Ahead of the game as always the Black Country had an innovative garden city proposal on the table before the much trumpeted Ebbsfleet idea. Led by urban design charity MADE, and supported by a host of partners in the public, private and third sectors, the proposal has been entered for a £250k prize for new garden city designs put up by the Wolfson Foundation.
As with the Nature Improvement Area in Birmingham and the Black Country the idea seems, at first sight, to be a contradiction, especially to those outside the West Midlands. People who live here know differently of course. The mines, factories and houses of the Industrial Revolution never completely obliterated the woods, wetlands, heaths and farms on and around which they were built. Whilst the increased population suffered much deprivation it never lacked spirit and creativity, and this continues today, boosted by the 20th century influx of other cultures.
We now have what were once villages and small towns interspersed with open spaces such as Saltwells Wood, Rowley Hills and Sandwell Valley, parks, waterways and nature reserves. The genius of the garden city proposal is to understand that such an entity does not have to be created from scratch, it can be developed on existing green infrastructure such as this. The idea has echoes of the 'Black Country as Urban Park' initiative a few years ago, also a response to a funding competition. Not that £250k will build the garden city, but it will pay for further work.
If the bid is successful I hope that some of that further work will be to strengthen the natural environment elements of the concept. There is, perhaps, less about this aspect of the idea than areas such as the economic and social benefits. Ecologists were though amongst those involved in making the bid.
The first phase of the garden city would be centred on Smethwick and Oldbury and will be called Albion. The Black Country is famous both for its solidarity and its tribalism - I hope that this does not alienate Wolverhampton!
Find out more at http://www.made.org.uk/news/view/a_black_country_garden_city/