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BEST 2010: Road map to a vibrant city

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Birmingham’s Big City Plan provides a much-needed framework to repair the urban fabric torn apart by motorways

Last month saw the launch of the Big City Plan, a bold vision for 21st-century Birmingham. Informed by Michael Parkinson’s 2007 study which identified cultural diversity, innovation and education as the city’s emerging economic drivers, the Big City Plan is the culmination of three years of local authority-led hard work. This plan provides a framework for repairing the urban fabric torn apart by motorways and for integrating new development into a coordinated urban design vision.

Birmingham was a small market town until canals and the railway linked raw materials with centres of
demand, creating the world’s greatest metalworking workshop. Dense growth of small factories and houses infilled the medieval town street pattern. In the late 19th century, impressive streets, public squares and fine civic buildings transformed the city centre.

In the 20th century, the car redefined Birmingham. Post-war reconstruction was led by city engineer Herbert Manzoni, who saw the historic urban fabric as unhealthy tissue and conceived visionary urban motorways (see plan).

By the 1980s the city centre, cauterised by the inner ring road and filled with empty factories, was no longer viable as a place to live, work or shop. Strong civic leadership extended the city to the west with the International Convention Centre and Brindleyplace while the Bullring reinvigorated its retail appeal.

The Big City Plan is well timed, with the five regeneration areas highlighted in the plan currently being designed. The plan provides a clear pedestrian wiring diagram connecting across the motorway. East-to-west links are envisioned between Brindleyplace and the proposed new High Speed 2 railway station and existing universities in Eastside, and between the Southern Gateway on the Wholesale Market site north to Snow Hill. The reconstructed New Street Station will soon provide a 24/7 link through the heart of the city.

The Big City Plan marks a reversal of Manzoni’s heroic utopian approach. To become a vibrant 21st-century city, Birmingham must acknowledge its past and diversity and build incrementally upon it.

A timber display by Glenn Howells is on display at BEST’s Low Carbon Hub

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