Eastside: A Sustainability Vision
As you may know, Digbeth and its neighbouring areas are currently the focus of
a large scale city council regeneration project by the name of "Eastside".
Anyone who has seen the Birmingham Post coverage of the launch of this over the
last months could be forgiven for thinking the Eastside team were planning to
make the same mistakes with this regeneration project as with the Bull Ring and
other centre developments.
Artists' impressions show a bland, overscaled ("Stalinist" according to some!) -
development of high rise buildings with drab "green desert" lawns in between. The
area's current buildings are not really in the picture, suggesting unnecessary
demolition, and concepts of sustainability were given no coverage. Resident small
businesses feel they have not been consulted on their future in the area and
are concerned over traffic implications of some developments. A planning application
for a large supermarket has been submitted. Previously, proposed sustainable
features of Millennium Point including the Eco-Hub idea were gradually whittled
away and eventually removed.
However, in November 2001 Gavin Tringham of the Environmental Services Department
asked Groundwork Birmingham and Birmingham FOE to coordinate the production of
an Eastside Sustainability Vision document, from the recommendations of a collection
of environmental and social NGOs. The idea was to produce a vision of how the
Eastside regeneration could be an example of sustainability. This idea partially
came from Birmingham FOE suggestions that the area becomes a "sustainability quarter" for
Birmingham, fitting with the learning and innovation emphasis they already aspire
to for the area.
I was given the job of coordinating the process of creating this document. This
was around 30 hours' paid work over three months (for Birmingham FOE's campaign
funds), although we also put in a lot of time as one of the main groups taking
part. The document was created through a process of meetings, working groups
and email consultation on drafts - and in the end around 19 groups had input.
The document covers wildlife, the built environment, housing, energy, transport,
public space and other land use issues, economy, industry, access and social
diversity. As well as the more obvious "green" aspects of providing more public
transport, green spaces that allow for wildlife, and measures of energy efficiency,
the vision is intended to point the development in the direction of human scaling,
a localised approach to meeting local needs, and therefore the preservation and
encouragement of the area's economic diversity; the ecological modernisation,
rather than removal, of industry, and the participation of the area's current
business and residential population. Working "organically" with existing area character
and economic activity - as happened to some extent in the Jewellery Quarter -
must surely be more successful than creating a new character to meet uncertain
The document is now finished and will be presented to the Eastside team on 12th
April. However the project will not end there. A bid has been made for European
funding for two sustainability advisors to the Eastside team, who will be able
to use the vision document as a brief.
Meanwhile there has also been the suggestion that the groups who created the
document form a continuous advisory group to the Eastside team to enable us to
make further suggestions, do further work on the document's recommendations -
as the timescale was a little short there is certainly room for further work
- and campaign for these recommendations to be implemented.
As you can imagine our Eastside Vision is to a large extent at odds with that
of the Eastside team, and it will be interesting to see to what extent the two
can be reconciled. I certainly get the feeling our involvement has barely begun.
"I think of the oak beams in the ceiling of College Hall at New College, Oxford.
Last century, when the beams needed replacing, carpenters used oak trees that
had been planted in 1386 when the dining hall was first built. The 14th century
builder had planted the trees in anticipation of the time, hundreds of years
in the future, when the beams would need replacing. Did the carpenters plant
new trees to replace the beams again a few hundred years from now?"
Danny Hillis in Wired