A tour of Birmingham’s ring road (drives me to despair)

Pedestrian-free zone

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.

Pedestrian subway car flyover divideThe 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.

Underneath Aston Expressway

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.



4 responses to “A tour of Birmingham’s ring road (drives me to despair)

  1. Your post struck a chord with me for two reasons. I live in Greenford, Middlesex which is part of the London Borough of Ealing, a few minutes walk from the A40 and Greenford Flyover. That particular planning disaster has caused many of the problems that you mention by prioritising cars over pedestrians. In my opinion it has led to one murder and a number of fatal accidents because people avoid using the subways and run across slip roads instead (see http://wp.me/p267Ik-7Y). I have spoken to people who have lived in the area since before it was completed in 1979 who have never used the subways underneath it. We are also in the path of HS2 which will run alongside a railway embankment. This was completed in 1947 and must have changed the character of the place entirely. We now face the prospect of 28 trains an hour from 5am until midnight on six days of the week and from 8am until midnight on Sundays. A combination of things have allowed those responsible for this waste of our money to get away with this in Greenford: an apathetic population who have become used to things being done for them (including campaigns and protests), the “buy to let” phenomenon which means that very few of those living here put down roots and make an emotional commitment to the area and an extraordinary degree of snobbery on the part of the London media directed towards anyone living in the alleged “no man’s land” between central London and the Chilterns. The chances of our ever being able to travel to Birmingham (a city I really like) on HS2 are slim. The last trip to your hometown was by car after we looked at the train fares. It was cheaper to fill the tank with petrol. I actually began my photo blog because I was so fed up with hearing comments from local people who never walk around Greenford, they get into the car to work, shop and play, unaware of what is five minutes walk from their own front doors. You may find the work of Henry Shaftoe, author of “Convivial Urban Spaces” of interest. Good post and great images.

  2. Thanks @positivegreenford for taking the time to share design woes. As a friend once pointed out to me, the Europeans are great at cities – not sure why the UK gets it so wrong. What I did learn on yesterday’s walk is that we’re not learning from our mistakes – which I found more depressing than anything.

  3. Pingback: Best thing about Brussels #2: The Atomium | Tourist Vs Traveller

  4. Thanks – I do like Katchooo’s comment, we are not learning from our mistakes. As I write this I am researching for a presentation in New Zealand. I come from Birmingham and wanted to show them photos just like you have of what happens when you do this. I came to New Zealand to help them learn from other countries. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, It helps me to remind myself how building these huge roads is wrong.