Engaging Reverse Gear
Herbert Manzoni now has a largely negative reputation in Birmingham. He had the roles of City Engineer, Surveyor and Planning Officer from 1935 to 1963, and his vision effectively determined the shape of the postwar city. That vision was based on the universal use of the motor car, probably not unconnected to the important role played in Birmingham’s industrial economy by the vast Austin motor works in Longbridge. It is extraordinary to think now that Manzoni and others in authority believed that a city in which everyone travelled by motor car could be a civilised and habitable place. A simple mathematical calculation of the space that would be required for roads and car parks tells us otherwise. It’s impossible. Many hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent since the revisionist Highbury Conference of 1988 on dismantling Manzoni’s impractical and alienating vision, chunk by chunk, rebar by rebar. His reputation has been correspondingly dismantled too. He has even become a character in fiction, appearing in Honor Gavin’s 2014 novel Midland disguised, not very well, as the municipal bureaucrat Humphrey Manzino.
A huge modal shift away from Manzoni’s vision is signalled by the Birmingham Transport Plan, which was launched in October 2021. Its introduction states that ‘The latest evidence shows that a rapid shift is needed away from single occupancy private car use’. This prosaic understatement is hardly a radical idea in 2022, but for Birmingham it represents a U-turn in policy, although I am unsure how much of it is founded on aspirations to what a reader of this magazine would describe as urban design quality. The main motivations are public health and social equity, both of which are further strengthened by the existential threat of the climate crisis. The Clean Air Zone, implemented last year, is a major plank of the Transport Plan. This requires the drivers of certain vehicles, particularly those with diesel engines, to pay a fee to enter the city centre. Combined with the coincidental effects of the pandemic, this has already reduced the quantity of particulate matter in the air. At the same time, Birmingham has very high levels of social deprivation, with 42 per cent of its children growing up in poverty. Many of those will be in families without a car, and many others in families who do have a car, but one which consumes a disproportionate amount of the limited family income. They need a more equitable transport system, which prioritises other modes of transport ahead of the car.
One place where a significant increase in urban design quality is going to occur as a result of the Transport Plan is in Digbeth, specifically the route of High Street Deritend, leading from the Bull Ring towards the Custard Factory, which I wrote about in UD155. The previous hostile six-lane dual carriageway is now a construction site, the ground surface being torn up and underground services revealed. Vehicles crawl in a slow-moving queue along one temporary lane in each direction. The street is being redesigned, with the construction of the Digbeth extension of the Metro tram route being the catalyst for its transformation. Some years ago I observed that High Street Deritend was the same width as Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, about 32 metres, and floated the idea that it could become a version of Las Ramblas, plus trams. This is now happening. Space is being taken away from motor vehicles, and re-allocated to pedestrians: although the pedestrian promenade is not going to be in the middle, as in Barcelona, but on the northern side, in order to maximise the sunshine that falls on pedestrians.
I don’t suppose that in fact it is going to resemble Las Ramblas very much, but it will be a great improvement on the unpleasant space, alternately a racetrack and a jam of polluting stationary vehicles, that was there before. I imagine that there are many regular car drivers who haven’t been keeping up, and don’t yet know what is coming. I forecast that there will be much dismay. It won’t any longer be possible to drive the length of High Street from one end to the other. Only short stretches will be accessible to private motor vehicles, in order to get access to frontage properties. The only vehicles able to travel through the street will be trams, buses and bicycles. Some people will be upset: for others it will be a great liberation from the dominance of the motor car. It’s over, Herbert.