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.