I love walking. So does my Mom, even at 78 years old. I recall once walking with her and my siblings from home in Alum Rock to the city centre some time in the mid 1970s (was there a bus strike? more likely she just thought it would be good for us). My clear memory is getting to Masshouse Circus and instead of using the underpasses she made us go over the huge traffic island there. There was my mom and us three kids avoiding the busy traffic at each exit to the island until we made safe ground at Tescos (now Argos). We’d do longer walks around the city as we grew up but none stick in the mind like this one.
The city’s a tad easier to walk nowadays and I love walking it. Today I walked 4.16 miles around the city from New street station to a meeting in Aston Science Park, to the Custard Factory, back to the City centre and then on to the arse end of the Jewellery Quarter where my workplace is. I finished a bit annoyed at how it’s too often the simple things we’re getting wrong in the city, things that stop this walk being one for the tourist brochures despite the obvious historic interest along the way. I started at 8.45am and was back at work by 2.45pm. Here’s what I found:
- From New st. to Science Park is a great straight mile that has benefited from the removal of underpasses at Bull street and Old Square. A lovely walk past the law courts and Aston Uni campus. Easy-peasy.
- Who would think to use the canal from Science Park to Digbeth? A lovely towpath route but the entrance on the Science Park is obscured and poorly signposted. It is easily the simplest route. I passed only one other person.
- The canal there is a bit intimidating due to poor tunnel lighting and the ongoing presence of loitering single men around Curzon street tunnel. Maybe a bit of a cottaging scene going on there? Of course it also lacks other people, maybe because no-one knows it’s there.
- The new Yumm deli at the Custard Factory is a welcome addition. reasonably priced, cheery staff. Still love Rooty’s though but the love has spread now.
- From Custard Factory to the city centre is NOT a pleasant walk. Was it lunchtime at the college? Does that explain the slightly intimidating youths? The ones who decided to do that come-right-up-in-your-face thing to me that youths sometime do? I’ve never liked it, still don’t. Too many side-roads including one where the traffic can come from the other side of the dual carriageway unexpectedly, and that fucking bus stop outside Digbeth Cold Storage where the path narrows. Why does this area need a dual carriageway? Why do we still love roads so much after all this time. Give us space on the pavement, please.
- From Bull Ring shopping centre to the library is great, I like the second half of New street as it rises into the impressive Victoria Square and then to the library. The mall bit in the middle of the library still seems like an oddity though, to say the least.
- But to get to Summer Row and to work from here – would you know how to do it? The weird exit to the right just after Nandos? Past the stagnant pool, down a red staircase (where do wheelchair users go?) and through the only underpass on the walk or across busy roads to avoid the underpass and onto another dual carriageway (although passing the very fine Birmingham Orthodox Cathedral),
Actually, in hindsight this is a great walk, spoilt only by poor signposting, a lack of thought about what make safe spaces and a continuing desire to prioritise the car. Above all, there seems a determination to keep the canals, the Custard Factory and Summer Row disconnected from the city centre experience. I’m not convinced that changing the road layout to prioritise pedestrians, stopping bus passengers being herded to the margins and installing better lighting on some canal tunnels need a Big City Plan to make them happen. It just needs those who make the decisions to come walk with us. To understand how good these routes are but understand the fine detail of what prevents them being great routes that we can promote with pride.
This is an open invite to all: in power, at the fringes of it or with a desire to influence it. Come walk with me, any time you like, I’ll show you the city I think you never take the time to see. And if she’s free, I’ll ask my mom along as well.
Today I attended a one-day conference about Birmingham’s Big City Plan at the ICC. It was invite only although I didn’t get my invite until yesterday when it was clear that the group due to discuss the Connectivity theme valued having some expert input. Luckily my more expert colleague was there to do that and I could bluff my way through as usual. The view from the podium was that the day shouldn’t be live-blogged in case colleagues felt they couldn’t be open, so unfortunately there was little tweeting during the event itself.
