Post-industrial Urbanism

Birmingham: Day Twenty-five

After a few weeks of traveling to new cities, I still don’t feel particularly qualified to ‘read’ each from a land use planning and urban design perspective. I’ve certainly developed a fairly acute sense of how each city presents itself, but as for the critical measures I ought to be paying particular attention to, I’m overwhelmingly unskilled in the science of measuring these places.

I’m not ignorant to how cities might be measured – don’t get me wrong. I have been paying attention to my lecturers and I’ve done more reading than the average second year planning student. But I think my uncertainty arises from my unwillingness to apply the theories I have learned. It doesn’t sit well with me, to reach conclusions when I know there is much more to many of these places, than meets the eye.

Of course, I do have my own ‘Wavelength City Theory’ (yes, that’s what I’ll be calling it from now on, okay!?). It’s evolved very slightly, to include some ideas on one way that a long-wave city might be distinguished from a short-wave city. Birmingham has been my muse in this; the evolution of my Wavelength City Theory, that is.

I’ve read fairly extensively about the attempt at transformation by the City of Birmingham since the mid 1980’s. In response to the economic downturns brought about by the restructuring of the industrial and manufacturing sectors that Birmingham was so reliant on, the city adopted an ambitions rejuvenation strategy. With it, Birmingham would become not just a place, but a brand; identifiable not simply for it’s past, but for it’s ambitious and optimistic future.

Some of the rhetoric around the plan was quite unprecedented at the time, apparently. But by my calculation, they are about two thirds of the way through their initial 20 to 30 year plan. Now might be a good time for someone like me to prepare a report card detailing how things are going.

Except; I may be arrogant, but I’m not conceited. I have no way of knowing how things are traveling for Birmingham after my few hours of street-level observations. But something about Birmingham has me hungry for someone to give me an update. I’ve seen the rejuvenated Broad Street, Victoria Square and New Street Mall. There are instillations of place-making public art; most of it is really good, too. If little or none of this existed prior to 1990 I’m not sure that I would have taken to Birmingham quite so much. So, what makes Birmingham a long-wave city is my desire to know more about what’s happening here, because I can see that there’s lots going on. Centenary Square and the new City Library (under construction) looks like it will be rather swish when it’s all finished. About this and all those other construction projects, I want to know lots more. I feel like it’s even a reason to return again, and to better understand how all this work is, or is not, reaping rewards.

This is a city about the same size as Copenhagen. Unlike Copenhagen, it’s historical legacy in the industrialised world is mammoth. But it’s place in the modern world is less so. What makes Birmingham a long wave city in my view is it’s resilience and determination to remain relevant, and to evolve and respond. Long-wave cities can be short-wave cities that decide to change, and do.

Now what I need is some way of measuring this, beyond the rudimentary methods I have been shown.

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