Exposing the Nature of Birmingham and the Black Country
My students have just completed a critical assessment of Birmingham Big City Plan. This forms part of a module called Policy and Plans and the challenge was to look critically at real live plans and assess whether they were effective or, as Baldrick would say, cunning plans. At the heart of the Big City Plan lies a vision to reposition Birmingham as a global city. This resonates with the current growth agenda pursued by the government and the creation of the Birmingham and Greater Solihull and Black Country Local Enterprise partnerships provide delivery vehicles to help achieve this. However, in all this talking and planning for economic growth, investment and regeneration one word is conspicuous by its absence; nature.
At an event in February this year to launch the economic strategy of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, I had the temerity to ask why, as part of a strategy for improved prosperity and enterprise for Birmingham, there had been not one mention of the role of the environment or nature in the process. The answer confirmed the 'osbornian' view that nature was a brake on development for Birmingham and would hamper much needed investment. I challenge this perception within several key roles that nature provides for us here in Birmingham and the Black Country. These form integral parts of a regeneration and development strategy which collectively shapes a city's prosperity.
1. The Natural Health service
The nature around our city provides readily made local access for people to get fresh air, recreation to walk and play. For example the Lickey Hills provide a valuable space where people can exercise and enjoy local greenspace and, in so doing, improve health and well-being. The rivers, canals and lakes too can provide spaces for angling, canoeing and boating. The public rights of way network provides an accessible variety of routes for walking, biking and horseriding. There is usually no entry fee and the prescription for improved exercise also is free for all.
2. The Natural Climate service
The nature around and in Birmingham comes in different shapes and forms; trees, parks, gardens, playing fields, lakes, rivers, ponds, marshes, scrub and farmland. Collectively these spaces perform multiple climate functions. Collectively the green spaces can help soak up rainfall preventing flooding; they can provide clean air through absorbing Co2 emissions and pollutants; trees in particular can provide shade. The act of photosynthesis provides the oxygen we need so in effect the greenspace provide the lungs of the city. These green spaces also provide ecological corridors within which flora and fauna can move, adapt and thrive.
3. The Natural Food service
Much of the nature within and around Birmingham can be managed to provide local food. Not just from the agricultural fields that surround Birmingham but through allotments and also community food growing schemes in urban areas. Areas like Sandwell for example but also small scale food growing schemes including private gardens, roadside verges and other public spaces! Here it is a case of planting food growing trees and vegetables in our greenspace to improve productivity.
4. The Natural Environment Investment Magnet
Much of the nature and environment around Birmingham is 'hidden' within an urban label and preoccupation that characterises our city strategies. However, the countryside in and around Birmingham and the Black Country provides a powerful asset to attract people to come and invest in the region. Businesses require people and people want good environments within which to live, work and play. Indeed, broadband is now enabling businesses to locate outside the city using the environment as an asset to attract a workforce eager to avoid a typical commuting lifestyle. This forgotten aspect of our city is a key magnet to attract investment in.
5. The Nature of Birmingham and the Black Country
Finally we have all the nature as represented by the diverse flora and fauna that make their homes here as we do. We have some amazing biodiversity and special sites within Birmingham and the Black Country. You don't have to watch BBC documentaries about rare species in Africa or elsewhere in the World; we have them in your own back yard if you know where to look and signposting this represents a major failure thus far. This resource can be vulnerable, however, and yes we do need to protect and enhance it using specific management prescriptions and restrictions in some cases. Yet we view such assets as constraints rather than opportunities to celebrate and promote as part of the diversity of Birmingham and the Black Country; so much more than a city!
So the message is that collectively the nature of Birmingham and the Black Country is an asset that performs so much more than simply being a brake on development. Indeed, the value of that nature potential in terms of improved health and well-being, climate change mitigation, local food production and future investment is huge and demands to be factored into decision making as part of our roadmap to prosperity. We urgently need to build strategy and policy that recognises what nature can offer to local people, businesses and decision makers. It is therefore excellent news that Birmingham and the Black Country was one of the only urban initiatives in England to receive government funding for a Nature Improvement Area. http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/conservation/biodiversity/funding/nia/projects/birmingham.aspx
Led by the Wildlife Trust but involving some 60 organisations across business, environment and community sectors, this exciting new partnership is tasked with realising the multiple perspectives of nature and, in so doing, help build a better and more prosperous Birmingham where nature becomes an integral part of the development jigsaw. From my perspective and my students' work on the Big City Plan this kind of thinking is long overdue.
So please tell me how nature matters to you?