The daftest idea since the London National Park City.
This is vrtue signalling that demeans the value and concept of Nation al Parks and undermines good green city planning.
The professor’s ideas are great however the mechanism is daft. The concept is National Park is green wild, everything Brum isnt – so lets ‘national parkify’ Brum. However that tries to sweep under the carpet all the not wild, people exist at numbers and at density reality and greatness of a great city. Greening in such an environment requires a different kind of thinking, celebrating density, not trying to protect wilderness create nature everywhere not a segregated slice of wildness away from where people live.
Did the high line need a national park – No.
Did Chamberline require a national park to create Vicoria Square, Cadbury to create Bournville – No.
Like Green Belt the concept of National Parks has become a fossil of misunderstanding because of the lack of good city planning, a spade calling itself a spade.
I think we have an extraordinary landscape here waiting to be discovered by millions,” says landscape architect Kathryn Moore, unrolling a jauntily coloured map of her visionary new park in a Birmingham City University office. The professor isn’t talking about of Cumbria, Umbria, Snowdonia or Amazonia. She’s talking about the touristic potential of the West Midlands plateau, the heart of England that threw itself into the fiery crucible of the Industrial Revolution and still bears sacrificial scars. It is here that Professor Moore wants to create the United Kingdom’s 16th national park.
In the 19th century, Queen Victoria would lower the blinds on the royal train so she didn’t have to see the smokestack hell of the Black Country. Tolkien was inspired to create Mordor from nocturnal visions of its blast furnaces. If Moore has her way, though, in a decade or so Queen Kate will raise the blinds as the HS2 train passes the reconfigured Tame Valley between Birmingham and Coventry. “Look!” she’ll exclaim to King William. “What a vista of allotments, fisheries, fields, orchards, forests, hi-tech agriculture, green industries, creative hubs and cycle paths!” She’ll gaze in admiration at how the Tame has been rerouted using water from Birmingham city centre’s aquifer, all crisscrossed by new footbridges linking together suburbs long isolated by the city’s motorised arterial routes.
And finally, as the train makes its approach to Philip Hardwick’s recently reopened grade I-listed, Roman-inspired, 1838 Curzon Street rail terminus, King William too will look out of the window. “Gosh!” he’ll exclaim. “Is that the famous Birmingham Central Park?”
I know what you’re thinking. Make the Black Country green? Royal trains that stop in Birmingham?
Understandably, Moore is steeling herself for the derision she’s going to get for daring to suggest the West Midlands might become green and pleasant. “Everybody talks about how this landscape is ugly or whatever,” she says. “But we can give it a new identity, and in so doing reimagine what it is to live in cities in a way that lives up to UN sustainable development goals.” Not since Mayor Joseph Chamberlain sought to make Birmingham the new Athens at the end of the 19th century has anyone round here dared to dream this big.
On Thursday, Moore will unveil her plans for a new national park for the West Midlands at a conference in Birmingham. Last month, environment secretary Michael Gove asked if there is scope to expand the current network of national parks. Moore’s plans are a response to Gove’s invitation for ideas: a new vision for what a national park could be. Forget about trying to find new forests, coastlines or ancient wildernesses, Moore suggests: let’s re-green the West Midlands instead. “Birmingham was once famous as the city of a thousand trades,” she says. “Imagine if it became famous as the city of a thousand cycle and footpaths, a thousand parks and a thousand lakes.”
Maybe she’s imagining a West Midlands akin to the post-apocalyptic England imagined in nature writer Richard Jefferies 19th-century novel After London, in which cities revert to nature – and the few survivors to a quasi-medieval way of life? “Not at all!” protests Moore. “I love cities, but I want to give them a better 21st century identity so they’re better to live in, more productive as well as more attractive.”
Consider, for example, what’s wrong with suburban lawns. “If you look at wartime maps or aerial photos you’ll see that the landscape was used in a very different way. I want to bring back agriculture to the West Midlands, in part to increase food security. I want to create a new connection between the communities and the countryside people here haven’t experienced for decades.”
Among the conference speakers will be James Corner, the landscape architect who changed perceptions of what cities could be like when he created a linear park from an abandoned elevated railway line in inner New York City and called it the High Line.
