How to lose your ring road and find your city centre?

Highbury Initiative, Birmingham

Venue:  AoU Congress

Date:  5th June 2015

Chair: Nicholas Falk

Keynote Speaker:  Sir Albert Bore

Speakers: Peter Jones, Noha Nasser, Sandy Taylor and John Worthington.

What we learnt from Birmingham

The Birmingham event as part of URBED’s 40th anniversary celebrations was held as part of the Academy of Urbanism Congress in Birmingham and the main speaker was Sir Albert Bore. The topic for the discussion was the Highbury Initiative, an event organised by DEGW Architects and URBED in 1988 and since credited as being the point when attitudes to the planning of the city changed.

Sir Albert started by remembering the extent to which Birmingham had been in the doldrums in the late 1980s. For much of the 1950s and 60s it had been a boom city, prospering on its advanced manufacturing base and even outstripping London’s growth for a time. However a city that was good at making things was ill-equipped to deal with the devastation of the manufacturing sector precipitated by the Government’s monetarist policies of the early 1980s. The city of Birmingham lost more jobs that Scotland or Wales and found itself with an unemployment rate of 25%. The council came to the conclusion that it needed to restructure its economy and the sensible place to start was the City Centre.

URBED40: Sir Albert Bore

The Highbury Initiative was originally billed as the City Centre Symposium and was set up as a forum to explore how this transformation might take place. It was organised as an Urban Design Action Team (UDAT) a technique that was popular at the time and which had been championed by DEGW as a way of facilitating urban change. The format involved a mix of senior people from the city together with external experts and involved both discussions and practical work over an intensive few days. In Birmingham the symposium ran over a weekend and included all of the senior players in the city alongside experts such as Amsterdam's chief planner, the engineer who designed the Pompidou centre in Paris and the traffic engineer Don Hillebrand from the US. The event was facilitated by URBED and DEGW who also provided briefing material and wrote up the results. The weekend started with a walk around the city centre followed by a meal and then for the whole of Saturday and Sunday participants were locked away in Highbury Hall which is why the resulting report later became known as the Highbury Initiative.

As Sandy Taylor explained, the symposium took place at a time when attitudes to the city centre were changing. The year before the council had decided to locate its new convention centre not in the obvious location next to the National Exhibition Centre but in the city centre. It has also been faced with a proposal to redevelop the Bullring Shopping Centre which even then was showing its age. The problem was that the windowless box of a shopping mall that was being promoted by the owners was probably even worse. The City Council was coming to the realisation that the city centre was not a very nice place and that its policies were at least partly to blame. However recognising this fact and doing something about it were very different things. Birmingham had never really seen the need for external advice. The city had been a leader in urban planning for so long that it was difficult for many officers to accept that they needed to think differently. There were also a lot of officers to convince, at the time the city has 26 different departments, each with its own senior officer.

The Highbury Initiative exposed these officers to the scrutiny of others. Being forced to look at your city through the eyes of an Amsterdam planner, makes it much more difficult to maintain the position that you know best. Having your beloved ring road that had taken so much effort to build called a 'concrete collar' by the engineer of the Pompidu centre must have been equally dispiriting. The story goes that the city engineer stood up on the Sunday morning having seen the light, and agreed that they could downgrade the inner ring road. This allowed the city centre to expand and the symposium developed the idea of a series of quarters that has guided the planning for the city ever since.

Don Hillebrand was retained as an advisor to the city after the event and huge progress was made in the years that followed. Land was compulsory purchased for the convention centre and the Hyatt hotel was secured. The city developed an entrepreneurial approach to development, as Sir Albert recounted, rather than grant funding the Hyatt the city gave them the land in return for a 30% stake. Similarly the mammoth task of removing the elevated Masshouse Circus section of the ring road to the south of the city was funded by the sale of the land released.

The discussion at the event focused on the process of urban change and why the Highbury initiative had been so effective (when most events like this are not). The conclusion was that it was largely down to luck. The initiative took place at a time when there were enough people in place who had been convinced that change was necessary. The structure of the event helped to convince those who had not quite made this journey while the involvement of senior politicians meant that those who were still not convinced were told! The city was jolted out of its complacency and realised that it needed to draw on external help. However it retained its ability to get things done and was able to turn its skills and experience in muscular planning to new ends.

We concluded that Birmingham is better, so much better, than it had been before Highbury but that it was still not world class. In the intervening years it has on occasions fallen back into the trap of thinking that it knows best and that solutions always lie in grand projects rather than incremental steps. However the change of direction has been sustained and while the city has a road still to travel it is at least on the right track.