Birmingham – The Uncreative City

After writing a couple of months ago about Creative Republic I thought it about time I went along to an event. So last night I showed up at the Michael Wolff Masterclass in the so-new-the-paint’s-still-wet Fazeley Studios in Digbeth. Wolff himself had to pull out at the last minute which was a shame but in his place we had Stef Lewandowski taking us through a presentation he entitled ‘Birmingham Ambient Creativity Audit’.

This basically involved Stef roaming the centre as if he was a fresh-face tourist, trying to orientate himself and look for signs of our cultural life. In short, after taking 500+ photos, he didn’t find much bar the very occasional fly-poster. What he did find was poor sign-posting, an excess of cars, a lack of hang-out spaces and a derelict ice-rink. It was a useful and entertaining snapshot of Birmingham, the uncreative creative city. One of Stef’s key points was about how Birmingham doesn’t look like a creative place despite the fact that creative and cultural industries make up such a significant chunk of the city’s economy (almost 9% of GVA or 5% of the economy – bigger than financial services but smaller than Law and business services).

That’s the key point for me. We’ve become a shopping city and a conference city, but can’t quite work out, in planning terms at least, how to be a creative city. I made a point during the evening about what Stef’s city tour might have felt like in the 1980s, a time when we were nothing more than a motor city, when we simply didn’t have the volume of creative industries activity we do now (2004 stats show 50% of all creative firms had started up in the previous ten years). In 2008 Stef was hoping to see more ‘indie’ culture as he walked around. He left ‘indie’ a little undefined but for me its more than shops or flyposters, its about people on the streets. Back in the 1980s hanging out in the city was a much more straightforward activity than it is now (Stef makes a point about the prevalence of CCTV and alcohol restricted areas). Then, the messiness of post-war planning left lots of curious, unwatched spaces – underpassses, undeveloped sites, old train stations – in which one could engage with friends in your own subcultural group (my own being ‘plastic punk‘ – into the music but too scared of upsetting his mum by ripping his jeans or dying his hair). Birmingham centre may be a lot better planned than it used to be but in that we’ve lost the diversity we used to see on the streets – a diversity of both people and places. A diversity that made us look like more of an ‘indie’ place.

In the last 20 years we’ve done everything that big, growing mature cities should do: we shut the underpasses, we gentrified the canals, we realigned the roads but we also privatised what were public spaces (Bullring was mentioned as an example of that), we priced out independent retail (we’re about to lose that great rabbit warren of youth culture and independent retail, Oasis Markets), we approved uninspiring architecture. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve probably done everything you’re not supposed to do to plan a creative city landscape.

I think the idea of last night was that we’re essentially gearing up for more formal feedback to the Big City Plan in the autumn. Which is a good thing of course because consultation matters if we’re to take on Stef’s points and make his next city tour a much more rewarding experience.

Even though I had to dash off before the final feedback this was a useful night that gave me and others there plenty of food for thought.  Well done to Stef and Creative Republic for pulling together something so useful  rather than just canceling.

7 thoughts on “Birmingham – The Uncreative City

  1. Pingback: D’log :: blogging since 2000 » Wolff out the door

  2. In the mid-late 1980s you’d have seen a good number of genuinely cultural indie shops in the city centre. Nostalgia & Comics, at least three second-hand bookshops in the city-centre, The Peace Centre selling all manner of genuinely radical alternative stuff (not like the ersatz Made in China “alt” stuff today), two Reddington’s Rare Records shops, Rog Peyton’s specialist science-fiction bookshop Andromeda, the Dungeons & Starships role-playing games shop behind the Library, not to mention real fashion life at that huge warren of a market half-way up Corporation St. (what was it’s name?), the old Rag Market, and several indie fashion shops. Many of these places were home to fanzines, flyers and posters and a general sort of pre-net rag-tag information network. You even saw many zines and suchlike in the old “dark & scary” Virgin, circa 1978-82. These ‘cultural’ indies are almost all gone now, replaced by chintzy shops selling knick-naks, and chain stores. And by the net, of course, which can keep nothing secret and underground for more than five minutes.

  3. This almost certainly deserves a rebuttal.

    I don’t have 19 minutes to spare today, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s all about the way one observes; the way you look at your surroundings. So I should probably ask what Stef was looking for. Ergo, if all you see is tat, it’s all good… when you appreciate tat. If you don’t appreciate tat, then what are you looking for?

    AFAIAC, underneath Spaghetti Junction is the lost wonder of Birmingham. But do I hear anyone else saying that? Likewise, the channelised River Rea and its environs are a treat, but how many plans are being made to tart it up and make it patently uninteresting? Places like these are what give the city character. Plans to make them ‘better’ are a recipe for dullness. It’ll never make the place creative. Except in a ‘nice’ way.

    But of course, that’s just me. And my off-the-cuff analysis.

  4. I’ve written up a load about last night’s talk including some reasoning behind the event, here:

    @dp – I fully agree and it does deserve a rebuttal which it got during the night. I’m certainly not on the ‘nicify’ side of things and I stopped at one point to take a handful of photos of the decaying buildings near the Arcadian that I am sure will disappear soon enough, a passer-by saying to me quite eloquently “find beauty in everything” and giving me a wink.

    My favourite place in Birmingham used to be this fun little space behind Waterstones that was utterly random and undesigned. In fact that’s mostly the problem – when a big plan comes into play, often what is lost in the equation is the places for serendipity to occur and things to emerge. By overdesigning you can leave a place wanting.

    This presentation was intended as a provocation for debate, and on my blog I’ve talked about that a little – scroll down to the end – it’s quite long.

    In the presentation I pretended to be visiting the city for the first time and was quite literally following the signs and instructions as they were given to me along the way. Unscientific and totally subjective, but food for debate nonetheless, and it got a few laughs and a few frowns along the way.

  5. Perhaps I should make this comment over at yours – where the discussion has more participants. Maybe your replay or the followup happens over there.

    This isn’t just about promoting a ‘creative city’, not about the creative industries per se.

    Part of what makes any city an adventurre is finding things on one’s own. Getting lost on purpose is surely more adventurous than following any official route. So part of your discussion is worth separating into two topics: what should be signposted, and how to make getting lost on purpose more enticing.

    Signange is important, crucially so when one has a specific goal and a wish to get there directly. Some cities address this by placing maps at convenient points. These can (and should) include street maps, bus stop/route maps, and symbolic maps of landmarks features. Some cities go further by creating routes whose markers are embedded in the pavements. This city is doing better at some of those, gradually. It can do a lot more. examples of good practice abound.

    Getting lost on purpose is about the lay of the land and what catches your eye. As noted earlier, if you know what you are looking for, you’ll find it. But people with no specific purpose may be confused by the clutter you refer to. But other cities are equally cluttered. You apparently want more clues among the clutter. Little stickers perhaps. My long-term argument about this has to do with public space as an anything-goes area. These generally mean land and structures where no control is exercised. It means relaxing the desire for safety, order, control. Look at those places around the city and you are likely to find something you’re looking for.

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