Brutal Birmingham?

Despite the much-needed redevelopment of Birmingham city centre, I still find visiting to be a brutal experience. I’m uncertain if it is the sheer volume of people crammed into a relatively small area, or if it is the design of the city which prioritised cars and industry rather than people. I can only relate my personal experience and feelings about my visit yesterday, which left me resolute that I won’t visit again unless I absolutely must.

Rather than being spread out, the main shopping district of Birmingham is concentrated on a few streets, such as New Street, Corporation Street, and the Bullring Shopping Centre. With the addition of Grand Central, the shopping centre above New Street Station, the concentration is nothing short of intense.

Add the Christmas Market, numerous billboards and assorted street furniture, and it only takes a few people to gather in one area for the streets to feel crowded and claustrophobic. As with most British city centres, there is scant regard for noise pollution, with organised charity singers and people with high-power amps being dotted through the main thorough routes.

I don’t think anyone has ever checked that pavements are free from obstructions. There are plenty of obstacles, such as A-Boards and shop signs, which are frequently placed outside shops and cafés, and which form a continuous set of hurdles to be navigated. How does anyone in a wheelchair or with a pram get through?

In the Bullring, I had to queue to use an escalator, the volume of people was so high. Most people were personable, but the sheer volume of people made the visit to the standardised and uniform shops more stressful than it needed to be. I don’t understand the urgency to visit the shops, they are the same everywhere in the UK!

I had to visit Birmingham to undertake some business, as there is no local office in Leicester for what I wanted to do. I thought it would be good to mooch around, look in some shops, and stop off for a bite to eat, and waste some time in some coffee shops. The problem is that almost everything is a chain store, with the same products and services on offer everywhere else. Once you’ve been to one Starbucks, you’ve been to them all.

Perhaps the redevelopment of the Digbeth area, with the new HS2 station, will increase the spread of the city? It’s good to see that some of the inner ring roads are being dismantled and that Birmingham has a tram. It all feels as though this is work that should have been undertaken forty years ago. Putting people, as pedestrians, at the heart of the city centre, and not just corralling people into a few narrow streets.

Perhaps I’ve grown old and curmudgeonly, but the prospect of rubbing shoulders in large crowds is no longer my idea of a relaxing way to visit a nearby city. As I don’t like pubs much any more, then there are very few options to relax and kick-back. Most of the pubs I passed were rammed, and didn’t have any spare seats. Great Western Arcade was nice, and hinted at other possibilities, i.e. independent shops that aren’t industrially designed and managed uniformly for efficiency.

I could, however, just go with the flow, and subsume myself into the immersive culture of shopping, drinking and queuing. The problem is, I’m resolved to follow my instincts more, whereby I am mindful of the situations that I find to be stressful, so I can avoid them in the future. Birmingham city centre was very stressful, and I was glad to finally get the train back to Leicester.

Although Leicester suffers from many of the same problems of urban design in the UK, at least I know the routes to take to avoid the crowds. I doubt I will ever return to Birmingham willingly, but if I do, I may need a guide to point out all the charming things I’m obviously missing.



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