Thoughts on Our Future City Plan Part 1
An update to the Big City Plan is almost here and Brummies are being asked to comment on how we'd like to see our city evolve.
The most striking element of Our Future City Plan is the compilation of CGIs and watercolour visualisations that have been included as 'conversation starters'.
The two sets of images seem to offer contradictory visions of the future. The first shows vast areas of the city once again levelled for nondescript tower blocks topped with trees that would most likely never materialise while the second show a gently densified city that you might actually want to live in with only the occasional skyscraper. This most concerning CGI included in the Our Future Cites Plan (“OFCP”) is reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s 'towers in the park’ vision that was applied to council estates across the country in the 1960s, leaving them alienating and empty (Fig. 1).
In this particular case several heritage buildings have also been unacceptably lost. The red brick backside of the odeon contrasts spectacularly with New Street’s metal skin. Although I understand that its removal has been illustrated as improving the connection between Station Square and New Street, this should be achieved elsewhere (perhaps with the demolition of HSBC) and without its replacement with a generic skyscraper that also damages the setting of the Rotunda. St Micheal’s Church seems to have been replaced with a bland glass tower and the ‘Big Top’, an iconic piece of the city’s post-war architecture, has been lost to yet another tower.
Although it is a shame to cover up the view to the platforms at New Street, the removal of the small ‘hole’ and the widening of the footway at the Moor Street Link is welcome.
New Street is for the most part an extremely attractive boulevard that exemplifies the importance of similar scale in creating a beautiful street, a principle that should not be lost. The urban fabric here has been totally destroyed, eliminating the possibility of recreating some of Chamberlain’s vision for Corporation Street as a grand boulevard (Fig 2).
Birmingham should be ambitious in looking to the future while also seeking opportunities to restore its past. Between 2012 and 2018 part of Frankfurt’s Old Town that had been bombed during the Second World War was rebuilt. The Dom-Römer Project recreated an entire urban block in the city centre. Similarly, the Berlin Palace, destroyed in 1950 by the East German government, was rebuilt and finally opened in 2020.
A number of buildings on Corporation Street could be 'de-modernised' (Fig. 2) and an entire Victorian block could be transposed and rebuilt (Fig. 3).
Although the block would not occupy its original location, which is now part of Martineau Galleries, it is sufficiently narrow to be 'moved' to its new location on the site of Martineau Place and allow for the new linear park shown in the CGI. The new block would have active frontage facing both Corporation Street and the new park while ensuring that the park nestles within the urban fabric rather than obliterates it.
This development would give increased prominence to the sadly dilapidated City Arcade and also allow for the partial restoration of the original street grid around Martineau Street. The time to undertake such a large scale redevelopment of Martineau Place is now and BCC should capitalise on the arrival of the metro extension to purchase and lead the regeneration of the site. The remainder of Martineau Place can be broken up into several mixed use and more permeable blocks, allowing the park and newly reconstructed historic buildings to be visible through a direct line of site from Moor Street and Albert Street.
Other opportunities exist for remodelling some of Corporation Street to restore its Victorian appearance, including the possible demolition of HSBC/Premier Inn to facilitate the reconstruction of the Exchange building or the construction of the city's first five star hotel that revives the name and character of the Stork Hotel (Fig. 4).
High Street could also be extensively remodelled, including the alteration of the Big Top to include a courtyard garden, the redevelopment of a number of poor quality, low rise post war buildings and the demolition of Primark to allow for a direct and more attractive pedestrian route to the Bullring from Moor Street Station.
Many of these large scale redevelopment projects could be pursued in conjunction with smaller scale proposals to preserve some of the post war buildings along Union Passage to create a brutalist Diagon Alley. The character of the Victorian alleyway has been lost but the pleasingly layered architecture that exists today could provide an entirely new experience through improvements to the public realm that make the street safer and create space for a unique retail offering comprising of independents in small retail units (Figs. 6, 7 and 8).
The introduction of green space into Digbeth (Fig. 9) is welcome, as is the gentle densification in the foreground and the downgrading of the ring road to better knit the city centre into Bordesley and Small Heath. However, again we see unnecessary towers reminiscent of 1960s plans.
These CGIs have not been created by forward thinking urbanists but by people of limited imagination trying to unconvincingly pass off dated and drab modernist ideas that have been spruced up with a few trees as futuristic. The city centre needs to embrace gentle densification rather than tower blocks, encouraging 5-8 storey builds on its periphery to revitalise local centres and create more efficient land use than the council estates that sit adjacent to the ring road.
Many of the cities Victorian terraces offer good examples of how to densify areas with family housing. The general perception of the terraced house is one that varies depending on geography but the modular housing development at Port Loop is beginning to demonstrate how terraces on straight roads can be modern and aspirational. The city's extensive stock of victorian equivalents remain popular and attractive but many of the streets on which they sit are blighted by pavement parking. Front gardens have been ripped up to squeeze in cars and the trees that once lined the streets are a distance memory. Replanting those street trees and gradually removing the need for cars will bring these streets back to life.
Though it's fantastic to see the disappearance of Lancaster Circus, its replacement with unimaginatively designed towers of gratuitous height is just as egregious a mistake (Fig. 11). The preservation of the Children’s Hospital and the removal of its unsightly modern additions is welcome but a use needs to be found so that the public can enjoy the grounds and the interior. The gentle density on the left of this image shows a scale appropriate to the historic setting but the towers are overbearing and ugly.
Downgrading the ring road is again shown to be a necessary priority as is the removal of the flyover but the area around the A34 is already replete with dull student blocks with no consideration for green space or parkland. Although this has been addressed here, the sheer quantity of people plonked in this location would mean that the provision is still be insufficient.
