The Highbury Initiative

Author: Andy Hartwell

I’m holding in my hand a 20 year old document entitled ‘The Highbury Initiative – Proceedings of the Birmingham City Centre Challenge Symposium’. The reason I have this document is that we were commissioned by Joe Holyoak (Architect, Urban Designer, and principal lecturer at BCU) to design the marketing material for the ’20 years on – Anniversary Conference’.

The original Symposium took place on the 25th-27th March 1988, and as a result of a weekend’s intensive brainstorming the foundations were laid for most of the transformation of the city centre which has taken place since.

The participants came from a wide range of backgrounds: architecture, planning and landscape, the development and business worlds, economic development and management consultants, artists, surveyors and landowners, councillors and local and central government officials. They came from many parts of the world: the east to west coasts of USA, Japan, Holland and West Germany.

The theme identified for the weekend was that of the ‘City as Theatre’ because the actions necessary to make cities exciting, attractive, comfortable places can be likened to putting on a show. The participants were divided into six workgroups each with a set of issues to consider:

– Producing the Show – The role of the city centre and resources;
– Setting the Stage – urban design and landscape;
– Casting the Roles – user perception;
– Directing the Actors – movement and transportation;
– Managing the Stage – management and maintenance;

The main solutions to come from the symposium amongst others were:

The Gateways
A ‘clear’ welcome strategy
Routes across the city must be clarified to help people find their way.
Public transport stop-off points must be improved.
An exciting mode of public transport, appealing to visitor.

Distinctive Quarters
– the Jewellery Quarter, entered off Newhall Street – a craft/creative quarter;
– the Chinese Quarter, off Hurst Street – an entertainment and cultural quarter;
– the Science Quarter at Aston;
– a Media Quarter at Digbeth;
– a Convention Quarter off Broad Street;
– Business Quarters off Victoria Square and at Five Ways;
– the Civic Quarter around the Council House

The Ring Roads
The conclusion of this was re-conceiving the role of the inner ring road resulting in reducing traffic within the city by taking away through traffic.

Pedestrian Policy
The overall strategy addressed:
– Access
– Signage
– Linkages
– Pedestrian priority
– Control and enforcement
– Ground floor frontages
– Grain / scale
– Landscaping which reduces traffic conflicts
– Paving materials
– Relationship to traffic, loading, parking, public transport
– Disabled persons
– Secondary systems, including existing arcades and new block subdivisions

All a matter of image?

“- a city in a tearing hurry, addicted to instant success, biggest, first, pragmatic, profitable, confusing, incoherent and monotone. A concept of natural development seemed to have been swept away. There was neither time for people to participate in city development, nor time for the city landscape and its people to absorb that development. Collaboration with time is important.”

Birmingham is sitting on a golden opportunity, but there is a need for economic energy, a new atmosphere and commitment to the end product. London and the South East have peaked and the West Midlands is seen as a current growth region.

This strong commercial base provides direction to the role and functioning of the city’s future, but it has resulted in narrow, single-function centre which offers neither 24 hour activities nor a complete range of activities, since such important elements as housing are missing.

The city has no emotional appeal. It is difficult to find your way around which is particularly daunting for the pedestrian. Open space and greenery are minimal, the potential of canals and water has not been developed; there are too few fine old buildings and no first class modern ones.

Harsh words… but fair? These thoughts, highlighted 20 years ago, still seem important and relevant in today’s Birmingham, particularly Eastside where I would love to see some of this pedestrian joy, greenery, and use of the canals and water.

The symposium produced some essential solutions and made a great step forward for the Cities image and usability. I’m looking forward to hearing the results that come from the anniversary conference to be held on the 14th of April.