Thoughts on Our Future City Plan Part 2

Updated: May 13, 2021

An update of the Big City Plan is almost here and Brummies are being asked to comment on how they'd like to see their city evolve.

The Our Future City Plan is certainly bold in some respects but does not offer a singular vision for the city. There is a lot to like about many of its ideas but very little detail to actively engage with. How much of this exercise will be guided by citizens' feedback is unclear as is the target audience of parts of the prospectus. The images of the what the city might look like have proven particularly divisive, not least because two alternate futures seem to be on offer. The CGIs and watercolour visualisations included as conversation starters offer glimpses of two different directions development could take; the former depict an already outdated vision of a 1960s council estate inspired by Le Corbusier's towers in the park that will no doubt impress developers and people for whom the height of a building is all that matters, while the latter show a fine grain, gently densified city that you'd actually want to live in.

The consultation period ends today and if you haven't already I would encourage you to submit your comments here. In the meantime, here are some thoughts of my own.

The first chapter of the vision re-envisages ‘central Birmingham’ as encompassing areas immediately outside the middle ring road in full cognisance that one day this monstrous Manzonian intervention will be the city’s concrete collar just as the inner ring road once was.

Policy so far has treated the ring road as if it were a city wall, separating the central core from its hinterland, and very little has been done to foster a seamless blurring between the city centre and the areas of Small Heath, Sparkbrook, Balsall Heath, Soho and Edgbaston. This has had a profound othering effect on the communities surrounding the city centre which can only be addressed by knitting the city back together and rebuilding the urban fabric between the core and areas beyond.

The most pertinent inspiration for how to do this comes from the creation of the Ringstasse in Vienna between the 1860s and 1890s. Vienna’s ring road was constructed on the former glacis, a sort of free fire zone and dead space just outside the city’s defensive walls that dislocated the historic centre from its suburbs. The solution was to create a circular boulevard complete with a new tramline that goes nowhere in particular but is lined with some of the city’s grandest buildings, its most important institutions and 8 storey mansion blocks. In Birmingham a similar scale of development would introduce a permanent population to the city centre’s edge, able to support both the businesses in the centre and those just beyond the ring road. The gentle densification would create a transitional zone bridging the gap between higher density development in the centre and the terraced houses of more suburban areas. Several of BCC's offices, such as at 1 Lancaster Circus and 10 Woodcock Street are already located beyond the inner ring road and moving more of them to this new peripheral boulevard will enable the city council to not only consolidate its operations and save money but spearhead the regeneration of Birmingham's own 'glacis'.

Vienna's glacis before and after the development of the Ringstrasse
Say goodbye to the 'Elizabeth Line' and hello to the 'Ringstrasse (or Viennese) Line'

A further benefit would be making the city more walkable by reestablishing the long boulevards to the suburbs that were cut off by the construction of the ring road. Such a bold vision would have a profound impact on investment into the city which has typically not found its way to areas immediately adjacent to the ring road.

It is worth pointing out as an aside that this development of Vienna’s Ringstasse occurred contemporaneously with Hausman’s renovation of Paris and the sweeping slum clearances and construction of grand boulevards and municipal buildings under Chamberlain in Birmingham. Looking at this period in history before the ubiquity of the car when people walked, cycled or travelled by tram and train, shopped locally and worked locally it is likely that spatially the future of cities will look far more like the 1860s than the 1960s.

The Principles

The vision outlines an ambition to create a green, equitable, liveable and distinctive city. These are all laudable aims but are beset by a certain vagueness that might make them easy to write off by the more cynical among us who disparagingly label such concepts 'buzzwords' to avoid engaging with complex ideas. To combat this dismissal the document needs to include some easily understandable examples of what pursuing these aims looks like in practice. It is unclear how the ‘Brummie character’ can be showcased ‘through the design and activity within development’ but it is true that every neighbourhood will have stories of ‘people, identity, history and place’ that can be built into future development.

One effective example of how to do this through the public realm that would be especially suited to Birmingham, a city whose urban fabric has been successively altered, obliterated and rebuilt, can be found in Padua. Much of the pedestrianised area of the Italian city's historic centre has irregular marble lines on the pavement which separate larger block paved areas nearest buildings from more traditional Sampietrini in the middle of the street. The lines feature inscriptions and trace the footprint of demolished buildings that were further forward than the present ones. The inscriptions explain what the building was that previously occupied the site, when it was built & when it was demolished. The pavements therefore preserve some record of the city's architectural history.

In places matching paving stones appear to anchor the newer buildings to the long lost old ones.

