Birmingham – A tale of three cities

Nick Myall
24 Oct 2016

Airing views on the city’s potential - two panellists on WAN’s Birmingham Development Forum discuss the session at UK Construction Week

At UK Construction Week on 18 October a thought provoking discussion was held to debate the wave of regeneration projects that are set to transform Birmingham city centre. Indeed, with the coming of HS2, and longer term links to the Northern Powerhouse, a once in a generation window of opportunity is opening up for the area. 

In association with World Architecture News (WAN) and the Birmingham Development Forum, a keynote panel considered how to bring together expertise and learn from other cities’ experiences to ensure joined-up thinking between infrastructure, commercial, transport and residential development.  The discussion, which was chaired by Brian Kilkelly, Development Lead – Climate-KIC and Founder of World Cities Network, included the views of the construction sectors, developers, local authorities, planning experts and architects to explore the realms of urban design.

Here we hear the views of two of the panellists at the session, firstly Hiro Aso, Firm-wide Aviation & Transportation Practice Area Leader, Gensler…

"When we were looking for the location of Gensler’s first U.K. office outside of London, not only were we looking to invest in a city with a growing potential for regeneration and leading development opportunities, we searched for places that have the initial building blocks of a vibrant city: community.

"The community needs to act as the foundation of a dynamic interconnected network of services and relationships that position cities to thrive. When Gensler chose Birmingham we checked it against what we identified as the key elements that a vibrant community needed to be - connected, resilient, inspiring and healthy – and when we did, Birmingham came up trumps!

"Birmingham, in particular, is extremely lucky as it has a developing transport strategy that will be strengthened by the arrival of HS2. Increasing connectivity between Birmingham and London in under 50 mins it will assist the city in becoming a more dynamic and vibrant place for all.

"Efficient transportation hubs and infrastructure are only one element of a truly connected community, however. The economic and social pull of cities is all about connection, and linking people can in some areas go beyond infrastructure. Fostering successful connectivity in urban planning accounts for journey times, access to green spaces and cultural institutions. A city’s social connectivity needs to be a key element of its connectivity agenda also, where new developments can be properly integrated into existing communities.

"In the world’s most liveable cities, arts and culture blend with bustling business, shopping, and entertainment districts to create desirable places to live, work and play. Few cities have undergone such intense changes as Birmingham in the past decade and the city centre has been radically transformed with new millennial structures. It’s also a thriving hotspot for new technology businesses with a budding sharing economy, that’s highly walkable and boasts a promising public transportation‎ investment programme.  This is important to our members of the Birmingham studio.

"These leading cities also need to inspire its inhabitants and creative hubs such as the Custard Factory in Digbeth offer an alternative culture outside London that oozes authenticity. Around the globe, people are moving back to urban cores, driven by a desire for distinctive, authentic character in their communities, and Birmingham is offering just that. Its rich heritage‎ has also been given a fresh lease of life. We have great views of the historic 1838 Curzon Street station building from our new office and can't wait to see the new future it will be given thanks to HS2.

"Its main shopping centre, the Bullring, has been demolished and rebuilt afresh, similarly its main library, and the new HS2 railway station will provide the same dynamic transformational energy thanks to Birmingham's "Big City Plan" which we co-authored, aiming to create places where people will enjoy spending time.

"In the light of Brexit, it is crucial that cities are designed to be people-centric first to enhance the public experience. We will continue to promote solutions to urban planning that are resilient, connected, healthy and emotionally rich in order to maintain the city’s competitive edge. With the added pressure such change brings it’s important to us that we do our bit to support it.

"We see the next generation of cities as a community of neighbourhoods, embracing their roots and also inspired by a creative and nimble spirit. The role that designers will play in creating and enhancing these elements through design will be extremely important in the years to come.  Exciting times."

Another member of the panel at the discussion, Liz Peace Chair of Birmingham Curzon Urban Regeneration Company talked about the strengths of Birmingham - principally its location, its rapidly improving transport infrastructure, its skills base, supported by a number of first-rate universities and other educational establishments and its attitude to growth. On this latter point she said how important it had been to have a vision for the city - the Birmingham Big City Plan - and how that had then been translated into a plan for the Curzon Regeneration area which was where HS2 would 'land' in the City. 

She went on to stress the importance of playing to the strengths of the Curzon area - particularly  the edgy, creative, quarter known as Digbeth and how the design for the new HS2 station needed to take account of its surroundings. Birmingham neither wanted nor needed a station that looked as if it had been dropped into the city with no regard for its setting or indeed for the Grade 1 Listed old station that would be right beside it. 

"Birmingham used to be known as the city of a thousand trades - and the coming of HS2 and the ambitious growth plans for the city as a whole, and the Curzon area in particular, could recreate that vibrancy and enterprise - with the new digital, creative, medical and life sciences, environmental and high value manufacturing industries replacing the traditional trades of the last two centuries."

Other panellists involved in this discussion were Richard Cowell, from Planning and Regeneration for Birmingham City Council and Zoe Davidson, Head of Regeneration Advisory at KPMG

Nick Myall

News editor

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