Birmingham : a creative city?

This was written as part of a consideration of how developments might lead a city to think of itself as being a creative city. It started as thoughts linked to an online course run by the University of Toronto.

In terms of population, Birmingham is the UK’s Second City. It is located in the centre of England. Road and rail networks criss-cross the country here. Politically, it sees itself as second in importance to London but keeps a wary eye on Manchester which rivals it for this claim (on the grounds of seeming more inventive and more productive). Its population is steady at around 1million people.

This takes it out of any superstar city league, although it has aspirations to be a modern, world-connected city with a bright future. It is, relatively, a city of young people, a city with a tradition of creativity and industriousness, and a city of opportunity (even if more for some rather than for others).

Whilst not a recognised ‘World City’, Birmingham has a set of formal relationships with cities from around the world: ‘partner city agreements’ with Lyon, Frankfurt, Leipzig and Milan; and ‘sister cities agreements’ with Chicago, Guangzhou and Johannesburg.

It is a city that has undergone, and is continuing to undergo, economic transitions. It was settled in the 7th century and grew slowly as a set of farms and homesteads at a river crossing. It was granted a market in 1156 and by the 17th and 18th century was a place bustling with small workshops creating swords, guns, chains, machinery, jewellery, household metalware and so on. It had the conditions necessary to move ahead through the rapid industrialisation of the middle-late 1800s. It was regarded (or badged itself) as the Workshop of the World, the City of a Thousand Trades – certainly ‘Made in Birmingham’ was stamped on a large proportion of metal goods that supported development at home and in other countries.

This gave the city much of the shape that it has today – in terms of road structures and areas of terraced low-rise brick houses (even if the worst of these were demolished in the slum-clearances of the 1950-80 period). By the 1960s it had become seen as a place reliant  on motorcar use and motorcar manufacture. When this industry restructured and some parts moved abroad, Birmingham was heavily affected, although it never became one of those semi-abandoned, semi-boarded up cities as it tried to reinvent itself as a tourist destination turning the unused industrial canals in the city centre into wharves for bars, restaurants and meeting places.

It has, more recently, shifted from a largely manufacturing base to an economy substantially reliant on service/ retail/ hospitality sectors and sees a future for itself as a place of finance, knowledge and enterprise. It wants to be a city that works for all, with an ambiguity about whether this is possible.

The city has made good use of national and European regeneration programmes and has tried its own versions of local decision-making and locality budgeting. Despite some success at regenerating itself, despite having intricate road/rail links, and despite designating areas for economic renewal, the city is still reputed to have a low productivity base – partly because it may have a relatively low skills base.

It is the major city in the West Midlands Region. Recently there have been attempts to define UK activity in terms of City Regions, recognising that some activities (economic, environmental, transport, crime, public health, employability etc) flow across municipal boundaries and that decisions affecting these are best made at a regional level rather than in disconnected ways by the several local authorities that make up the region. There is now a mayor for the region, a police and crime commissioner for the region, and a regional combined planning authority.

The City Region concept still acknowledges the importance of cities – as centres of population, of activity and of influence. This is not without its tensions. In some ways, the economy of Birmingham may be able to exist without the economies of the rest of the region, whilst the reverse may not be true. Birmingham has traditionally been seen by others as the dominating (and to some, domineering) force in regional decision-making.

Birmingham, additionally, has its own city plans. There have, over recent years, been a City Growth Strategy, a long-term Community Strategy, a Community Cohesion Strategy, a Big City Plan, and so on. These have been outputs from Birmingham City Council, the local government body made up of elected representatives of the numerous local wards across the city. Whilst there have been consultation processes, and whilst such strategies are agreed by the local representatives, these are seen as essentially top-down broad aspirational route-maps to the future of the city. Whether they are actual drivers of change may rely on the extent to which they are mere frameworks-of-intent with no practical implementation energies, or the extent to which actual developments of cities in the UK is reliant on a set of increasingly centralised national government processes, or the extent to which local public-body responsibilities are increasingly being replaced by private-sector activity.

Birmingham has always been an attractor of people. Rural-dwellers headed into town as employment opportunities grew; it brought in people from other parts of the UK; it benefitted from the planned immigration of workers to fill job vacancies. This has maintained a level of economic activity, has created a noticeable diversity across the population, and has brought in new ideas. At the same time, there is a sense in which the settling, clustering, connecting, diversity etc are all there but are no longer driving an economic productivity.

There have always been relative inequalities across groups of residents and neighbourhoods in the city. Despite a range of intentions and interventions, these still exist. Some groups are doing well; others are not. The city has a small number of localities where the average wealth is obviously high and a much larger number of localities where there are high levels of relative poverty.

There is a spikiness to the city and also a spikiness within many of the local neighbourhoods. Some neighbourhoods appear to structurally be able to flourish whilst others, despite strong local cultures, do not. There are many residents who feel that things in the city are not working for them.

Overall, though, in the past few decades, progress has been made in many ways. There has been a substantial reshaping of the central area of the city. This has encouraged tourism and retail activity (Birmingham as a destination city) and has also brought back city-centre residents (often in low-rise apartment conversions in former industrial premises or on unused industrial sites).

There is recognition that, whilst this has been good for Birmingham, there is an ongoing need to improve the facilities and amenities in the middle and outer neighbourhoods of the city. Many of these were once ‘villages within the city’ with thriving local economies. The neighbourhood High Streets in these places now have a danger of being places of charity shops, fast food outlets, hairdressers and nail bars, mixed in with some cut-price fashion shops.

