Living in a city

March 10th, 2009

barcelonaI went to Barcelona the other day. It’s very nice. I know it is ridiculous to compare one of the premier cities of Europe with Birmingham but I have a feeling I’m going to do it anyway.

The most immediate difference I noticed is the fantastic use of public space. This is public space in the true sense of the word. Areas that have been put aside for people to congregate in and do things together. This is most obviously emphasised by the large amount of Children’s play areas. They are everywhere and seem to be really well used.

These play areas seem to be complemented by similar areas for table tennis and that crazy European version of bowls obviously aimed at adults. The odd thing about these areas is that people were using them. People of all ages were coming together outside and doing things.

This community activity is something that I couldn’t really conceive of happening in Birmingham. When we create a public space we seem to have some strange fear of putting stuff in it that people might find useful.

The vast majority of development is entirely focussed on retail rather than improving the quality of life. In Birmingham, we have had a debate about a park in the City Centre but that has rambled on for many years now with little evidence of anything tangible appearing.

My theory on why there is a different attitude to space comes down to the British obsession with houses. The status attached to owning your house and having a garden is different to other countries. In the UK there has previously been a perception of living in a flat as being associated with poverty. The stigma of tower blocks has seemingly removed the voice of flat dwellers from urban planning.

In countries where living in an apartment (posh flat) is the norm the expectation is that public space will fulfil the absence of a garden. This attitude is possibly changing with the development of city centre living but such change seems slow. City Centre developments in the UK are solely focussed on the ideal of young professionals rather than fostering community.

Another striking difference about Barcelona is the massive amount of graffiti. It is absolutely everywhere. The odd thing about it is that it doesn’t seem to have brought about the breakdown of society or even really made the place look untidy. Though I’m sure that if you ask people who live there about it they probably get quite pissed off about it.

I think it underlines that small minded politics of urban decay that we are fed in this country. Rather than politicians focussing on the more macro drivers of change that affect all of a community they obsess on the micro affects. If a phone box has a graffiti tag on it makes very little difference to people if they have little in the way of recreation facilities or all their local shops are shutting down.

I’d say my criticisms of Birmingham are not specific to this city. I’m sure they are applicable to all urban environments in the UK. That turned into more of rant than the description of what I did on my holiday that I’d planned.


Posted in Birmingham, Politics | Comments (1)

One Response to “Living in a city”

  1. Anon Says:

    You say that Barcelona is one of the premier cities of Europe but Birmingham is a WORLD CLASS city don’t you know?
    I have a feeling that the obsession with cars is also a factor making outdoor spaces here unpleasant.

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