The Big City Plan will shape Birmingham for decades to come. Kelvin Campbell offers Ian Halstead an exclusive peek into the future.
If Sir Herbert Manzoni was the architect of the bleak concrete wasteland which formed Birmingham’s urban heart during the second half of the 20th century, then Kelvin Campbell is his nemesis.
As city engineer for almost three decades, Manzoni wreaked damage to Birmingham’s architectural heritage on a scale to make the Luftwaffe’s bombs appear ineffectual.
His modernist beliefs were symbolised by a ring-road network which stifled the city centre’s regeneration, and the monstrous concrete ziggurat of the Central Library.
Campbell though is of a different generation, with a mindset as willing to acknowledge the merits of the past, as to embrace the challenges and possibilities of the future.
As managing director of the London-based consultancy, Urban Initiatives, he spearheads the consortium driving forward the masterplanning stage of the city council’s Big City Plan.
It’s immediately easy to understand how Campbell won the vote, when five short-listed teams competed for the £750,000 contract, to devise a ‘route map’ for Birmingham’s 2,000-acre core over the next 25 years and more.
Very much in the mould of Professor Michael Parkinson – whose vision provided the Big City Plan’s intellectual bedrock – his thought are an impressive blend of passion and purpose, but he’s equally aware of the need for precision, which all developers crave.
“I think we have a chance to really put Birmingham on the global map, and for all the right reasons. It used to get so much negative press, for New Street Station, and the Central Library, and the ring-roads,” says Campbell.
“We began with a simple and clear message of intent. Now we are into the mechanics of the planning stages, rather than the fine detail, but we are also seeing which sites may need to be broken up into small bits, and which might offer a single opportunity.“
Campbell is keen to break up the remnants of the infamous ‘concrete collar’, and bring forward sites between Paradise Circus and Bristol Street.
“We don’t see the A38 disappearing, but we do want to make it more civilised. Improving that road would help all the schemes alongside it,” he suggests.
The Urban Initiatives team has also taken a radical view of Icknield Port Loop, the sprawling 80-acre chunk of dereliction between the Wolverhampton-Birmingham canal and Edgbaston Reservoir.
The area has long been identified as of strategic significance, but progress stalled after developer Isis ran into financial trouble last autumn.
Campbell believes the site should now be expanded to take in both neighbouring Ladywood, and the City Hospital.
“We would then have the opportunity to create a nice sizeable eco-town, and could go to the government for some decent chunks of money,” he says.
However, Campbell is most definitely not in favour of a ‘Big Bang’ approach.
“When Isis were appointed, they were the best possible partner the council could have found, but now, you could wait four or five years for another developer to come along,“ he says.
“How often do the truly major regeneration schemes come off? It probably took 25 years to bring forward Kings Cross. Sometimes, the big picture is just too big.
“I would prefer to see a more fine-grained approach, rather than massive intervention. We could break the site down into small schemes. Business space for start-up units and small firms could be brought forward, and perhaps let on zero rents for a few years to stimulate growth.”
Campbell thinks Icknield Port Loop could even mark the debut of the oft-mooted Birmingham Development Company.
“Perhaps in its first years, it could bring together several local building firms, so we could have small-scale evolution of new urban housing, rather than pinning hopes on the really big stuff,” he says.
“We’d need a good ‘enforcer’ to run the development company, to ensure residents did enjoy a better quality of life, and that such issues as skills, training and employment opportunities were not forgotten, but I am sure it would work.”
Campbell – in common with both Professor Parkinson and the council’s director of regeneration, Clive Dutton – is enthused by the concept of a “Birmingham House”, to be built at Icknield Port Loop and elsewhere in the city.
“Birmingham has a real window of opportunity to do something different. You can go on all the study tours you can find, but it is very hard to find examples of residential best practice from the last few years.
”Instead of trying to take ideas from elsewhere, this city should come up with something that is demonstrably its own style of house, in the way that everyone knows what the waterside houses in Amsterdam, or the Georgian terraces of Bath, look like.”
Campbell believes with equal passion that the Big City Plan also offers the city a chance to create several new neighbourhoods, each offering something different to its residents. “Birmingham needs more places of aspiration, like Islington or Marylebone. It hasn’t yet got such neighbourhoods within walking distance of the city centre. I doubt the major housebuilders would have the will to get involved, so we need a more fluid and small-scale approach,” he says.
“We could put high-density live-work space, based around the creative industries, into Digbeth; the Highgate Park area would be ideal for more highly-planned homes, and Ladyport could offer designs of a more pioneering and experimental nature.”
Campbell believes design competitions will likely be the best catalyst for the Birmingham House.
However, he is no 21st century Manzoni, blinkered in his determination to impose the prevailing view of professionals on the city’s residents by diktat, rather than debate.
“Rather than having 20 architects, agents and planners round the table, arguing about an obscure principle of design, I think the focus should be on families, and social issues,” says Campbell.
“A residential scheme can win all the awards which are going, but it will only succeed if people want to live there, enjoy living there, and if their children also want to live there.
“We could perhaps take six or seven families, ask what they need, what they would like to see, and evolve our new house designs through their eyes. Housing isn’t about architects, however, talented or innovative they are, it’s about people.”
It’s an intriguing and provocative view, which – elementary though it may seem in black and white – so often goes unsaid.
The early stages of the Big City Plan have already amply demonstrated their ability to sway the regeneration professionals, by beating rival masterplanning projects from Abu Dhabi, Genoa and Singapore to snaffle the prized BEX 2008 award last summer.
Now the proposals must appeal to a much wider audience, and especially the people of Birmingham – beginning with next Tuesday‘s conference at the ICC.
“The public consultation which began in December, and runs until February, will be absolutely vital to the content, the structure and the long-term success of the masterplan,” says Campbell.
“Up to now, we have all referred to the Big City Plan. From here, it’s about a Big City Conversation, making sure we get as many ideas from as many people as possible.”