Is Birmingham experiencing a drawn-out new urban crisis – in the sense that those things that make it attractive can begin to make it unaffordable in terms of housing, challenging in terms of social cultures, or difficult-to-manage in terms of transport, waste and air quality?

There have always been crises. The original ‘Civic Fathers’ had to solve the practical issues of a rapidly-growing, economically-bustling city: the sewerage; the gas and electricity supplies; the water systems; the early need for roadways; the introduction of schools and health systems. The post-war planners had to manage slum-clearances and the need for decent housing; routes for public transport and traffic flows; the shifting employments needed, and so on.

From some perspectives, the image of Birmingham rests on a few high-architecture buildings, the hosting of occasional world-class events, and a ready access to retail/entertainment venues – but there are concerns that this may have been bought at the expense of a focus on localities, neighbourliness, affordable homes, extended support infrastructures, and street-level environmental attractiveness.

There are layers of the established population who have been affected in different ways by changes over the past decades. It is sometimes difficult to equate their situations with the city’s aspirations around creativity, enterprise, and social and economic dynamism.

For the majority, there is a settled social situation (albeit one not free of frictions and inequalities) but little sense of economic stability let alone economic growth. There are a number of issues around the casual, precarious nature of jobs; the stagnation or reduction in wages; the austerity-squeeze on welfare and public services; and a hollowing out of the population profile with increasing numbers of older people and an increasingly young population being sustained by the activity of an economically-active middle.

Older (often white, working-class, male) workers were amongst the relatively well-off residents in the 1970s who have increasingly found themselves out of that employment without many transferable skills and at an age where re-employment is difficult in a city with a lot of young people, with better education, broader skill-sets, and cheaper to employ

The UK in general (and Birmingham as part of that) welcomed people from abroad to fill job vacancies. Choosing to relocate here was often accompanied by high levels of motivation and high levels of aspiration for their children. Many of these children are well integrated into city life. There are other groups, however, who may have been brought over as wider family members, who may have less in the way of fluent English language, who stay in their communities, or who are religiously and socially traditionally conservative.

There may be a sense that different Birminghams are emerging. This is nothing new. Throughout the city’s various developments, different groups have experienced the city in quite disparate ways. The issue may be the extent to which Birmingham sees itself (and wishes to be seen) as One City, or as an aggregate of differences, or as variety and diversity within some unifying set of mutual understandings.

The future may appear uncertain in a number of different ways for different groups of residents, but is there an overall sense of hopefulness for the future?

The city has a set of frameworks that, if implemented at a scale and pace required (and with the subtlety and care required) can produced real change and reassurance in people’s lives. At the same time, and not unique to Birmingham, there have been difficulties moving from agreed plans on paper to sustained improvements out on the streets. There is some criticism that the city is shackled by past decisions: that it is a city using 20th century methods, within 19th century structures, to try to make decisions about 21st century puzzles.

The future is predicated on flexibility, innovation and creativity. Certainly, Birmingham has undergone a successful transformation from an established industrial city to a city based on service industries linked to hospitality and tourism and is making steps towards being a city with a larger creative sector.

Birmingham’s claims to be a Creative City can most obviously be linked to a number of disparate localities:

  • Digbeth as a designated Creative Quarter and Social Enterprise Quarter, with future potential.
  • The Jewellery Quarter as a heritage area of detailed craftwork.
  • Moseley/Kings Heath neighbourhood as a residential/social area for many creative-sector residents.
  • A Brindley Place/Centenary Square/Science Park ‘corridor’ as a thread between established cultural offers and new technological and innovative developments.

In addition, it is suggested that the city is currently well-positioned for a number of things. These include cross-sector innovation: Creative industries catalysing other sectors; arts-thinking inserted into science, technology, engineering and maths developments; digital developments aligning with health-sector developments; and arts/artists working in digital ways.

There are trends that may not always be apparent to the city’s population in general eg Birmingham is a focus for the UK gaming industry, for some independent media companies, and for national jewellery design and production.

In terms of transport, there is good access to the national motorway road-system (even if this can suffer congestion at times); it is a focus for a new proposed high-speed rail link (but initially only connecting with London); is beginning to establish an urban tramway system (way behind other cities); and it attempting to boost its airport (which still seems relatively small and provincial).

The city does have an established variety of galleries, museums and artist studio spaces. It has a nationally-important Symphony Hall and Symphony Orchestra, Ballet, and Repertory Theatre – all with outreach programmes doing development work with schools, young people and communities. It has a number of well-regarded restaurants; a growing range of craft-beer bars and street-food outlets; and its diverse population has led to some ‘invented’ fusion foods. At the same time, it does not (as UK’s Second City) have a strong national ‘brand’ reputation for a forward-looking creativity, compared with a backward-looking recognition of its industrial and civic history.

There are optimistic aspects. There is spare space in the city, in terms of freed-up industrial sites, which would allow many more new start-up enterprises to grow. It has a youthful, diverse and potentially-vibrant population. More young people have had university-level educations. Even though a too-large proportion have headed off to London for employment, there are the beginnings of a loss of attractiveness of the capital largely due to housing costs. It has several universities that have the research capacities to help with local issues.

If Birmingham can continue to generate more high skill/ high wage jobs without creating larger housing bubbles then there could be the upsurge in skills needed to push productivity along. If it can, at the same time, find ways of generating medium/low skill jobs at medium/adequate wages, then there may be ways of meeting local needs in those middle/outer neighbourhoods and preventing any widening of inequalities in the city.

This will still leave a number of social, political and economic issues to deal with but could sustain Birmingham’s aspirations to be a creative, productive city that is a good place in which to live and work.

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