How to lose your ring road and find your city centre

Annual Congress X – Health, Happiness & Wellbeing

Dr Nicholas Falk – URBED / Sir Albert Bore – Leader, Birmingham City Council 

The workshop started with a talk by Sir Albert Bore and Dr Nicholaus Falk about the context of the change that has taken place in Birmingham, a quick show of hands demonstrated that everyone in the room agreed that Birmingham has undergone a significant change in the last decades, however, a majority thought that the city is still not a world class one even though having all of the pre-requisites to be so.

A question was posed about how you go about changing attitudes in the city? Sir Albert Bore described his experience of the early 1980s, when the changing economy challenged Birmingham to transition from an industrial city to the service economy.

‘Collectively it lost more jobs at this period of time than Scotland and Wales combined. The city had been left with low skilled workforce lacking employment and industry gone. The physical attributed didn’t make up for that – the city wasn’t attractive and easily walkable.’ A decision had been taken to rebalance the economy and bring investment to the city by rebranding it. A change of the image of the city had to be achieved.

The city ‘had nothing to offer people’. A decision had been taken to convene urbanists from around the world in the city and to task them with coming up with solutions about what could be done. ‘People were in discussion, a very involved discussion and were able to share experiences’. From this meeting a simple diagram came up – the Highbury diagram about expanding the city centre beyond the inner ring road as it was known back then. The Jewellery Quarter and the Convention Centre were seen as areas of focus. It was about changing the economy and creating a different city centre. I believe at this time Birmingham was in the vanguard of post-industrial cities renaissance. We wanted to take quality back into the city centre. By compulsory purchasing plots of land we were able to slowly replace the infrastructure, the concrete collar and release further land for development, which financed the next phase. Since, we have largely been able to release those shackles of the city and promote further interconnectedness. I believe Smithfields is the last piece of this puzzle and we are about to start on it.

One of the main drivers was the decision to build the ICC in the city centre and not outside of it. Hotels were located in the locality and it was all financed by a development grant from the Secretary of State at the time. At the same time the Birmingham office was able to get a third of the equity of the hotel being build in exchange for providing the land. Sandy Taylor was the senior economist at the council at this time. The role of the councillors was visible – they took control of the decisions. Taking away the buses from New Street and making it pedestrian was a controversial decision but the council said that it will be done and it has paid off. It was about having the right people at the right time. Connecting Broad Street to the city centre was another win. The traffic people were saying that this couldn’t be done; however, the politicians said that they must find a way and they did. Another smart decision was the commitment to re-develop the Bullring centre without an investor, but with the clear idea in mind that once the urban realm was re-developed the retailers will come. We used the European funding agency very smartly which served to finance the removal of the concrete collar from the city. The city centre has been much better as a consequence.’

Sandy Taylor took the lead to describe his point of view: at the time our task was to create an economic strategy for Birmingham in crisis. The city needed investment and we decided to focus on several projects, the ICC amongst them. The important realisation was that ‘all the answers didn’t lie within Birmingham’. So we looked to other cities and how they have dealt with such problems. We realises that the city design was holding people away from the centre and stifling the economy. We took initiatives to improve the public squares, to promote public art. We communicated with the Public Arts Commission Agency and they helped us to foster the new sense of art in the city.

What was distinctive was that we didn’t write a report after the consultation; rather we went for action planning. At this time participation design hadn’t been done widely and we were learning as we went along. We wanted to change the mindset – to become more international. ‘Heathrow – hour and a half away’ was a quote which made us think hard about the potential of what the future can hold. We were committed to continuity at the council and we decided to invite the participants in this first consultation back a year later to see what has happened since.

With the HS2 now coming to the city I believe we need to take this way of thinking up again and think about how we can become a European city. It is not about ‘becoming a suburb of London’; it is about being connected with Europe. This will be a great challenge.


The discussion of the workshop took place around the topic of how to push for further pedestrianisation of the city and continue the ideas, which were started 40 years ago. A general consensus was that there is still work to be done in completely re-connecting the city and eradicating the last remains of the concrete collar.

