Graham Young visits urban parkland that offers a rare sight in our built-up city environment.
You don’t have to get out of your car or off a bus to realise that Birmingham’s post-war planning decisions often defy common sense.
Simply travel outbound along the city’s Bristol Street gateway towards Edgbaston’s beautifully timeless inner city period properties.
En route, there’s the boxy Etap Hotel to your right, opposite the fancifully-named, horribly-dated Monaco House, with the open-sore ugliness of the new Opal student accommodation shortly to appear in front of you.
Turn right here for Lee Bank Middleway, the A4540 middle ring road stretching all the way from the Bristol Road to Five Ways.
Sporting the obese girth of a motorway, it’s all too easy to drive uphill without a second thought.
Turn quickly left on to Ryland Road and Lee Crescent and stop for a walk, though, and you’ll be able to better appreciate one Birmingham’s most important conservation areas complete with a collection of beautifully mature trees and a panorama rare in our built environment.
Nearby, Lee Crescent is a row of gorgeous Georgian houses.
It’s hard to imagine that your view to the other side of the six-lane Lee Bank Middleway would have once been towards 19th century back-to-back houses collectively known as Holloway Head.
Second World War bomb damage was seen as a good reason to replace them with tower blocks, low-rise flats and properties as horrible as they sound – maisonettes.
By the 1990s, the renamed Lee Bank (later Middleway) area was considered a slum, with health and social problems to match.
The Optima Community Housing Association then helped to produce a new plan for Attwood Green, named after Birmingham’s first MP, Thomas Attwood.
Under reconstruction for most of this century, the old Lee Bank is no more.
The area’s new collection of designer apartments is referred to as Park Central, an ongoing, award-winning community-led project started from scratch.
At its heart are Moonlit and Sunset Parks, offering a recreational area the combined size of five football pitches.
While you might not be in New York’s Central Park, the exciting playgrounds and celestial views on a clear night suggest that you could be in central Los Angeles.
City historian Carl Chinn says: “Because it had no name of its own for so long, the Lee Bank neighbourhood suffered from inattention.
“Always part of the manor of Birmingham, it has sometimes been seen incorrectly as part of Edgbaston.
“Even the post-war planners were unsure as to what to call the district.”
The frequent changes of name for the Lee Bank/Attwood Green area, then, are at odds with life on the steady-Eddie Edgbaston side of the A4540.
One stone inscription on a preserved Lee Crescent property says ‘‘Wineyford Brown 1830’’, with the website www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk suggesting this was in relation to ownership.
Carl adds: “Itself recalling a solicitor named Lee who owned the land upon which the fine Georgian houses in Lee Crescent were built, Lee Crescent overlooked Lee Bank Road, now Lee Bank Middleway – bank being the West Midland word for a hill.”
A June 16, 1974, city council proposal for Lee Crescent to become a conservation area said it would be better if was incorporated into the one already covering Ryland Road.
This thoroughfare was named after a family which included John Ryland (1759-1841), of whom Birmingham’s first historian William Hutton (1723-1815) once wrote: ‘He was a friend to the whole human race. He had done more public business than any other within my knowledge, and not only without reward, but without a fault’.
Critically, the city council’s planning officer’s 1974 recommendations added: ‘It is also proposed to include the Public Open Space sloping down to Lee Bank Road, which preserves the open aspect to Lee Crescent properties’’.
The wisdom of that decision is now illustrated with these autumn pictures which surely any city would be proud to claim as its own.
Yet this type of spatial thinking is now being ignored by those who have given the green light for major building projects at Snow Hill, Centenary Square and Spiceal Street in the Bullring – all of which are slowly making their respective areas feel far more enclosed than they once were.
Lee Crescent proves that it’s not always what you construct in a city which can make the urban landscape great.
Sometimes, what you don’t build can be of equal merit, too.