I travel regularly around England and often to the cities. This morning I went to Birmingham for a meeting and found something a little different. One of the things I dislike about cities in general is the lack of anywhere to stop and rest that is warm, comfortable and free. I remember visiting Las Vegas and thinking it was the ultimate example of city life with barely anywhere to just sit down and read a book where you weren’t squashed or charged. The net effect is that the visitor leaves feeling exhausted. It’s fine if you have a destination e.g. a client’s offices, but otherwise you end up drinking way too much caffeine just so you can use a loo or sit down for five minutes.
My observation in Birmingham was just how welcoming and forgiving it is.
I had my meeting on Broad Street so I parked by the new Library and walked up through the ICC. As I was early I took a break and sat down in a comfortable armchair, went for a free comfort break and drank reasonably-priced coffee from a chain served by a friendly staff member in a clean environment. There was free wifi to boot! Also a cloakroom where you could leave your shopping, bags, luggage while you continue the rest of the day. The fact the ICC is open for pedestrians to walk through to Brindley Place is notable in itself. A public building welcoming the public at all times of day and boasting its attractions is something to be applauded in itself.
I lived in Birmingham as the ICC, NIA, hotels, Brindley Place and the landscaping at the top of New Street were taking place. It was an exciting time seeing the vision all come together. Since then there have been similar transformations on Hurst Street, the Bull Ring development and the Mailbox. There are suddenly clearly defined entertainment districts which were previously dispersed across the city and educational establishments backed up with space for accommodation and expansion. Those who don’t remember what it used to be like won’t fully appreciate the transformation but they will be able to objectively assess the new Birmingham which demonstrates that traffic and people can happily coexist in a major city. They can also see how careful holistic design of a city over a long period of time really pays off. Birmingham has played out like a long running version of Sim City.
I remember in the 90s going into the centre on a Sunday morning to see the newly laid out Centenary Square. As an “immigrant” rather than a native I felt real pride to be living there as the changes were made and just enjoyed the space and the architecture with new major construction sitting happily alongside Victorian pomp. The design opened up new viewpoints. Birmingham seemed happy too to open up its canal fronts as entertainment rather than part of the trivia statement many people know about the city. There was also an inevitable knock on effect. As buildings tumbled and new ones replaced them, the next blocks along looked that little bit shabbier and became the next project. The Rotunda at one end, and the Rum Runner at the other were landmarks of the 60s, 70s and 80s which bit the dust. At one time they were symbols of progress and culture but they were revealed quickly to be trivial parts of the zeitgeist in a way that the Hall of Remembrance and the Town Hall weren’t. Another interesting observation was the choice of sculpture which came. The Council went for modern design rather than the safe pair of hands. The Floozy in the Jacuzzi, Forward (although this was subsequently burnt down), Antony Gormley’s Iron Man and the Bull Ring Bull have become discussion points and part of the landscape.
The new Birmingham has also provided lots of open space for other activities. Concerts, street dance, the German market, farmer’s markets and great busking – all now taking place in space that didn’t previously exist and adding to the cultural life if Britain’s second city. The new library is a place that people visit, celebrate and enjoy rather than a functional concrete experiment with poorly lit alleys, dead ends and corners running through it – like a discarded, unfinished mini-blueprint for London’s Barbican.
Yes it has cost a lot of money, yes it has taken a long time to produce but, for me, Birmingham is the most pedestrian-friendly and transport-friendly city in the UK. I enjoyed my time there this morning.