporters of the campaign (including MMU students!).
Campers alert passers-by to the threat the land is under, signposting positive actions to take in its defence and, most importantly, to unite the local community.
On a day-to-day basis, there are normally between four and six people camping on the fields, most of whom live locally to Manchester, but some who have travelled from further afield specifically to aid this campaign.
Ordinary, caring people
I moved to Manchester from Bristol in summer last year and felt isolated from the radical communities I had been involved with there.
So when I heard about the existence of Ryebank Fields Community Camp, I was keen to offer my support.
When I first showed up in November, I was absolutely awe-struck. A handful of young adults were midway through constructing the eco-house out of scrap wood sourced from local skips. Honestly, I was a little intimidated! I wanted to help out, but I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and everyone else seemed pretty competent using a drill and a saw.
Pretty soon, though, my nerves subsided as I realised that these people weren’t any more qualified to build a house than I was. They were just ordinary, caring people who were doing their best to help the campaign along.
Unlike other protest camps and activist spaces I’d visited, which I have sometimes found to be hostile and stressful environments, I was relieved to find that everyone was welcoming and grateful for my presence, despite my lack of experience in manual labour. I actually remember thinking to myself: ‘I guess it is true that people are friendlier up north!’
Throughout the day, dog walkers came in and had a chat and a cup of tea with us, and we were all snacking on bread, which a local resident had baked for the campers.
Here I’d finally found what I’d been looking for: an intergenerational community, united by a common desire to have a good relationship with the natural world.
Affordable for who?
Whilst we worked, the practical issues of building upon Ryebank Fields became increasingly apparent. The eco-house had to be built upon multiple pallets, in anticipation of the whole structure sinking; the land itself was like a bog, with large puddles caused by the recent rain.
Development here would inevitably result in the felling of trees around the main fields to make room for new houses, which locals worry would increase the likelihood of the site flooding entirely.
It’s only thanks to one committed resident planting dozens of oak trees around the millennium that Ryebank Fields no longer floods yearly and, to my knowledge, even our latest developments in engineering can’t match the efficiency of mature trees to mitigate flood risks.
MMU claims that its development plans will result in an 'overall net biodiversity gain for the site'. Unfortunately, this is doubtful. The felling of trees would remove the homes for the birds which give Ryebank its signature wild chorus, including the tawny owl, blackcap and chiffchaff. This would have a knock on effect on the rest of the ecosystem dwelling here.
One might wonder where MMU’s motivations lie. MMU says it’s selling the land to ‘meet the need for high quality and affordable housing’ in the area.
However, in an area like Chorlton, which has been undergoing a rapid process of gentrification over the past decade, any house with a market value of up to £432,800 can be considered ‘affordable’ — which hardly falls within the average person’s budget.
Even then, under the university's current proposal, only 20% of the 120 proposed new homes are required to fall into this category.
A wider story about land
I visited the camp more and more often and eventually fully moved in January, staying for around six months.
There were elements of camp life which were indescribably lovely, like being woken by the dawn chorus in the mornings, or sitting around a fire and sharing songs together in the evenings.
To be sure, my time on camp wasn't all sunshine. In the winter months there were few of us occupying the camp, so it was challenging to ensure we had 24/7 cover, especially as we have to leave for basic things like running water, a shower and a toilet.
But the longer I stayed, the more difficult I found it to switch off from the campaign. I felt I had become a part of the fields and their fate became deeply intertwined with my own. The constant threat of developers turning up on site, or indeed the police, as happened on occasion, became a personal threat to my own safety and respite was difficult to come by.
As well as the general challenges that came with living as part of a transient community, the knowledge that the place I’d come to call home was under threat was really difficult to live with.
When you connect with a place so deeply, when you’ve fallen in love with the trees or the flowers or the community there, the grief of knowing someone who has no connection to the place might come in at any minute and decimate it becomes overwhelming.
Since I’d only lived there for less than a year and I already feel this strongly, I can’t even begin to imagine the pain inflicted on indigenous peoples when their ancestral lands, which they’ve held such strong reciprocal relationships with for thousands of years, are under threat or stolen.
The battle to save Ryebank Fields is a microcosm of a much wider story of land found throughout the world. Although local residents have been maintaining and cultivating a community around the land since MMU abandoned it in the '90s, MMU still feels entitled to sell the land for profit due to its legal status as the ‘owners’ of the space.
This, to me, reflects two conflicting attitudes toward land which have existed at least since the beginning of early modern European colonialism: one which sees land as a living ecosystem with which people can form relationships; the other sees land as an asset to ‘own’, a resource from which a small number of people can make a large profit.
At this point in time, when the latter narrative which dominates our capitalist society is hurtling us all towards extinction, it has never been more imperative that ordinary people take collective action to ensure their perspectives are heard, and that all green space is saved.
Seeking some more stability (and some more exciting cooking equipment), I’ve now left camp. But the campaign is only going to intensify now MMU has appointed its preferred developer. In this crucial stage, we will need everyone’s help to avoid Ryebank Fields becoming a paradise lost.
Lilly Hill is a queer creative, workshop facilitator and youth mental health advocate based in Manchester. They are passionate about amplifying indigenous and youth voices in the struggle for climate justice. Her areas of interest include deep ecology, permaculture and eco-psychology.
Feature image: Ryebank Fields Community Camp.
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22 October 2022