What is perhaps strangest about these images is why we are even discussing wholesale demolition of the existing urban fabric in the city core when the Gun Quarter remains undeveloped and can only boast a small number of buildings worthy of preservation. Behind the relatively complete built form on the city centre side of the canal is a vast expanse of big sheds and wide roads that would make the ideal blank canvas to build a super-dense second centre if it were so desired, gradually diminishing in height and scale as it approached the historic Gun Quarter buildings near the canal and the Jewellery Quarter.
The area is in need of a masterplan (Figs. 12 and 13) to guide development which has so far been piecemeal and lacked joined up thinking. The new quarter could be a network of treelined cycle streets and pocket parks around high quality and well designed 5-8 storey mansion blocks (see Part 2).
An increased intensity of development in the Gun Quarter would also present the opportunity to define a new character area. Aside from the student blocks on the A34 and some extremely attractive small scale projects by Javelin Block, a number of residential developments have cropped up all sporting the same uninteresting and flat shade of red, as if a glance over Constitution Hill to the Jewellery Quarter was sufficient to glean a character assessment. Rather than informally seeking to copy development in the Jewellery Quarter but at a lower standard the Gun Quarter could become a daring architectural experiment, seeking to play around with moderate building techniques, materials and innovative design. Whatever the future of the Gun Quarter, without a concerted effort to define the parameters of development here, the area is at risk of becoming a mismatch of knock off JQ style apartments and cheaply clad towers.
In fact, the OFCP ought to identify a number of areas of the city (Fig. 14) for widespread regeneration adjacent to the ring road so as to create densities that are more befitting a global city, sufficient to generate conviviality and reconnect the city centre with surrounding neighbourhoods. A number of areas are run down and dominated by former industrial premises that are unsuitable for creative reuse and merely emphasise the gulf between the city core and its suburbs. Effectively managing this space is integral to the future of the city, its liveability and providing enough homes for its growing population in the most sustainable way possible.
If you compare the watercolours included in the OFCP to the CGIs discussed above you will see that they depict a far more desirable future for the city. The prominent Twitter account @createstreets, which advocates new urbanism, high quality architectural design and has published a guide to creating popular places, has commented on these CGIs saying much the same thing - that they are outdated visions of a future that we should be grateful never came to pass.
However, the watercolours offer an alternative and the reimagined Hockley Flyover is particularly pleasing (Fig. 15). Not only does it depict the flyover as a new linear park, but it shows pedestrian subways that have been filled in, the carriageway narrowed, the streets lined with trees and a nod to the necessity for public artwork with the inclusion of a centrepiece on the traffic island. It is a fine vision of how this part of the city could look if development is sympathetic to the scale of existing buildings and prioritises the retention of heritage assets and important buildings that positively contribute to the character of the area, irrespective of whether they are listed or not.
You can see clearly see that the Gurdwara Babe Ke, former Palladium, Icknield School, St Mary's Convent and numerous buildings on Hunters Road, including a fine example of a 1950s office block, have all been retained. The Kajans Women's Enterprise Centre at the bottom of the image is currently under construction and could be the first piece of this puzzle.
Equally pleasing is the image of Highgate Park (Fig. 16). The park itself lacks a focal point and central place to gather but one is now manifest in watercolour. The present council estate which borders the park turns its back to it while the medium density redevelopment represented here is far more sociable in how it overlooks the park, not only provide stunning views but also natural surveillance to make it safer. The opportunity to create ground floor units in the apartment blocks would activate the edges of the park, drawing people to the area and creating a convivial and neighbourly environment.
In both these image we do not see gratuitous skyscrapers but a fine grain urbanism that can accommodate many more high quality and more desirable homes than the dull BTR tombstones we have recently seen proposed for the city. Here we could also see the return of terraces and townhouses ideally suited for families, offering a healthier and more sustainable alternative to the sprawling, car-centric and dead suburban housing estates built by the likes of Barratt and Taylor Wimpey.
You can easily envisage both of these neighbourhoods providing all the amenities needed by the new residents within a short walk while also facilitating longer distance travel with easy access to safe active and public transport and minimising the need for private vehicles. It is a vision of a city that's clean, green, diverse, car-free, exciting and happy.
Several of the watercolours do include suggestions of taller development, however, what differentiates these from their CGI counterparts is that architectural density is met with biological density. The tall building mooted for the red cage car park site sits adjacent to a newly greened Suffolk Street Queensway while those in Gas Street Basin look like they have been inspired by Milan's Bosco Verticale, a pair of residential towers 111m and 76m tall which contain over 900 trees.
The placement of these towers is, arguably, far more appropriate than those thrown unceremoniously at the Steelhouse Lane Conservation Area. They also replace incredibly problematic bits of the city. The red cage car park is a hugely inefficient use of space, bounded on three sides by roads that, if the car park didn't exist, wouldn't actually be needed on two of those three sides. The vertical forests of Gas Street Basin too would correct examples of poor urbanism rather than destroy its opposite. The collection of two story brown office buildings, flats and accompanying parking on the opposite side of the canal from the Mailbox entirely preclude the possibility of creating more public space fronting the canal for people to enjoy. Its current arrangement makes it impossible to walk through the site to Arena Central and Centenary Square from the Mailbox and instead forces pedestrians to walk round past the Canal House (if the gate isn't locked) or down a narrow and poorly lit alleyway that takes you to Holliday Street. The redevelopment of the site between Bridge Street and the canal basin would open it up to pedestrian movement, create more canal-side bars, restaurants and activities and make far better use of our world famous canals.
There seem to be two visions of the city's future on offer and one is far more preferable to the other. Although public consultation ended on the Our Future Cities Plan last week the document is part of broader work the shape the future of the city and feedback to the council is strongly encouraged. You should still be able to provide comments for a limited period at email@example.com.