Who said local tourism had to be glamorous?
As part of the first Still Walking festival, urban planner Joe Holyoak’s Walk the Queensway tour was the first walk of the event to sell out. I’m not sure of the attraction for others but for me it was an excellent follow-up to last weekend’s Architectonic, Concrete Walls 1958-1980 exhibition of photos in Brussels (which sounds incredibly pretentious now that I write it down but more down-to-earth words will come in a future post about the Atomium).
Like Brussels’ growth-spurt of concrete office buildings in the late 20th century, Birmingham is perhaps even more identified with the material, thanks both to Spaghetti Junction and the city’s famous concrete collar.
The modernist town planners of the 1950s and 60s thought the future of cities lay in motorised transport and so they prioritised the car’s movement over the pedestrian’s. The resulting ring road, which began construction in 1957 and finally finished in 1971, remained at ground level; pedestrians, meanwhile, were relegated to subways or routed via circuitously ramped footbridges, creating what Joe called a ‘severance’.
The result probably looked quite futuristic at the time – a sweeping ring road encircling Birmingham’s city centre. But on a practical level it has blighted the city’s development in a number of ways: from the unplanned jumble of roadside architecture to the awkwardly sliced pockets of land for development to creating 52 subways, which I recall being no-go zones even in the daytime.
The concrete collar killed Birmingham’s natural flow of people and architectural design. Even now with planners attempting to rectify those mistakes, there is a sense that it is too late to fix the design mess. The monster has been created; development has occurred; and 21st century fixes can’t recreate the integrated people/traffic flow. (And even when they do, the HS2 rail link comes along to sever it again.)
I finished the walk looking with renewed despair at Birmingham – a city with so much to going on (not least this little walking festival) but with little hope of being able to get past the legacy of bad design that so many visitors find off-putting. Living here, I think I look past the general crapness of my hometown’s ‘design’ because I enjoy Birmingham’s many and fascinating microcosms but today’s walking tour was a reminder of where we came from, how far we have to go and, sadly, how unlikely we are to ever get there.
Here’s the full slideshow of photos – many of which show the people/traffic divide still in action.