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A clear way forward: Eastside City Park by Patel Taylor

The orthogonal green and hard landscaped spaces of Patel Taylor’s Eastside City Park open routes to bind Birmingham’s old and new inner city together, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Timothy Soar

Patel Taylor’s Eastside City Park, a long, thin stretch of open space a stone’s throw from Birmingham city centre, looks like an architectural drawing. Hard lines, tough materials and orthogonal forms define its look and feel. There are towering masts, clear-cut vistas, skate-friendly benches and Cor-ten lighting fins: this is what new parks looks like today.

Think of Gross Max’s Rottenrow in Glasgow or Diller + Scofidio’s High Line in New York or Patel Taylor’s earlier work, the 2001 Thames Barrier Park in London. They’re all very distinctive and site-specific, but they still share a language of sorts - the technical drawing made real - and probably inspired by the architect-designed public spaces in Barcelona developed ahead of the 1992 Olympics, which landed that city RIBA’s gold medal seven years later.

If it wasn’t for the perseverance of Patel Taylor director Andy Taylor, project lead Alastair Gambles, and Birmingham City Council, however, Eastside City Park, the first park to be created in Birmingham’s city centre for 130 years, might well have only ever been an architectural drawing.

This is a project that has been through the mincer: failed lottery funding bids, the faltering economy, HS2 impact analysis, the departure of project champions, unyielding small-picture stakeholders and a budget scaled back from £18 million to £8 million have all got in the way.

‘But,’ as Taylor says, ‘if you have a strong diagram, it can take all the knocks.’ It even manages (just about) to absorb a clumsy intervention by Gillespies - a Science Garden - which sits right in the middle of the park, at the knuckle where it changes direction from east-west, begins heading south-west and really messes with the hardline aesthetic. (It has a kind of adventure playground feel, totally inappropriate and it’s fenced-off, too, as if it really doesn’t want to be part of the plan.)

It’s one example of how the above-mentioned small-picture stakeholders, in this case Birmingham Science Museum Think Tank, worked against the overall vision, part of Birmingham’s Big City plan.

Another is the fact that the park should have stretched all the way to the canal, as Patel Taylor’s 2007 competition-winning scheme, designed with French landscape architect Allain Provost, proposed. But it has now been halted by Birmingham City University, which will greedily occupy a site blocking access to the water’s edge. ‘Maybe the council gave up too soon during negotiations,’ suggests Gambles.

A number of redesigns were done to accommodate these changes. Yet, for all the hurdles that had to be jumped, the park is still pretty big - 3.2 hectares - and a remarkable transformation of brownfield land that was desolate for years.

It even manages to dignify Millennium Point, Grimshaw’s 2002 ‘mixed-use meeting complex’, a dull, glazed groundscraper, much of which the park runs alongside.

As with most development in cities today, Eastside City Park was conceived and managed to get built because it was badged as regeneration. Like Millennium Point itself set out to do, the park, says Taylor, ‘attempts to bring investment into the area as part of the Big City plan. It gives more of a structure as to how development should follow.’ He explains: ‘They were becoming random buildings, laid out in an empty part of the city with no physical way of binding them. The park is a sort of glue that binds the existing and new together and sets the rules for the future.’

You can see how that would work. Eastside is a handsome, if formulaic, series of green and hard landscaped spaces - Taylor calls them ‘rooms in the city’ - that will increase the value of adjacent plots.

That said, none of the prospective ‘random buildings’ that Taylor was concerned about have been built yet on the neighbouring sites pending further development of HS2 plans, which will likely cut right through them.

The strong points of the design are the long vistas Patel Taylor has introduced, the unifying aesthetic, the biodiversity (there is rich variety in the planting and a water feature nearly 200m long) and the mix of material used: iroko, steel, concrete and Cor‑ten. Taylor is proud, too, of the pathways that run north-south (angular on plan like routes in the Thames Barrier Park) that make new links across the city. Gambles points to the colourful flowerbeds - arranged like a Pantone colour chart as another standout feature.

That it got built at all, however, that’s the real achievement here.

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