Replicating this in Birmingham would be a distinctive means of improving some of the more lacklustre pedestrianisation plans, better engaging people in the city’s history and encouraging these who dwell in these spaces to more meaningfully participate in a broader discussion about the city’s built environment. Having written a piece about this previously it was heartening to see the public realm plans for Digbeth's Stone Yard development changed to include just such an idea. The need to 'ensure that new development is crafted to tell the stories and shared memories that form distinct community identities and adds to the character, community ownership, and diversity of places and neighbourhoods' strongly features in the City of Layers section but doesn't include examples.

Alongside carbon reduction targets a ‘green city’ agenda could involve systematically replacing on street parking with tree lined, walkable avenues with safe cycling that stretch out from public transport nodes such as railway stations. This will require consent at local level as well as a commitment from local residents to switch to other means of getting about. A recent report by the Policy Exchange think tank proposed that residents could prepare and vote on “street plans” allowing the creation of larger and denser residential buildings in their roads but something easier, simpler and cheaper would be a system in which residents of a street could band together to multilaterally choose to get rid of their cars in exchange for funded public realm enhancements. Receiving 3 months of free bus travel as an incentive to sell your car is one approach but receiving investment to beautify your street and increase the value of your house if you and your neighbours sell your cars is probably better. Putting in place incentives for such moves would enable the greening of the city from the bottom up. Manchester's Mayfield Masterplan offers a fantastic example of what guidance on such improvements could look like. It includes an informal design guide for street hierarchies which Birmingham would do well to copy and use as the basis of legislation covering development across the entire city.

Detailed and prescriptive guidance for street hierarchies in Manchester's Mayfield Development.

Facilitating these changes will require significant funding as well as already desperately needed revision to planing policy regarding development near public transport provision. Council officers and planning committee members continue to allow low density, car-centric residential schemes to be built near railway stations instead of maximising the benefits of their location to create more homes.

The City of Centres

The 2040 goals seek to ‘establish Central Birmingham as an integrated collection of vibrant, distinct and liveable neighbourhoods with services and amenities to ensure that residents can meet their daily needs within walking and cycling distances’. However, this relationship is symbiotic. The provision of services and amenities to meet residents' daily needs is dependent on there being sufficient people nearby to use them. Existing policy needs changing to ensure that it does not simply ‘support residential development at densities that make local services and public transport viable’ but also aggressively deters development that doesn’t.

This ambition will be impossible to realise as long as legislation permits developments such as 2019/06329/PA, 2018/09040/PA and 2018/10368/PA instead of discouraging them and inexplicably reject developments such as 2020/01795/PA instead of embracing them. We only have so much brownfield development land in key locations and most of it has already been wasted on developments that undermine and contradict the principles outlined in this vision. Some of these principles are already part of the Birmingham Development Plan and if they are being ignored while part of existing legislation, for those of us who care, it offers no hope that they will be enforced in the future.

The damaging short-termism inherent in the political imperative to 'create more homes now' will lead to a shortage of accessible homes in the longer term. Essentially once Taylor Wimpey has exhausted all the developable land near local centres and railway stations and there are still insufficient people living nearby to support them there's not a lot that can be done to retrospectively fix it, at least not cheaply. The result is more car-dependent sprawl built on greenbelt land that needn't have been lost.

City of Connections

This section outlines BCC's commitment to prioritising public and active transport, increasing the city's walkability, ensuring the safety of people on bikes and reducing our reliance on cars. A great deal of it seems to have been lifted from Birmingham's existing Transport Plan and although it is positive to see these promises reasserted here, actions speak louder than words. Rather than demonstrating the seriousness of BCC's resolve to lead on these transformative changes, it merely highlights BCC's unwillingness or inability to deliver them in light of the last year's newfound urgency to bring them forward. Birmingham Connected have done sterling work installing temporary cycle lanes and LTNs but the work feels, well, temporary. The city's BIDs have put together numerous proposals to support businesses that were for whatever reason frustrated, watered down or simply rejected. Compared to other cities in the UK the measures do not feel like they will lead to any significant changes. While other cities such as Salford are building cyclops roundabouts, including new low level planting at every opportunity and creating guidance to redesign road junctions so that they favour pedestrians and people on bikes instead of cars, Birmingham's thinking is still stuck in the 1990s, revolving around individual landmark schemes rather than citywide transformation. We have the fantastic A38 cycle highway to Selly Oak but very little else.