Moore wants to do something similar, but with a twist. Instead of repurposing an abandoned railway, she plans to use a new one – the HS2 from London to Birmingham – as a catalyst. “It’s had so much bad publicity, but now we want to use the arrival of HS2 to create a better, greener West Midlands.” Moore serves on HS2’s design panel and hopes just as Birmingham led the world with the industrial revolution, it will lead the world in reimagining how an urban landscape can be married to a new notion of the countryside: a post-industrial revolution.
Her proposal also aims to capitalise on Coventry becoming UK city of culture in 2021, and Birmingham hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2022. “The point is to harness all that energy to create something lasting that improves the quality of life of people here.” East London’s award-winning Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was part of the legacy of the 2012 Olympics, and in that sense was something of a precursor for what she wants to achieve here. “The park would focus on encouraging active healthy lives and and wellbeing.”
Moore’s national park proposal blames traditional development practices for long-term social, economic and environmental damage. Birmingham in particular and the West Midlands in general have long been considered proof of such blindness. Herbert Manzoni, Birmingham’s city engineer and surveyor, was in the 1960s and 70s what Baron Haussmann was to Paris a century before, building arterial routes and ring roads no matter what the cost to communities or aesthetics.
The city became known for its underpasses filled with bad smells and worse buskers, while above traffic often as not sat in rush-hour gridlock. Manzoni created roads for drivers to sit in their private little boxes but neglected public spaces where you might want to walk or sit without having to cough up for a coffee. Moore’s proposals for a national park are an elegant counter to that car-based, free-market, environment-despoiling ideology.
The worst aspect of what Manzoni did to the heart of England, Moore thinks, is that his roads carved up poorer neighbourhoods and made them more deprived as a result. “If you look at the map of multiple deprivation in the West Midlands,” she explains, “you’ll see how deprived communities are often ringed by roads that are hard to cross. They can’t get out of their neighbourhoods very easily to get to work or to education. The roads that were meant to connect people actually serve to leave some behind.”
She has a point. Before meeting Moore, I get the 67 bus along the Tyburn and and Lichfield Roads, a route which goes through some of east Birmingham’s most deprived areas. Sue, a nurse heading home to Pype Hayes after her shift tells me she thinks estates like hers have been neglected by planners for too long. “Castle Vale and Chelmsley Wood, and lots of other estates in the West Midlands are cut off from the rest off the city by the M6 and by the big main roads. They become ghettoes. Your professor’s dead right about that and something needs to be done.”
But she’s sceptical about plans for a national park. “People have always had big ideas for how to improve Birmingham,” she says. Fair point: I remember interviewing Birmingham council leader Mike Whitby in 2010 when he told me he thought the new central library might be better known as “a palazzo of human thought”. “But they always come unstuck when it comes to money,” says Sue. Again, fair point: that glamorous new library’s opening hours have been reduced because of council cuts.
Later I ask a group of criminology students picnicking outside Birmingham’s Thinktank science museum if they like the idea of a Central Park over the wastelands they can glimpse from their flats. “I’d certainly like to stay here if it was a little less harsh and had more public parks,” says one. “I can imagine making a good life in this city if it wasn’t just for people with cars and lots of money,” says another. “I like the idea of having a national park on your doorstep and I suspect it would increase tourism.” What should it be called? “Heartlandia,” suggests one. “Mordor 2.0,” offers another. I’d like to see it called Brumbria, and picture tourists wondering why this looks nothing like Assisi or Keswick.
Back in Birmingham City University, Moore explains that a tourism bump is certainly part of her agenda, but so is developing new skills in sectors that the West Midlands has hardly been known for in recent years – such as agriculture, horticulture, food production. “The park would boost the economy because it would make it more attractive for people to want to live here and that would make it more attractive for business.” No wonder, perhaps, that support for her project comes from Andy Street, former head of John Lewis and now the West Midlands’ first elected mayor, as well as Meriden MP Dame Caroline Spelman – the latter in part wooed by Moore’s idea that the Forest of Arden should be extended as part of the project. But Moore admits to dodging the question when I ask her if planners for the West Midlands are all behind her scheme.