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.
It is confusing I know but the Big City Plan Consultation does indeed allow you to answer a question about digital connectivity. There seemed to be some concern that it didn’t but there it is, tucked away at the end of section 4 of the ‘Big City Plan Work in Progress’. If you click under 4.11 Street Design you’ll find it (yes I know that don’t make sense) The question is number CON 13:
How can Birmingham provide a digital infrastructure to enable new and existing businesses to have a competitive advantage, globally and locally? Can a ‘Virtual Birmingham’ improve people’s understanding and appreciation of the city centre, increase opportunities for the visitor economy and attract global business interests to trade with or invest in the city centre and enable the city to achieve its ‘Connected City’ aspirations both locally and internationally?
How should Birmingham ensure that the development of new households within the city centre have a digital infrastructure that supports family living across all generations and supports the flexible lifestyle requirements of 21st century living?
Addendum: On the leaflet section of the consultation there’s a shorter question (no.25) about Digital (scroll to bottom of link):
How can Birmingham provide a digital infrastructure to enable new and existing businesses to have a competitive advantage, globally and locally?
Obviously, go answer it there rather than here.
(pic found at Dave & Bry)
Birmingham’s Big City Plan has gone live with its consultation process. After initially getting frustrated with the site this morning (had other stuff I was meant to be doing anyway, you know, work stuff) I’ve given it another go and immediately found a question on walking/cycling links between the centre and Digbeth that is a bit of a pet topic of mine.
So I put in my response (not overly considered, bit of a brain dump) and pressed submit. Turns out I’d answered question 42 when I wanted to answer question 41. The mistake was thinking the ‘add comments’ below the question was the right one – it isn’t, it’s above the question. Was a touch confusing or maybe I’m a touch thick. I can’t work out if the comments are viewable by others but here’s what I wrote in answer to question 41, ‘How can we ensure good walking and cycling connections between Digbeth and the city core?’:
There are some real practical problems in getting from Selfridges to the Custard Factory along Digbeth High Street. Leaving the Bull Ring area from the gap between St Martin’s and Selfridges presents a number of difficulties. The key one is the positioning of the bus stop outside the ‘Digbeth Cold Storage’ building. A crowd gathers here and on the narrow pavement it becomes very difficult to get past(especially with pushchair in tow, worse still in a wheelchair). There are five junctions to cross to get to the Custard Factory and the area has a slight feel of being in decline (fast food shops, a sex shop, empty former car garage, derelict land). Addressing this should be a priority in order to increase footfall in this area – to prevent it feeling like the place where the city centre stops. This could include traffic calming or major realignment of the road (which could include bike lanes).
An alternative connection to Digbeth, and one that is under-used is Fazeley st. this is an impressive, straight road with much industrial heritage on it. Perhaps this could be considered as a new gateway to the area? I see a tree-lined boulevard perhaps? Or perhaps this is the road that traffic could be routed down to relieve traffic on the high street. Whichever way, clearer signage and some consideration to how the area betweenthe city and custard factory ‘feels’ should be considered.
The canals could be better utilised perhaps – I doubt many people realise that they offer a direct(ish) route to the NIA/Brindley place from Digbeth. It’s a fascinating route as well – couple of lovely narrow tunnels and a glimpse of all the new flats around the post office tower. Making Fazeley st. a focus would revitalise Typhoo wharf as the gateway to the canal system.
Once you have responded it produces a PDF for you to file away – quite handy actually. Now that I’ve got the hang of it I’ll respond further (and will copy them on here until you get bored of them). As a process for formal consultation it’s not too bad actually – but love to have everyone’s comments come through in an RSS feed as they put them in though, that’d be great.