One critical change that is needed is that every reference to Sprint needs expunging and replacing with a cast iron undertaking to expand the metro network. Ideally we should forget that it was ever considered at all and ignore the residents of Walsall Road who frustrated the plans for the tram through Perry Barr in 2008 because they were concerned about losing on street parking directly in front of their already massive private driveways. There should be no more equivocating over whether this route or that will get a bendy bus or a tram, it should be a tram every single time.

This is because if the Sprint bears even a passing resemblance to the proposals for the Cambridge Autonomous Metro, which as Gareth Dennis points out, is neither autonomous nor a metro, it is likely that it will be less capacious, less green, less likely to encourage modal shift, require more maintenance, create more road surface wear and even be more expensive than just building an actual tram.

The accompanying four leaf clover map only distinguishes between heavy rail and everything else and so doesn't provide the clarity required to be convincing. It doesn't even try to one-up Andy Street's 2040 vision for the region when, if only for political reasons, it really ought to. To make it easier for BCC I've done it for them with heavy rail in orange, trams in pink and no silly sprint buses anywhere.

A more ambitious rail and metro network for central Birmingham

One curious feature of BCC's plan is that it offers some hope for future railway stations at Balsall Heath and Ladywood to support the regeneration of Greater Icknield, but in a recent lecture when I asked a Principal Development Planning Officer from BCC whether a new railway station was being considered for Ladywood he said no. The reasons were, quite frankly, unconvincing and couched in short term economic practicalities rather than long term environmental necessity.

City of Nature

One particularly encouraging inclusion in the document is the occasional oblique reference to food systems. The development of an 'Edible Brum' policy which 'gives local people the opportunity to grow their own food in urban environments' and 'identifies public and private spaces on walls, roofs and underutilised spaces for growing edible fruit and vegetables, bee keeping, hydroponic crops, fish farming and brewing' is one I would like to hear more about.

Not only would more visible food growing increase awareness of how food is produced and lead to better education around personal nutrition, including 'high rise allotments' in new residential buildings would provide space for residents to grow some of their own produce. Being able to cultivate your own herb garden or small vegetable patch has been shown to encourage wellbeing and improve both physical and mental health. Having spaces with a spectacular view of the city would create unique and desirable places to live right in the heart of Birmingham.

How much progress has been made on this idea is anyone's guess but the redevelopment of Smithfield is the ideal opportunity to pioneer a radically different idea of consumption and develop a circular food economy at a hyper local level. The initiative would also build on Smithfield's interesting history and help carve out an identity for Birmingham's Smithfield that is distinct from the much more famous area of London with the same name.

Court cases in the 12th and 13th centuries attest to there being a food market at Smithfield since at least the Normal Conquest, potentially making it the site of the oldest market in the UK in continuous operation. Food has been at the heart of Smithfield's identity for over a thousand years, making it the ideal testbed for urban agriculture. Alongside the private growing spaces the market itself could exemplify a circular food system. Although it would be impossible for the development to be entirely self sufficient, minimising waste and maximising the resume of resources can set a precedent for development elsewhere in the city. A mundane and practical advantage of this in light of the ongoing problems with bin collections is that a solution to the problem is not more frequent collections but producing less waste so we don't need them. The Smithfield Market regenerative cycle could look something like this:

Similar ideas are already being developed by numerous food businesses across the city and by passing ownership of some of BCC's landholdings to CICs and Neighbourhood Forums this process can be expedited, giving communities control and ownership over how they use their green spaces. The proposed maintenance of these spaces, called ‘Green Guardianship’ is somewhat lacklustre. BCC will seek to work together with a range of community organisations but ‘ownership’ is mentioned in quotation marks suggesting that the use of the word is not meant in earnest. Instead of communities owning and being responsible for their green spaces it seems that BCC will likely want to retain ultimate ownership and expect people to tend it on their behalf - hardly a vision of community empowerment.

The final version of Our Future City Plan needs to demonstrate that the vision is deliverable and that it works. Every bold intervention needs backing up with instances of how and where it has been successful before. We have a tendency to see good things and deny that they could ever work here because of a set of circumstances we believe are unique to Birmingham. This is invariably not the case, many of our behaviours are universal and much of what constitutes a liveable, equitable and green city will be same in Barcelona, Birmingham or Beijing. This exceptionalism is one that is borne out of cynicism. The familiar chorus of ‘Birmingham isn’t Amsterdam’ reaches a crescendo whenever a new cycle lane is installed, completely ignoring the fact that 1960s Amsterdam looked a lot like 1960s Birmingham but one city (read: Amsterdam) made very different (read: much better) choices about its future. We are once again on the cusp of deciding what that future will look like and we must be careful to avoid the mistakes of the past out of fear of political backlash from people who never want to see positive change.

Part 3 coming soon...

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