I am looking forward to attending the Academy of Urbanism’s 10th Congress in Birmingham on the 4/5/6 June. As an academician of the Academy, I know how important it is for cities to learn from each other.
In the case of Birmingham, the Congress provides an opportunity for both a reflection on progress made since the 1980’s and a look forward to what the city is planning for its future.
Undoubtedly since the highly regarded March 1988 Highbury Initiative (interestingly, there are no 1st hand documents available on-line about Highbury – only numerous books/papers/articles published based on interviews with key participants – for example Nick Corbett’s book “Transforming Cities“), Birmingham made huge strides in the 3 to 4 years immediately after that. The largest pedestrianisation project of any UK city was delivered in rapid time to meet the opening of the International Convention Centre in June 1991. However, the economic doldrums of the mid-1990s slowed down somewhat the wider regeneration of the rest of the city centre, and also of the whole city.
The birth of the new Bullring was tortuous, having been extensively discussed at Highbury in 1988, but it was not until 2003 that the current Bullring was completed to acclaim. This opened up the city’s markets and the Digbeth.
But in the meantime one of the key members of that Highbury Initiative invested in his adopted city. Bennie Gray bought in 1991/92, the old Bird’s Custard Factory in Digbeth, and the Big Peg in the Jeweller Quarter. These have been transformed into Birmingham’s real entrepreneurial places for the city’s creative sector, and has stimulated the city’s digital, artistic and cultural communities. It is really symmetric that the architect who Bennie employed on the Custard Factory was Glenn Howells, the city’s architect extraordinaire!
And of course we have the huge growth in city centre living, with thousands of apartments now occupied, and coupled with the city’s thriving cafe culture and foodie scene, surely its path is well secured!
But of course it is always a good idea for cities to learn from each other. And also to be subject to a modicum of external appraisal. The Congress provides that opportunity in parts.
So The Congress will have some excellent speakers discussing Urbanism, HS2, Birmingham’s Big City Plan, Bournville Village Trust, etc – under the them of Health, Happiness and Well-Being. The full details can be found here – http://www.academyofurbanism.org.uk/congress-programme/
The speakers include Sir Albert Bore(Leader of the Council) , Charles Landry (Comedia), Charles Montogomery (Urban Experimentalist), Glenn Howells (Architect extraordinaire), Sadie Morgan (Chair of HS2 Design Panel), Waheed Nazir (Director of Planning & Regeneration), Rachel Toms (Design Council/CABE), Stephen Wallacy (City Architect Aarhus).
It is also noteworthy that a number of academicians who were at the Highbury Initiative in 1988 will also be at the Congress and will be able to reflect on progress and also what new lessons there might be for Birmingham as it goes forward now. Sir Albert, Nick Falk, John Worthington and (modestly!) myself were all directly involved and responsible for the messages leading up to and coming out of Highbury.
I do hope that out of the Congress will be a message about the city’s future sustainability and its connectedness across the city. The arrival of HS2 should provide a fillip for a much broader and deeper discussion on how the whole conurbation (including the Black Country) is connected through massive investment in public transport to high speed travel. And this linked to a new debate about the future role of the suburbs and towns of Birmingham and Black Country should provide for a new vision of sustainable and green growth for us. (You might like to read one of my previous posts on Birmingham’s “bigger greener picture“)
So I do hope as many urbanists, Brummies and Black Country folk come to listen and discuss vital lessons for both Birmingham’s and the Black Country’s future urban sustainability.