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What’s the big idea in Birmingham?

Emily Booth
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Emily Booth introduces our Birmingham focus and asks whether its Big City Plan will succeed in reconnecting the city with its citizens

‘If you don’t evolve, you die.’ That’s the stark assessment from Alexander Paton, 69, long-term resident of one of Ladywood’s remaining high-rise residential blocks, who was interviewed by Ella Jessel for her feature about estate regeneration in Birmingham.

Paton lives on an estate marked for massive redevelopment. He makes the point that much of Ladywood’s challenges are down to the closure of places people can meet and socialise. ‘There were 10 pubs, once. The social centre of Ladywood used to be the social club. It closed down in March last year.’ But – and this is crucial – he thinks his current flat is ‘sound’, and he ‘loves the place’.

So how do you square the two? How do you evolve a place – but without demolishing it, starting over and damaging its spirit in the process?

It’s a challenge Birmingham has long grappled with. Enthusiasm, energy and ambition bubble over in England’s second city. It is bursting with architectural talent and creative excellence. Yet it’s a city that has a particular history of development, demolition and rebuilding, time and again.

When the car was king, Birmingham embraced the Inner Ring Road. It has spent years trying to reconnect residents with the centre of their city. (The car park built on top of the shopping centre built on top of New Street Station – voted Britain’s worst station in 2014 – must count as a low point in urban planning. The station is now, thankfully, refurbished.)

In the heyday of residential tower building, Birmingham built upwards. Pretty much all of these towers have subsequently been revised or removed, and, as respected Birmingham-based architect and urban designer Joe Holyoak explains, it is ‘an expensive, exhausting and destabilising way to make progress’.

So it’s good news that Birmingham has got a Big City Plan (BCP), an aspirational framework for how the city centre can be developed and improved that is now halfway through its 20-year implementation. But how well are its aims and objectives being applied? It does seem a shame that the Birmingham House proposal, which was a new model for city-centre family houses, has quietly disappeared.

The BCP admirably promotes connectivity – and the enormity of HS2, if it goes ahead, cannot be underestimated. Infrastructure has tremendous power to transform and accelerate, but Birmingham stations can’t be standalone architectural feats that sever connectivity: they must somehow improve and grow entire areas and communities.

West Midlands metro mayor Andy Street talks about the importance of vision. In his opinion, HS2 has lost its original grand vision. Vision without a plan can galvanise – but will achieve little. A plan without vision is destined to grind on and produce mediocre results.

Which brings us back to Alexander Paton. He likes his existing flat, and he’d like to see more pubs and social clubs. Time for the planners and the visionaries to get their heads around that one. 

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