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Tuesday22 July 2014

Urban Essay

What does the Big City Plan mean for Birmingham?

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Birminham's Big City Plan aims for a global and local city, but there are areas of conflict, particulalry on recognising its industrial past and present

Birmingham, conscious of its status as the biggest provincial city, likes to do things in a big way, as if to make up for not being London. During the construction of the ICC, a major convention centre opened in 1991, a large sign on Broad Street exhorted citizens to “Think Big”.

The Big City Plan is the latest manifestation of this civic characteristic. While the City Council calls it a masterplan, this is a misleading use of the term. The intention is to make a framework for growth and change within the 800ha of the city centre contained within the ring road, for the next 20 years. This is not the Inner Ring Road, the notorious “concrete collar” that was strangling the city core, but what was previously called the Middle Ring Road. The official tenfold enlargement of the city centre from the 80ha contained within the concrete collar was one of the key decisions taken at the seminal 1988 Highbury Initiative, which laid the foundations for many of the great improvements of the past 20 years.

The idea of the Big City Plan was hatched by the Conservative Council leader, Mike Whitby, and the director of planning and regeneration, Clive Dutton. Both men are assertive civic-boosters, ambitious to move the city on to an international plane. Whitby’s slogan is: “A global city with a local heart”, which seems to have become the core theme of the Big City Plan.

Invited by the City Council in 2006 to make a “visioning study”, Michael Parkinson of Liverpool John Moores University produced a 77-page report — its only illustrations a few tables and graphs — to set out a socio-economic future for the city. Following this the council appointed Urban Initiatives, in what has been described as the biggest urban design commission ever made in this country. Its main task is to translate Parkinson’s document into tangible, physical forms and planning policies.

It is taking longer than anticipated. Urban Initiatives, appointed in August 2007, was given a one-year schedule; it is now expected to finish its work in spring 2010. The Highbury Initiative, though a very different kind of animal, took 48 hours, and has been widely acclaimed as a great and pioneering success.

Between December 2008 and February 2009, the Big City Plan had an extensive public consultation stage, soliciting engagement with citizens in a variety of ways: a website, newspaper supplements, leaflets, posters, a conference, and even an exhibition on a bus that toured inner-city residential districts.

The conference was sadly dominated by the ubiquitous men in suits, but otherwise there has been a great deal of community response to the proposed aspirations. Much comment has focused on the need for better quality in the public realm. A few selected comments have been published on the Big City Plan website, but we still await a comprehensive publication of what the people of Birmingham wish for the future of their city.

The initial proposals to which responses were invited are mostly pretty generic, framed around Whitby’s “global and local” dialectic, and expressed in a series of marketable global themes — Audacity, Authenticity, Diverse City, etc, and local themes — Live Local, Learn Local, Buy Local, etc. There is also a series of aspirational questions on both topics: transport, shopping, education, etc, and on the geographical subdivisions of the city centre, mostly following the division into identifiable urban quarters which was one of the outcomes of the Highbury Initiative.


Proposed Urban
Credit: Amalthea Leung
Proposed new quarters for Birmingham


Here too, unfortunately, the marketing emphasis is present, producing a series of tired-sounding neologisms for districts. In addition to the Eastside regeneration area, created by the previous Labour administration, we are now offered the bland Southside and Westside.

This illustrates a serious friction between the global and the local perspectives and a problem with recognising and achieving the authenticity desired. Historic local place names are a part of what is specifically authentic about a place. Eastside consists of both Digbeth and Deritend, both of medieval origin. Within Southside and Westside are also ancient districts.

The habit of renaming old places should be resisted; a city is not a commercial product to be rebranded. To its credit, the City Council in 2003 resisted the wish of developer Hammerson, who obliterated the medieval street name of the Bull Ring, to relabel the area around its shopping centre as Bullring.

The problem with authenticity extends also to the built fabric. Birmingham is no longer the predominantly manufacturing city that it was pre-1985, but there is still a lot of industry, much of it typically small-scale, and the city centre includes a number of fine-grained industrial areas around the core, such as Digbeth, Highgate, the Jewellery Quarter and the Gun Quarter. These have gritty and pragmatic qualities which are authentically Birmingham, and with the right planning policies could be incrementally modified while maintaining those qualities. Parkinson in his study enthusiastically confirms this approach.

Yet the Big City Plan is dismissive of Birmingham’s industrial quality. The consultation document says of the Gun Quarter “Much of the urban fabric is… characterised by industrial and warehouse buildings, which do not relate well to Birmingham’s global city ambitions.” I suspect we all know what a global city looks like, and they all look increasingly similar. Recent planning approvals for new high-rise buildings in Birmingham, approved against local planning policies, confirm this direction.

Highrise- Big CIty Birmingham
Credit: Joe Holyoak
The 1970s markets are to be redeveloped to become a walkable mixed-use part of the city

A city that affirms localism, however, will by definition be an individual and unique place.

One encouraging element of localism in the Big City Plan is the proposal for The Birmingham House. The context is that, following the large-scale emptying of residents from the city centre in the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham has achieved a significant repopulation of the city centre since 1992, with the construction of 10,000 apartments. This has, though, produced a narrow demographic, and the market is now saturated. The project aims to produce a range of 21st century house types which can reintroduce families to the city centre. They will be informed by local history and typology, and reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of the city.

Urban View- Big City Birmingham
Credit: Joe Holyoak

Birmingham City University has carried out a public consultation programme to inform the brief, the City Council will be consulting with BRE on technical aspects of the brief, and then there will be a design competition. This will be restricted to local architects, and will be for the production of a model scheme. Sadly, the original intention to build the winning design has been dropped, but it is hoped it will form a design guide for future developments.

The most concrete urban design proposal in the Big City Plan is the redevelopment of the 6ha Wholesale Markets site, next to the Bull Ring. This inpenetrable 1970s stockade is a huge obstacle to movement and growth. Following the planned relocation of the markets, the site will become a walkable mixed-use part of the city centre, reconnecting the retail area to Highgate to the south, which it is hoped will become a primary location for the building of The Birmingham House. As in all good urban design plans, joining places up is essential; without it, nothing will happen.

Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, and is director of the MA Urban Design course at Birmingham City University.

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