How do we solve a problem like Birmingham?

Ben Flatman

30 years after the Highbury Initiative, the city still struggles with the legacy of its post-war planning

As the motor industry boomed after the Second World War Birmingham went all-out for an American-style gyratory road system. In a convulsion of civic self-harm, the Inner Ring Road was systematically ploughed through a mediaeval street plan and acres of robust Victorian urban fabric. The Luftwaffe couldn’t hold a candle to the furious destruction wrought by the city’s own planners.

The result was an urban design catastrophe almost unparalleled anywhere else in the UK. The city centre had been strangled by this urban motorway. As a pedestrian, if you wanted to walk anywhere beyond the small traffic-clogged core you had to navigate a hostile and confusing network of subways. The fringes of the city centre were characterised by empty plots of land, cleared to make way for the road but now blighted. Outside the ring road lay a wealth of characterful but forlorn industrial areas. Almost everywhere you looked you were confronted by the urban illiteracy of car-oriented civic planning at its worst.

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