So today the good people of Birmingham learned two thing. Firstly, we’re getting a shiny new train station next to the venerable Moor St and incorporating (in name at least) the geriatric Curzon St to serve the high speed rail link to London. This was announced with no warning by a visit to the city by the Prime Minister accompanied by a torrent of detailed plans indicating this is actually going to happen.
Secondly we learned that the Big City Plan and the consultation surrounding it isn’t worth the price of Mike Whitby’s absurd tie. All it takes is a well considered national strategy to fall into place and a decade or more of “planning” for the area can be torn up and forgotten about.
I’m actually fairly upbeat about this turn of events. I think the station is a good idea and the location a fine one. The only casualty I can see is the new Birmingham City University campus but that doesn’t worry me. The city has been suffering from BCU-creep for a while now and putting the brakes on that will be a relief. (I’ll just let the phrase “BCU-creep” just sit there without explanation so you might speculate as to what I mean.)
Now, rather than an inward looking university campus (that’s not a dig – all university campuses are inherently inward looking in my experience and so they should be) we get a transport hub. Certainly the main purpose of the station will be relatively expensive trains for the relative few but the halo effect of this should be dramatic, both for the local transport infrastructure and the Digbeth / Eastside area. Because now Digbeth will have a purpose – serving the station.
For a year or so I lived behind Waterloo station in London. That bit of Southwark is quite a bit like Digbeth – off the beaten track, full of railway arches and industrial pockets, yet right in the middle of the city. It was a good place to live because it was 10 minutes walk from the South Bank yet reasonably quiet for such a central location. And while it didn’t have every amenity most of what you needed was provided by the shops, cafes and miscellany that fed off the periphery of Waterloo.
I wouldn’t want to say Digbeth will evolve in the same way but I think a massive train station (especially when considered in aggregate with New St, Moor St and the nearby coach station) will give the area a genuine reason to develop and change rather than a spurious regeneration agenda, one which has demonstrably shown itself to be fragile when the financial climate changes. (What exactly is happening to the stretch of land cornered by Rea and Bradford Streets? If the answer is nothing can we have it back?)
Birmingham as a city has been far too overplanned. It suffered this in the 60s and, despite cries to the contrary, the Big City Plan was to be a corrective measure using exactly the same tactics. Big plan, big vision, big big big. And yet I have an inkling this sort of approach is doomed, or at least flawed. I keep thinking of desire paths – the gradually eroded paths that indicate where people want to walk as opposed to where the planners expect them to walk.
Just for fun, here’s my desire path from Fazeley St to Moor St Station involving a patch of wasteland and a car park. If you ever need to make that journey consider this my gift to you:
I’m also reminded of Peter Ackroyd talking about how London is inherently unplannable. My memory is hazy and probably inaccurate but here’s something I found from 2006 outlining his fatalistic approach to cities:
“Power and money are what have made it both ugly and voraciously successful,” insists Ackroyd. “It’s a largely unplanned city, with buildings that come and go. Little or nothing stays still in London. The drive for money makes it a restless creature, forever biting off its own limbs and watching them grow back in new, bigger and shinier forms.”
As, for example, in the case of the cluster of new skyscrapers planned for the City of London. Ackroyd will not be drawn on the merits of their designs; he simply underlines the point that London has an organic character. It has always changed and always will. “If it stops changing, it will die. It’s a monster, yet I accept it all. No part of London is alien to me. I love walking it at random every day, after writing, and watching the changes take place before my eyes. But, as to whether change, architectural or otherwise, makes it a better or worse place than it was – how can any of us really know?”
London is a clusterfuck of a city, and yet it’s quite successful at what it does, be it finance, culture or whathaveyou. Partly this is due to its elephantine size but I suspect it’s got a lot to do with it’s flexibility.
One of the exciting things about Birmingham for me is the relative freedom it offers you to just get on and do stuff. There’s very little power here and the leaders tend to follow rather than lead. While Birmingham has a lot of pride it doesn’t manifest itself in the aggressive, defensive posturing of Manchester. Rather it’s a welcoming, appreciative pride. When I do stuff in Birmingham people don’t ask me why or question whether it fits into the Birmingham way – they just take it, or leave it. Sometimes they say thanks. Sometimes they say “it’s about time someone did this” so I tell them it wasn’t that hard really.
(Sidebar – I remember Noel Dunne talking about moving here decades ago. He memorably said it takes three generations before Manchester will accept you as a Manc but you’ll be a Brummie in three months. True that.)
The thing is, I see the obsession with city planning as a threat to this. I suspect the reason Brummies have, in recent history, been a little reticent to get on and do stuff is the top-down infrastructure of the city hasn’t encouraged it. From the physical stranglehold of the road network to the intellectual void of the council chamber the Brummies have been held back by a sense that it’s not worth the effort. And with the Big City Plan we were faced with another monolithic attempt to get the city “right”, an endeavour that is surely missing the point. Cities aren’t got right. They evolve based on the needs, wants and desires of the people who make them. The thing is, no-one knows what those needs, wants and desires are until they have something to bounce off. You certainly can’t plan for them with high-falutin concepts.
I’m being a bit knee-jerk in my ranting here. I know that some planning is essential and I know I don’t have the language to explain exactly what I mean (hence the knee-jerk) but I think that planning needs to be adaptive. Have a look at what we’ve got, see what people are doing around it and encourage that. Don’t demolish a much loved cafe because it doesn’t fit the big plan – build the plan around the cafe. Rather than give a hugh trance of land to a university or shopping centre or Bennie Grey (god love him) divvy it up into small plots and create a bit of competition between the landlords. A hive of Bennie’s.
Cities are chaotic and vibrant and alive. They cannot and should not be controlled. Certainly they should be safe, well lit and well connected but you can’t plan for what they’ll be used for. What you can do is drop in some nice big coral reefs and see what sort of fishes start gathering around them. Then you feed the fishes.
I think our new station, a structure that has a use and a purpose, could be that reef. It’d certainly be more of a stimulus than Millennium Point, a structure as effective as a breezeblock in an aquarium.
And on that note, I’ll stop.