Connected communities – high-speed rail and infrastructure

Annual Congress X – Health, Happiness & Wellbeing

Henk Bouwman – Director, The Academy of Urbanism

What does high speed rail have to do with health, happiness, and wellbeing?

This was the opening question of Henk Bouwman, facilitator of the two workshops looking at high-speed rail on the 4th and 5th of June. High-speed rail was a major subject of this year’s conference, with two congress workshops, a walking tour to the proposed site of Birmingham’s station, and a talk from the chair of the High Speed 2 Design Panel.

It is fruitful, continued Henk, to look at transport through the lens of health, happiness and wellbeing. High-speed rail has traditionally been discussed as an engineering project, yet it could and should be so much more. The Independent Transport Commission (ITC) and Academy of Urbanism (AoU) have been collaborating on a High Speed Rail study for a number of years; with study visits to European cities and publications discussing the opportunities that high-speed rail can bring to UK cities. These opportunities are about much more than connectivity, with this joint workshop between the ITC and AoU exploring the implications for wellbeing and quality of life.

The first speaker was Roger Madelin of Argent, who told a “tale of three cities”: Birmingham, Manchester, and London. He described how Argent had become involved in some of these cities’ most important regeneration activities: Brindley Place, the Piccadilly Partnership, and Kings Cross respectively. The key ingredients for a successful project were partnership between public and private sectors; a stable political situation; simplified land ownership; and a unifying vision.

Bob van der Lee of the branding company Total Identity, emphasised that in order to build a coherent story and brand for high speed rail, we need to move from the rational to the emotional. We should stop talking about capacity, trains, logistics and engineering, and instead talk about communities, catalysts, progress and exchange. This is not a story of civil engineering, but societal engineering. Only then can we get the public on board and start to think about what high speed rail really means. Shifts in technology, values and consciousness will redefine the way we think about transport and cities, and this should be debated and embraced in the branding process. As a way of stimulating our creative juices, he presented five different branding possibilities for the high-speed trains.

Carol Hol of Concire and Partners, and Keith Mitchell of Peter Brett Associates, then looked at what high-speed rail offers to the cities of Rotterdam and Birmingham respectively. Rotterdam’s Central Station has created a new international arrival point, and reconnected parts of the city; however, Carol emphasised that it is the people and community of Rotterdam who are making these new connections in a bottom up and evolving process. Keith Mitchell talked of the threats and opportunities high-speed rail offered to Birmingham. It mustn’t become a funnel for wealth to flow out of the city. Birmingham must work on a new brand and image to attract people, and ensure that the new station in plugged into existing infrastructure.

In the breakout sessions, the point was raised that the purposes and aims of high-speed rail are still unclear; it is a highly political project, with complex motives and visions. For architects and planners to engage effectively in building the new rail system, the brief must be clear on why the project is being done in the first place.

Identity also emerged as an important theme. In order to embrace high-speed rail, the UK cities must decide on what the station will be for, and more broadly, what sort of city they want to become. Why are these cities being linked? What opportunity does that offer for collaboration and partnership? Birmingham and the wider West Midlands have a fractured and complex identity, which must be resolved in order to think through these issues. The possibility was raised that the station areas could be developed earlier than the line itself, to ensure it is already a well-connected destination when the train arrives.

In the workshop of the 5th June, we further explored the roles of the different stakeholders in high-speed rail. This is a complex issue due to its national and international impact, and three-decade time horizon. Government, local authorities, the media, institutions, businesses and civic society were all highlighted as having a stake in how the story of high speed rail is told; this story in turn will shape investment and design considerations. How can you effectively engage communities and sustain their interest over a thirty-year period? They must be offered not only better connections, but also a better family environment and quality of life – drawing us back to the theme of the Congress.

It was felt that the Academy of Urbanism can further this debate by publicising the advantages and best practises of high speed rail, and bringing together businesses and institutions in exchanging ideas on identity and purpose. The debate on high speed rail must move from a purely technical discussion to encompassing much broader issues, effectively engaging with stakeholders and ensuring that the system brings about improved health, wellbeing and happiness, as well as faster journey times to London.

Words by Young Urbanists




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