You may not have noticed but for the first time for many years there is a new version of SimCity; the urban planning video game. In an interview (here) with the lead designer Stone Librande he discusses how it has developed. Now what is the link to Digbeth. (For those of you not cognisant with Birmingham; Digbeth is an area close to the city centre, an old industrial area home to a large part of Birmingham’s creative industry cluster). Well the link is the decision in Simcity to downplay the number and size of car parks (lots) as it makes SimCity too boring.
Digbeth however has chosen a different path. Increasingly in recent years surface car parks have sprung up across the area. Free and paid car parking probably is one of the major economic drivers for the area currently. However this increase really threatens the character of the area, offers minimal employment and offers a threat to the growing creative industry base.
Now it is important to try to understand what is driving this. Anecdotally I noticed that the number of car parks seemed to increased after Gordon Brown in his budget of March 2007. (details here) reduced significantly empty property exemption for non domestic business rates. This appeared in Digbeth to lead to an increase in the number of demolitions. Evidence to back this up at national level is provided in a comprehensive review of these changes by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveryors (here). It suggests that the loss of this tax exemption has tipped the balance, particularly for older properties, towards demolition and away from refurbishment. In Digbeth some fine industrial buildings have been lost. Sometimes in advance of a possible redevelopment; sometimes solely I believe to avoid the tax and one short term low cost way to make money from empty sites is to turn them into open car parks. Other symptoms of this tax effect have been the removal of roofs to make them unusable.
What else is driving this; well undoubtedly the lack of adequate public transport provision is a factor; the area is criss crossed with railway viaducts; used and unused but without a local station and bus routes largely conspire to avoid the area. The parking as well is not only for those working in Digbeth but also for those working and shopping in the City Centre and the relative poverty of public transport provision generally in the city must also be having a significant impact.
Now the recession also will be having an effect as parking in Digbeth is usually much cheaper than in the City Centre. Parking for the whole day can be found for £1.50 over 3 times cheaper than in the centre.
So perhaps with SimCity we could imagine what Digbeth might look like with these car parks built upon; it offers the opportunity for a granular renewal as opposed to the wide scale redevelopment approach in the rest of Eastside. It offers the opportunity for a real enhancement in the quality of the urban area and of course it offers a real scope for increased employment and possibly residential development.
But what would it take to get the private sector investing in new and refurbished buildings. Well I think we are not talking about a model based on an extension of the City Centre development model. We don’t need large office based developments. This model stalled in circa 2007 and is only slowly showing flickers of life. Is the Beorma development proceeding? What about Connaught Square?
No any attempt to rejuvenate Digbeth must be based on its strengths. I think a different approach could be taken. An approach the goes with the grain of the area and goes with the flow of the creative industries.
The City should prioritise the enhancement of public space; proposals to change Digbeth (the main road) a three or four lane highway damagingly cut through the area in the 1950’s and 1960’s into a tree lined boulevard have sat on the drawing board since the 1990’s. This could be linked into to public transport improvements such as the planned re-opening of the passenger rail line from Kings Heath and Moseley. Digbeth could moved from being cool but shabby and unloved to cool and loved.
The City could use its property portfolio; selling appropriate land and buildings for sympathetic developments. The examples set by the Bond, the Custard Factory and Fazeley Studios show what is possible. Between them there must be between 1000-2000 people working in these buildings already and as the creative industries are showing real growth this is an important issue for the city to consider.
But much of the creative industries work is hidden behind doors; so thought could be given to how this is can be uncovered. Perhaps through a co-ordinated festival for the area; with open doors events; with street markets and performances under the arches. This is not to say that nothing like this is happening but it needs more coordination, marketing and support.
So co-ordinated thought should be given to how the city can support this area and take advantage of the real opportunity that exists. In reality the City has done very little to help the area in the past. As one ex Council worker said to me recently; there are no votes there so it is not seen as a priority. But given the imperative to create jobs and the stalling of the previous economic model -now could be the time for the City to engage.
What other lessons are there for Birmingham from the Digbeth experience? Does it have a relevance for the Jewellery Quarter. The Jewellery Quarter has been relatively lucky to avoid the rash of car parks. This is perhaps because of the designation of part of it as a conservation area, partly because it has higher value uses but also is in part because it is cut of from the City Centre psychologically far from the centre because of the division caused by Great Charles Street. The video here shows its impact.
So there are dangers; there are issues to evaluate as the City Council starts to consider how it can breach this barrier. A City Centre with a seamless link to the Jewellery Quarter will be a real enhancement and this is certainly not an argument not to tackle this great divide but the city needs to be aware of what pressures it might unlease and to be ready.
Now I am not a video games fan but I am, I admit, now tempted to try SimCity to see what Digbeth might look like under my control!!!!