There was no delegate list (or pack even) for the event but a quick glance round the room suggested that it was a mix of representatives from trade organisations, developers, community groups, universities, architects, planners and probably a lot more. Seemed to be fairly high-level, circa 300 in total. The introductions talked up the success of ‘Big City Plan’ as a brand in itself – that it had attracted attention for its ambition and was being widely discussed. Kelvin Campbell from Urban Initiatives (the consultants tasked with co-ordinating the plan) gave quite an uplifting presentation that included some interesting thinking about making some of the inner ring road into a kind of Birmingham La Rambla (so tempted to link to Las Ramblas then instead).
The day centred around a series of 16 break-out groups looking at different areas of the plan so I can only really talk about the chat in the Connectivity (cycling/walking/digital) group. The group had a fairly passionate discussion on walking (we lamented the lack of clear sign-posting and the blockages out from the centre to key areas such as the Jewellery Quarter and Highgate) and on cycling (the major arteries into the city are treacherous and the centre is difficult for bikes).
But when we got onto ‘Digital’ the passion kind of disappeared to be replaced initially by a kind of ‘so what’? It was partly (in my view at least) that as described by the plan ‘digital’ is seen as a utility service. Nothing wrong with that, surely the council has a duty to treat it that way and ensure citizens get the access they deserve. The only point of debate was, almost inevitably, that we need city centre free wi-fi. But then our friend Kelvin dropped in on our discussion and pointed out how the lack of free wi-fi had created a number of ad-hoc social media spaces around particular cafes. Kelvin’s question was is that a good thing (he thought yes) and if so, how do we institutionalise it? Could we create a equivalent of a Section 106 so that new developments were obliged to create Social Media Spaces as part of new builds. Then the discussion was suddenly fired up about social media and the connectivity it creates between individuals and businesses and the creative potential therein. I made mention of the Big City Plan translation (news to all I think) and the ability of ‘digital’ to harness expertise and make connections directly to citizens was suddenly made real.
Further, there was recognition by Kelvin that the consultation to date hadn’t had the full engagement with the social media community that it could have had and that this group could recommend a change in tack in that respect. And that’s what we did – one of the group’s actions was for the Big City Plan team to utilise social media, and thereby engage with those leading in that area, to widen the debate. So we ended up having a very positive discussion after a flat start.
A lunchtime appointment meant I actually managed to miss most of the summing up bar the one for this group. In the final slide was the bullet point ‘Twittering is Good’. As it was the last slide of the day it stayed up for quite a while during the closing speeches – point made.
Or to put it another way – I’ve just discovered how easy it is to compare Birmingham to other cities using the nomis service from the Office of National Statistics. These are figures that relate to the labour market. That is, who is or isn’t working, what people earn, what benefits they claim, how much of the population is ‘economically inactive‘. You can pull out stats for regions or local authority areas, or even better, make comparisons between two or three areas.
Pulling up the stats for Brum on their own are interesting enough. Here’s some things I didn’t know before:
- Average weekly pay for a man in Birmingham is exactly £100 more than women get (£473 compared to £373)
- The average wage of Birmingham-based jobs is £36 more (£470) than the average Brummie earns.
- 18.9% of working age people have no qualifications at all (13% is the national figure)
- 85% of Birmingham jobs are in the service sector
- We have over half the national average of self-employed females (2.4% to 5.2%).
- We’ve got over twice the national average rate of Job Seeker’s Allowance Claimants (6% to 2.8%)
- 2490 businesses started trading in 2007, 2230 stopped trading in the same year. That’s a higher churn rate than the national picture.
You can query many of the data sources as well if you really need to know that in 2008 there were three times as many under 25 men (1540) than women (560) claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Selly Oak constituency. Actually that’s an improvement as it used to be four times as many back in 2000.
But the really interesting stuff comes when you compare Birmingham to other regions. Inevitably I pulled down Manchester from the menu. You can go read the stats yourself and try out other cities. Whatever you do don’t compare us to any other London boroughs – in a fight they win flat out on just about everything.