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The death of a national trust. The birth of an urban sitopia?

The death of a national trust. The birth of an urban sitopia?

🕔23.Aug 2012

Three recent encounters:

  • First, I bumped into PB, last seen when she a sixth former and I a grubby little first year about (gulp!) 50 years ago. “Where do you live” she asked. “Birmingham,” I replied. Her eyes widened in surprise, her head jolted back in shock
  • Second, I was introduced to a branding guru. In Islington. A man of international renown. His particular thing is place branding. London is a global city, he said. It’s not England, nor English. The opportunity for places like Birmingham , he continued, is to brand themselves as the real England. For you, you’ve got Stratford and Shakespeare, think of the Cotswolds, Leamington Spa – they are the real England. But where, I wonder aloud, is Birmingham in all of that. A waft of his hand, a passing reference top the Lunarmen, and that was it.
  • And finally, I read Jeremy Paxman’s witty, perceptive book The English: A portrait of a people.

17 million visit “historic houses”, some 50 million “open-air properties” belonging to the National Trust. Evidence, should you need it, of an English obsession with the past, and with the countryside. A rural idyll that never was — nor will be in this most crowded of isles.

This Englishness, as Paxman points out, is a false preserve. Cricket on a village green. Thatched cottages with roses around the door.

If a city, it’s the dreaming spires of Oxford or Regency Bath. Or a fashionable London address along with a weekend place in the “countryside” away from jostling crowds and filthy air.

Countryside? More likely twee, affluent suburbia. Perhaps a child-free, chocolate box of a village within a few miles of the M4 or M40. Add in a strange proselytisation of green credentials, playing organic between breaks in Chamonix, New York, the Maldives. Or newbie country-dweller, chafing against the few lonely souls who manage our mechanised agriculture on a necessarily industrial scale.

Birmingham doesn’t belong to any of these Englands. Nor indeed do any of the post-industrial cities across the “English” landscape — Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds — all of them north of a line drawn roughly from the Severn to the Trent.

We Brummies live almost slap-bang half-way up that line, often uncertain of who we are. And who we’re not; over 160,000 people commute into Birmingham, preferring traffic jams and packed trains carting them from sprawling dormitory “villages” over the legacy of what Paxman termed “unrelieved grimness all round”.

“The cities grew as inelegant sprawls with a purely functional intent. As a result, England contains some of the most exceptionally hideous towns in Europe…Joseph Chamberlain became mayor of his adopted city of Birmingham in 1873, he demolished the slums, took over the gas and water companies and municipalised the sewage farms. Health improved as a result, but in Birmingham as elsewhere, the occasional city centre art gallery or library merely accentuated the unrelieved grimness all round”

Outside the rush hour, Birmingham is but an hour’s brief drive from London’s own escapees. The Cotswold weekend residents, or the Chipping Norton set, or those in Shakespeare’s country.

If these fashionistas think of us at all, it’s a sharp recoil from the brutal ugliness they’ve glimpsed fleetingly from motorways or railway lines. Minds shaped by Dickens’ Coketown, Blake’s dark satanic mills, Queen Victoria drawing the blinds on the royal train.

But by 2050, nearly all of the world’s 9 billion will live in cities. Only cities can provide the economies of scale to feed, water and shelter this vast population.

Odd though it may seem to the London barrister’s bucolic smallholder dream or the bankster buying a country pile or, indeed, the commuter in from Worcestershire, living in a city is already the best of ecological options. The green thing to do.

Unrelieved grimness? What do we need to do to make Birmingham an urbanite exemplar of living well? A melting pot of ideas, energy, influences. Lively streets. Playful, curious children. Heartfelt friendliness. A delight in immediate surroundings.

What will have happened here by the time PB’s response to  “Birmingham”  is a widening of her eyes in recognition, her head eagerly leaning forward to hear more?

Cities run on power. No, not the political kind, that national trust has gone, if it ever existed outside London.

I mean the joule kind of power. Calories, too, life-giving power to our bodies and minds. Without either, citizens must leave or die.

How are we going to generate and manage the power we need to live well here?

A radical idea is to think of city as “sitopia”, a term made up by Carolyn Steel. From the Greek, ‘sitos’ meaning food, ‘topos’ meaning place. Sitopia Food place.  (see her book Hungary City; her TED talk How Food Shapes Our Cities.)

Her assertion is that, even now, long past the days when geese and cattle had to be driven into towns, it is still illuminating to view a city through the perspective of food and food supplies.

And so it has proved. The New Optimists Forum has brought together over 50 people so far, many of them scientists, all living and working in the region, engaged in a year-long scenario planning project. Food futures for Birmingham 2050.

We’re bending our minds around logistics and transport systems, education, health, energy, waste, business and retailing, allotments and parks, streets and markets. Relationships, family, friendship. Eating as social glue.

We’ve learned there’s great success in today’s food supply systems  —  and that success includes supermarkets. A billion calories plus vital nutrients are consumed every single day of every year off Birmingham plates.

There’s concerns attached to this success too. What if there were a major breakdown in supply? Never has so much [cereal] been controlled by so few.

Are these systems too efficient, fragile rather than robust? Equitable? Sustainable? Will the preparedness of other consumers in other countries to buy less than perfect-looking produce scupper parts of our supply? Should we be eating kiwi fruits rather than Evesham plums?

And, when calories are cheap, how can we all ensure all our citizens have a nutritious diet?

We’ve learned that a mere 10 people can live off a hectare of highly fertile, intensively farmed land. That the West Midlands conurbation is roughly 60,000 hectares. So without the million or so of us, without any of our built environment, also without Wolverhampton, Stourbridge and the Black Country, Coventry, motorways, 3.5 million people….the land itself could, if highly fertile (which it isn’t) and if it were intensively farmed (thumbs down to the Soil Association), it could only feed 600,000 people on a very restricted if sufficient diet.

We’ve learned that the global food supply, give and take, matters greatly to us. That the UK imports less of our food (40%) than it has for generations.

We’ve learned there’s difficult-to-get-your-head-round, counter-intuitive stuff. That its not in UK interests to be self-sufficient in food. Not for us, not for others across the world. That organic farming, locally sourced food and going vegetarianism are all irrelevant to feeding the 9 billion.

That however romantic the World War II Dig for Victory campaign seems now, getting food on the table then was a precarious matter. A close run thing, the population could easily have starved; indeed many on the Continent did. We had rationing. A highly restricted, meagre diet.  Malnutrition. Government food supplements for the vulnerable, vitamins, cod liver oil, virol, orange juice. Over dependence on local harvests which sometimes failed.

And 13 million fewer mouths to feed than now.

We’ve learned too that urban agriculture, though providing diddley-squat (a tiny fraction of 1%) of any city’s food requirement, has profound social, civic and health benefits for whole communities. And it makes an area suddenly, wonderfully attractive to look at and be in.

That Birmingham, late on this scene, has 7.5k allotments (and counting), community orchards, veg patches in schools, farms (yes farms), Winterbourne’s urban farming centre opening in September, Birmingham Botanical Gardens with imaginative projects, a city Parks Department already playing a significant part and keen to do more.

Plus a brand-new opportunity. Carbon-negative energy generation within our boundaries. Bio-energy reactors, some community owned, dotted across the metropolis. Aston University’s EBRI technologies.

What will Birmingham be to the likes of PB and a London branding guru in the middle of this most trouble of centuries?

We’re on our own. It’s up to us.


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