Audience Reply: ‘I am an architect at the Jewellery Quarter and I observe a completely different picture to what you are describing. There are more than 200 empty buildings and the main reason is the Queensway road, which cuts the neighbourhood off. We have lost the fine grain in the city but we need to make sure to protect the remaining.’

Sir Albert Bore: ‘The Jewellery Quarter is part of the Big City Plan and we recognise the issues that still persist. There were companies there, which couldn’t compete with international firms, and as a consequence a lot of the buildings became derelict. We need to go back to the Chamberlain way of thinking, bringing back the ethos of ‘the culture of learning and creativity’. The Jewellery Quarter has contributed to the 15 thousand people living in the city centre and people are now using those spaces in a different way. We need to promote the exchange of ideas in and around one of the best schools of Jewellery in the world.’

Audience Reply: ‘We need to understand the challenge of how to make Birmingham more pedestrian by looking to cities such as Copenhagen, Vienna and Paris. There are major initiatives there, which are all about ‘reclaiming the street’. We need to do more to promote wider footpaths, markets and open spaces. In design terms this means to support activities that already take place in the urban realm. Looking at cities such as Portland and Seoul and the way they have reclaimed their seafront could give us some clues to what we can do next. Sir Albert suggested that there will be money coming in the city so we need to start thinking more creatively. Why don’t we push the cars back underground and connect this part of the city?’

Sir Albert: ‘We need to do it and we have already devices a walkability plan in the council which will be implemented in the future. It is a 20-30 year vision which will be implemented incrementally.’

Alan Bain, JMP:  ‘I lived in the city for 30 years and this is an exciting period to come back. The previous question touches on the core problem and this is lack of connectivity. We need to continue to pedestrianise the city centre and making walking the preferred choice. There needs to be a smarter way of looking about the growth of the city by reclaiming roads and releasing land for development and densification. It is about getting a hold of the land. We need to be bold and once again take steps such as the dismantling of the inner ring road in the 1990s.’

Audience Reply: ‘At the Reading University we are looking at Sao Paolo and the developments rights there. It is about putting infrastructure first, making sure there is the public transport for people to use and then densifying the place by building housing. Otherwise you promote car ownership. It needs to be a change of attitude. Similarly to what we observed in Park Central – by putting the park first before people moved in, you make sure that it will be used.’

Yolande Barnes, Savills: ‘What we found out in the World Tech initiative was that there is a correlation between the density and urban scale and pattern of the place and the tech start-ups which develop. Places like Shoreditch and Digbeth have a historically tight knit urban realm, which promotes the exchange of ideas, In the digital age it turns out physical spaces are as important if not more than ever. The quality of the city itself has become a commercial entity. The creative economies seem to prefer the old city infrastructure – places like Dublin and Berlin have capitalised on this very rapidly. Birmingham must bear this in mind and retain what is left of it.’

Audience Reply: Several members of the audience raised Agreement to this point and Neil Deprez from 3D Reid pointed out that as a newcomer to the city there seems to be much to be done by the authorities. Chales Landry and David Rudlin discussed fine grain tissue of the city heavily and URBED voiced the opinion that there shouldn’t be a prescribed plan for the city, but the regulations should be taken off in order to facilitate natural growth.

Sandy Taylor: ‘Fine grain is an important issue. Just by looking at large plots in Digbeth and Smithfield we are losing the sense of conservation. It is an important question of how to retain this and weave it into a working policy for the city. In my opinion it all comes down to leadership.’

Audience Reply: Several audience members responded to the point raised that it is important to understand the lifestyles of the people who are to move in these new quarters made Comments. Semantics was pointed out to be a very important issue in discussing urban problems – the choice of words such as ‘regeneration’ seem to bear a specific meaning to developers and could misrepresent the ideas the city is trying to push forward.

Sir Albert Bore: Concluded the workshop by summarising that there is a lot to be done in the next ten years and there are a lot of projects on the way to happen. In his opinion it was all about bringing back land into use by retaining the fine grain and thinking strategically about the city. Smithfield as a large site must be done differently than usual developments and to promote a more active street life. The general conclusion amongst the audience was that there needs to be a progressive leadership which needs to do ‘some pushing’ in order to maintain the progress which is under way.

Words by Young Urbanists




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