Launched on 29 September, the Big City Plan sets out urban design and development aspirations for Birmingham city centre. Hattie Hartman interviews Andrew Round, head of the city’s 12-strong Urban Design Unit
Hattie Hartman What is the genesis of the Big City Plan?
Andrew Round It’s a desire to have a comprehensive vision for the city centre, which Birmingham hasn’t had for 20 years.
HH What is the plan’s main thrust?
AR It’s important to understand what it is and what it is not. It’s more than a visioning document, let’s call it visioning ‘plus’; but it is not a detailed masterplan with massing of buildings. It’s intended to capture people’s imagination and give a sense of where we want to see change in high-level urban design.
It’s a vision with a spatial direction and lots of emphasis on connectivity. We want to strengthen the city’s authentic character and at the same time diversify its economic base.
HH What are the plan’s main objectives?
AR To grow the city centre, raise livability, improve connectivity, and strengthen the city’s authentic character. We also want to diversify the city’s cultural and retail offer. Birmingham is known as a mainstream business city. It moved from manufacturing to business and financial services. It’s weaker than other cities for cultural diversity and independent niche retail. We want to strengthen that and also support its nitty gritty side in Digbeth and the Jewellery Quarter.
Foreign Office Architects’ New Street Station will be a great piece of transport infrastructure
HH This is an ambitious plan with a lot of pretty pictures. What teeth does it have?
AR Our core strategy will capture this material in a statutory planning document which will be out to consultation later this year and adopted in Summer 2011. Elements such as building heights, public realm and wayfinding will also be taken forward as a supplementary planning guidance.
HH What is the timing for approval of the Big City Plan?
AR It’s out for consultation until Christmas, and we anticipate taking it to the Cabinet for adoption around March.
HH The plan uses a lot of developer-speak. Who is your audience?
AR It’s a framework for looking at opportunities about how to take the city centre forward and expand
Foreign Office Architects’ New Street Station is the first piece, and it will be a great piece of transport infrastructure. There will be public access 24/7 on a key north-to-south route which doesn’t exist presently. The first phase is due to complete in 2012.
The plan identifies ‘five areas of transformation’. Westside offers the potential to improve the setting of key historic buildings from the Chamberlain era.
The Mecanoo Library will open in 2013. The key element of Eastside is a new city park and multi-level car park, already on site. We want to make sure the park can accommodate High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) if it goes ahead, but we are also looking at what happens if it doesn’t. In Snowhill, the Ballymore scheme is already happening; there are also opportunities related to Birmingham’s Children’s Hospital.
HH What are the priority early phases of the plan?
AR New Street Station will complete from 2012 to 2015 and will regenerate the wider area. Argent’s Paradise Circus in Westside is already on site, and the first development in Snowhill is already complete. In Eastside, the new multistory car park will complete in 2011 and the park in 2012. An international design competition for the Wholesale Market site will be held in 2013.
We have prioritised wayfinding and the first phase of new signposting in the city centre will go in during 2011.
HH How do you plan to make the change from a city where everyone goes by car to a walking city?
AR We want to reroute 10 to 20 per cent of the traffic that is currently travelling through the city centre.
There is also a big push on wayfinding for pedestrians. That work is already well underway. It’s also about breaking down the A38 as a barrier and we have urban design interventions to address that at key locations.
Also important is the city’s heritage status. For example, the Jewellery Quarter was dominated by the jewellery industry 40 years ago and now it has a lot going on in the creative sector – architects, graphic designers and crafts – the highway creates a barrier, however, and there is a very weak link to the city centre. This will need to be improved.
Birmingham Sustainable Community Strategy
Big City Plan
Birmingham New Street Station
For an update on Birmingham’s BSF programme