For some reason, I spent most of yesterday thinking ring roads. Specifically, the Birmingham Queensway system that no longer exists. As a geographer, town planning sits very much inside my sphere of reference, and this is a famous example of a mid-C20 town planning ‘blunder’ (probably depending on who you ask). Certainly it was swept away with the arrival of the new Bullring c.2000.
Being a relative newcomer to the area, I had no idea of how it looked when the concrete collar was still in place. Hardly recognisable from today’s Birmingham in fact, looking at the video above. The big change is the Bullring, obviously, but in fact the new generation of planners have done whatever they can to correct the choking effect of the grade-separated Queensway, and allow the city centre to breath and grow naturally.
I’ve mapped out Manzoni’s original route here. Most of it still exists in one form or another, and I have to say I’m still getting my head around the various twists, turns and underpasses that are still here. For instance, I tend to avoid the whole area of Paradise Circus – much easier to cut through the convention centre.
But for other areas, I can hardly imagine what it would be like to have major traffic streaming through between Old Square and Snow Hill, for instance (although the station was unused at the time I suppose). Another thing I didn’t really realise was just how massive the new Bullring is – much larger than the old centre.
Birmingham has always been a city for large-scale interventions. The Queensway was followed by the Middleway, the Aston Expressway, the motorway system; that’s as well as large scale redevelopments of the Post Office, Bullring, markets, and so on.
Of course, that’s not the beginning. Every public works scheme has its ideological impetus (that’s my theory anyway) reflecting the values of the day. Streets built especially wide with trams in mind meant that Birmingham’s motorists already had it better than most; Herbert Manzoni’s bold plans in the 1960s were a continuation of the radical, iconoclastic modernism of the day, the same mindset that saw brutalist tower blocks fly up, New Street station go from this to this, and the famous upside-down central library being built. Each of these, in their way, involved clearances and dislocations; none more so than the Queensway which blasted through great swathes of the city centre, just like Joseph Chamberlain’s Corporation Street did 80 years earlier.
What was the motivation? Well, not always easy to say. Perhaps a mixture of zeitgeist, relentless optimism for the motorised future and an opportunity to do away with some of the narrow, close-packed residential areas on the city outskirts? Not all that dissimilar to Old Joe’s none-too-subtle regenerative notions.
I was looking at this purely randomly as another map to make, but lo and behold, all this talk of clearances, renewal, motivations, zeitgeist, town planning… doesn’t half remind me I need to get on with my proposal.