Saturday, 30 January 2016

The life and death of Birmingham's suburbs

Bournville, when Birmingham was booming and Cadbury was philanthropic
Bournville, still an example of 'good' suburbs
Birmingham suburbs today - fuzzy cartopia
Halesowen shopping centre
Smethwick town hall
Amber Tavern in Quinton

I made a rare visit to the West Midlands to visit my father's brother who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It made me reflect on people and places and how lifestyles have changed dramatically since the war. I managed four long conversations with my uncle over 2 days and we covered everything from childhood in the war years, the importance of apprenticeships, inventive engineering, families and photography. In between visits to the newly opened and well functioning NHS palliative care centre, the remainder of the two days I used to explore the tapestry of urban growth and decay in the West Birmingham suburbs of Dudley, Smethwick, Halesowen and Quinton. They are not places that I know well, they are a black hole in my knowledge of the geography of England.

I had attended conferences in Birmingham and Warwick Universities and seen the odd football match at the Hawthorns. But the West Midlands has been mainly a region to pass by on the M6 or pass through on the train at New Street station. Birmingham city centre has benefitted from densification and some higher quality residential and commercial developments but Birmingham's once salubrious suburbs seem to be in decline. New flats and commercial developments less a tribute to architecture and more a dirge to the ascendency of land surveyors and accountants as the scourge of design. Planners have ceded the control of the built environment to the road engineers and the commercial pressures that are dictated more by the price and availability of land than any attempt to safeguard or enhance the functioning of the urban morphology.

The aspirational suburbs of the inter war years: solid brick built semi detached houses with gardens and splendid tree lined roads have faded as gardens have been converted to parking lots, roads have been widened, trees removed whilst incongruous commercial developments have disturbed the synergy of urban design. Large hypermarkets are dotted about served by vast roundabouts. The M5 cuts an ugly swathe of noise and pollution as it strides through the suburbs on stilts. In these circumstances it is perhaps no surprise that pedestrians and cyclists are notable for their absence.

People don't seem to live in the urban environment, they pass through it clad in vehicles or buses. The high car ownership and crowded roads suggest that there is some wealth but the shopping centres tell you otherwise. The skilled workers from the manufacturing sector are a diminishing breed and the warehousing, retail and third sector jobs that sustain the social care sector do not provide the same level of salary or work benefits or, just as importantly, the self esteem that comes with a skilled occupation.

I visited the centre of Halesowen, it epitomised the worst combination of a new shopping mall bolted onto a pedestrianised high street. The high street was occupied primarily by charity shops, many advertising their January sales. The new shopping centre was occupied by low end retailers, when Greggs and Savers occupy prime space in a centre you know that its rental rates are in sharp decline. Getting to the centre from the nearby car park was an exercise in dodging the traffic and avoiding the puddles. No wonder the majority of the population go to the drive-in soulless large supermarkets that are the epicentres for suburban life. Their monopolised tedium excludes the spirit of community and adventure and offers little scope for retail therapy.

In the evening I did find a splendid 1930's pub on Hagley road that provided a locally brewed beer and fillet steak dinner for £6.90 in an attractive clean lounge with the league cup semi final showing on 3 large flat screen TVs. It was quite full for a Wednesday evening despite the competition from dozens of ethnic restaurants in the vicinity. I walked back to my rather faded hotel in the pouring rain and passed dozens of small restaurants, all appearing empty of customers suggesting that the local economy was not as strong or buoyant as the car ownership implied.

These suburbs were not thriving and the occasional block of new flats gave no indication that housing conditions were improving. The highest common factor was a parking space; any distinctive or sympathetic urban design was absent. Unlike the splendid garden city developments at Bournville by Cadbury that have been preserved by a trust, the pride and confidence that epitomised the 1930's suburbs had been eradicated as gardens were converted to parking spaces and the successive trends in house improvement created a motley collection of sub prime properties.

The West Midlands is not alone in this respect, most of our conurbations and cities have suffered from similar shoddy new commercial developments, poor quality new housing and an over enthusiasm to cater for the car. We have lost the sense of the built environment being for people. Walking and enjoying the high streets, the parks, the gardens and maintaining places to meet in a convivial urban environment seems to be a casualty as our urban areas have been retro fitted to keep the traffic moving. Jane Jacobs had it right about the decline of American cities in the 1960's and her diagnosis is just as apposite when looking at the decline of our city suburbs today.

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