Urban designers like to bang on about the sanctity and the inviolability of public space (well, I do). But there is a sliding scale of value which we put upon different kinds of street. We put a lower value on one which is full of motor vehicles passing through, and a higher value on one where people on foot can move freely and use the street as a social space. Achieving a reduction in the domination of the street by vehicles has been a hard struggle over the past half-century or so, as the conventional view of the inviolability of public space has included the right to drive one’s car through it. So there is a rather thrilling subversiveness in the idea of closing a major urban street to traffic.
In 1989, the citizens’ group Birmingham for People published its counter-plan to the developer’s proposal to replace the 1964 Bull Ring shopping centre. Part of our counter-plan was to close that part of the 1960s Inner Ring Road which cut off the Bull Ring from the rest of the city centre, reconnecting the two once more. The chairman of the planning committee declared this proposed closure ‘a fantasy’. The developer scoffed ‘No one in his wildest dreams could imagine the ring road being stopped up’. A little over a year later it was part of city council policy, then it was incorporated into the developer’s latest revised scheme, and since 2003 it has been the reality.
Even a temporary exclusion of vehicles from a major street, enabling the repopulation of the space by social activity for a few hours, can be tremendously exciting. Noha Nasser’s social enterprise MELA persuaded all the urban authorities to close a 400 metres stretch of the A435 in Balsall Heath on Sunday 22nd April, to create the Moseley Road Street Festival. When I heard of the planned closure, I thought there must be a mistake. The A435 is a very busy radial road, and the route of one of the city’s busiest and most frequent bus services, the no. 50. Surely its closure would not be agreed. I should have known better than to doubt Noha’s persuasiveness.
The street was lined with stalls and events, and hundreds of people strolled casually and stood chatting in the middle of the highway, as comfortably as if they did this every day. Live music played, including an opera workshop, street food was cooked and eaten, historic buildings including Moseley Road Baths and the ex-Moseley School of Art were open for guided tours. Eight local artists were commissioned by MELA to perform and display their work at various points along the street. For one day, the street became a party, open to all. For me the only thing missing was a pint of IPA in the sunshine. But Balsall Heath is predominantly Muslim, and the only pub within the 400m is now a restaurant.
I made a small display of the Balsall Heath Neighbourhood Plan, the first to be achieved in the city, and exhibited it in the location which the Plan proposes should become the Balsall Heath Town Square, if we can engineer a small diversion of traffic. A few metres away, in the short bit of highway which we hope to close, groups of boys and girls danced – what I would call break dancing but the programme called ‘socaerobics’ – to loud music, and to frequent applause from the crowd. I thought: once this becomes the town square, and the no. 50 goes around it instead of through it, this kind of thing could happen every weekend. Elsewhere on Moseley Road, girls in tight leggings laid their yoga mats on the tarmac, and did the kind of exercises usually done indoors, but here in the middle of an A road. I don’t know how comfortable it was, but it was an eloquent demonstration of the liberation of space from the domination of vehicles.
All in all, it dramatically revealed the latent possibilities of urban space. It took some brilliant organisation, and many hours of work, to persuade authorities that it was possible and desirable, and then to coordinate the hundreds of varied parts that all had to be made to fit together. I am sure that it was a revelation to many people, to see that it is possible for a highway to become a social space, even for one day. Now that it has been shown to be possible, it must happen again, and regularly. In the neighbourhood plan, I called this part of Moseley Road ‘the missing town centre’. It is where the settlement of Balsall Heath began, on the turnpike road from Birmingham to the village of Moseley, and it contains a number of historic institutional buildings. But the daily experience is that of a rather hostile corridor for traffic, not an urban centre. For one day in April we saw that it can become something better.
Birmingham: Various activities take place in the public realm during Moseley Road Street Festival
Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, working in masterplanning, site planning, area regeneration, historic conservation, and community participation .
He is also on the Editorial Board of the URBAN DESIGN journal.