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.Read more