During 1998-99 I was fortunate to participate in an international professional exchange to the United Kingdom, working in and researching innovation and best practice in urban design and regeneration. Across a nation now strongly focussed on addressing and managing change in its cities, perhaps the most dramatically successful example I observed was Birmingham, in particular the new sector of the inner city known as Brindleyplace. This may have been emphasised by negative impressions gained during a brief visit to the city 20 years earlier. The following account is based on detailed discussions with key officers involved in the process (particularly Geoff Wright), supported by wider research and recent updates.
There are valuable lessons to be drawn from the Birmingham experience, most obviously from identifying the factors influencing its successes, but also in how outcomes and processes might have been more effective. Many of these lessons will have applicability to cities throughout the world dealing with change.
Birmingham, with around a million residents, rivals some other contenders as England's second city. It has a rich history as a prosperous product of the Industrial Revolution that successfully made the transition into the twentieth century, maturing into a proud civic-minded community with a healthy manufacturing economy, large enough to be cosmopolitan, yet small enough to retain its own identity and ethos. However, turbulent economic change in recent decades has challenged the city's capacity to make the transition into the new millennium as smooth or comfortable.
Part of Birmingham's strength has been its diversity. Whilst dominant in some major industries (such as motor manufacturing and armaments - admitting to arming both sides in several conflicts) the city had a broad variety of industries, being known as 'the city of a thousand trades'. Some of these industries, such as metal-working and jewellery manufacture, are characterised by numerous small operations. These sustained a diversity of ethnic and religious sub-cultures within the city. It is one of the few places in Britain boasting of its 'multi-cultural' character in tourist literature. There is a culture of civic innovation, arts patronage and social benevolence, such as the Quaker Cadburys' initiatives in Bournville.