Birmingham skyline

A bigger and better big city plan?

For the better part of half a century, Birmingham has been chipping away at the layers of concrete that came to characterise its streets and public spaces after the Second World War.

The ‘concrete jungle’ that characterised Birmingham for three decades was the vision of Sir Herbert Manzoni, City Engineer and Planner from 1935 until 1963. Huge swathes of the city had been razed during World War II and the plan for Birmingham’s redevelopment were heavily influenced by a trip that he took to the US in the 1950s.

Seeking to translate the wide boulevards of US cities to Birmingham and capture the essence of the widespread uptake of private motor vehicles, Manzoni’s vision was of a compartmentalised city. Movement would be facilitated through three concentric ring roads – including the notorious ‘concrete collar’ of the Inner Ring Road which created a hard barrier to the expansion of the city core.

The culmination of iterative improvements to limited pockets within the city was the Big City Plan (BCP). Unveiled in 2010 by the City Council and a legacy of Waheed Nazir’s tenure as head of Planning and Regeneration, the BCP was the culmination of two years of consultation.

The document set out a 20-year programme of redevelopment priorities designed to enhance the city’s urban environment, making intracity travel easier and more environmentally-friendly, creating an attractive and fertile landscape for inward investment.

It would be difficult to deny that the impacts of the BCP have been anything short of a success, creating as it has a fertile environment for redevelopment and inward investment.

Without the BCP, Birmingham would almost certainly not have been brave enough to undertake significant city centre regeneration projects like Exchange Square, Paradise and Arena Central, deliver Eastside City Park, or beginning the development of Smithfield.

While we are at the halfway stage in terms of the scope of the BCP, the world has changed considerably over the last 10 years; there is a greater cognisance of the role that urban environments play in how we interact and use our cities with awareness of our environmental impacts skyrocketing.

The launch of the Birmingham Design Guide (BDG) at the UK Midlands Forum for Growth event is therefore welcome news.

While the BCP was always about quantity – the size of the city core, quantum of new homes and capacity of New Street Station – the BDG looks at the quality of Birmingham’s urban environments.

Superseding many of the Council’s previous planning documents, the BDG breaks down its principals across five areas:

  • The Birmingham ID – what gives Birmingham a distinctive character?
  • Streets and spaces – how best to repurpose and use these key public zones
  • Landscape and green infrastructure – ensuring that we retain and enhance availability of green spaces
  • Healthy living and working places – making sure that individuals’ health and wellbeing are given paramount importance
  • Efficient and future-ready – considering the part that buildings and environments will play not just now but well into the future.

“The primary role of this Guide is to highlight the importance Birmingham places on delivering high-quality design. It presents Design Principles to assist and inspire developers and their design teams to achieve the high-quality, innovative outcomes required.”
– From the Birmingham Design Guide Introduction

There will also be considerable attention given to enhancing the city centres, creating a greener and more sustainable environment that will support the carbon zero initiatives and create a better quality of life.

This will be supported by a drive (no pun intended) to reduce private vehicle use within the city in line with Birmingham’s commitment to becoming net zero carbon by 2030, while making the centre more attractive to families.

Away from the city centre, there will be a dedicated urban centres strategy focusing on transforming under-invested communities to address depravation and create homes and jobs. This investment in the suburbs and local centres will support the concept of 15 minute neighbourhoods, placing everything within an easily walkable or cyclable distance.

It should be noted that the BDG isn’t due to replace the BCP, which will continue to lead the strategic review of the city, its places and spaces.

The BDG will be a key document in ensuring that Birmingham maintains its current trajectory while retaining its reputation as a sought-after location to live and work.

More information on the BDG, including details of how to feed into the consultation running until February, can be found here.

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