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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Daily Commute (12 August 2014)

I have been ignoring writing a blog on my commute to and from work but recently, I have been thinking about the places that I pass and the communities that I go through. It doesn't quite represent the diversity and inequality in the UK but it does show some of the history.

Shenley Fields

Our home is a semi-detached dwelling in the Bournville Village Trust Estate. Our side of the road tends to be those in the middle income bracket with a number of retired couples or couples close to retirement. The houses were built in the 1950s and most are well maintained.

Our street is a double carriageway with an access road on both sides so I head up the hill along the access road to the pedestrian crossing. This is close to local shops, a church, and a doctor's surgery. Going through between the shops and the church, I pass a small park to get to the road parallel to our own. The trust has built some new apartments on part of the park opposite, These are to some extent out of character with the area although across the park is some single story homes and near the bottom of the hill is another modern complex. Going down the hill to the modern complex are more semi-detached houses. The consistency of the Bournville Village Trust Estate is obvious in this area.

Researching the Bournville Village Trust Estate, I discovered that there is another area just off my ride route that the trust allowed a builder the freedom to develop. It contains tower blocks that are completely out of character from the rest of the estate. The new flats on the edge of the park and at the bottom of the hill are a modern low rise design. Those at the bottom of the hill include solar water heating. This is possibly an indication that the trust does move with the times as it extends its housing estate.

Manor Farm Park

I leave the houses to ride through Manor Farm Park. This used to be part of the farm that surrounded George Cadbury's manor (Northfield Manor) which was extensively damaged by a fire two weeks ago (August 2014). I can't see the manor from my ride route but I do pass an old barn by the entrance to the park. The reports are that George Cadbury used to invite children from the city out to the barn to learn about the country and to play in the fields. Unfortunately the barn is poor condition but the council and Birmingham Conservation Trust have indicated that they plan to restore it and are currently seeking community support.

A council works depot is also at this entrance to the farm park and I often have to dodge their lawn mowing machines and vehicles to get out onto Bristol Road. At this point, I leave the Shenley part of the Bornville Trust Estate and complete a short burst down Bristol Road past another newer housing complex that is still within the Shenley boundaries. This complex is a mix of flats and modern terraced homes. The modern nature of the development makes it more attractive than other terraced housing that I pass on my commute ride. It also seems more open and less cramped than traditional terrace housing builds and some of the other modern housing complexes that we see around the country. Could this be the influence of the Bournville Village Trust?


I turn right off Bristol Road along Griffins Brook Lane that passes close to the Bournville School and through to Bournville Lane. This area is Central Bournville and is still part of the Bournville Trust Estate. The houses are predominately of semidetached design although going up Bournville Lane, I pass another newer development of semidetached homes. It isn't until I get onto Mary Vale Road and the edge of the Bournville Village conservation area that I really notice the difference in the housing. Along the northern side of Mary Vale Road, within the Bournville Village, the houses are larger semi-detached houses interrupted at the Linden Road intersection by alms houses. On the southern side before Linden Road are smaller almost terraced house style semi-detached houses and after Linden Road, terraced houses with their consistent similarity. These terraced houses are one room wide, two rooms deep, and two stories high. Some have had attic renovations to turn them into three story houses. It took me a while to realise that this was the case as many of these terraced houses are well maintained. However, this distinction between the houses in Bournville Village and those just outside is very marked when you have them in close proximity as occurs here on Mary Vale Road. The Cadburys set a standard for their workers' houses and didn't just construct dwellings that were affordable, a trait that continues with the Bournville Village Trust.

The alms houses are traditionally were where the poor lived. Many that we have seen or visited in the past look like big halls or not very attractive buildings. Those on the corner of Mary Vale Road and Linden Road are easily ignored as not belonging to the English alms house tradition. They have clearly been modernised since their original building and there is a grassed quadrangle in the middle. They look more like academic accommodation at Oxford although single story than alms houses. Researching the history, these alms houses were built for pensioners from the Cadbury factory. This clearly sets them apart from many of the alms houses that were designed for the poor and were of very low quality. This again highlights the Cadbury concern for the welfare of their workers.


Passing a Cadbury factory parking lot and crossing the railway line and canal, I leave the boundaries of the Bournville Trust Estate and head down through the Stirchley shops to the River Rea and the Route 5 National Cycle Way. The houses and the shops in this area are predominately of the terraced variety. A friend has opened a bakery and cookery school just off my route in Pershore Road. The area, like so many small suburban shopping areas, is in need of rejuvenation so you get a mix of new shops and near derelict buildings. The shops along this stretch of Pershore Road so seem to have a steady flow of clientele as there are always cars outside restricting the traffic flow.

There is an area where a supermarket is to be built. The Stirchley community has resisted its construction but the supermarket chain has negotiated to refurbish an old swimming baths as a community centre in exchange for the permit to knock down houses and shops for its supermarket complex. In the mean time the land they intend to use lies waste and houses have metal shutters to deter squatters. But I wonder whether large supermarkets and shopping complexes are a solution for struggling communities.

Road crossings

The crossing of Pershore Road in the Stirchley shopping area is the third busy road that I have had to cross. Bristol Road tends to have waves of vehicles but I am travelling with the traffic and the dual carriageway means there is a central island that allows me to negotiate each carriageway in turn. Lindon Road is a much narrower road and it is a straight crossroads. Cars in general at that crossing tend to give me the opportunity to cross and there is a reasonable number of vehicles making the same crossing as me. Pershore Road involves a left and then an almost immediate right turn. There is a pedestrian crossing that I could use but I find it easier to remain on the road than to negotiate narrow footpaths. Fortunately, there are frequent gaps in the traffic caused by the narrowness of Pershore Road and the vehicles that park along it. The problem is often the traffic coming the other way. They come round a corner slightly further on and often I have no idea how much is coming nor at what speed. Fortunately many drivers politely signal to me that they will give me space to make a safe right turn. I appreciate it as I don't like being in the centre between rows of traffic heading in opposite directions. Few cars make the same right turn as the area toward the River Rea only has exists back onto Pershore Road so vehicles turning in here are either going to the homes or to the few businesses in this area. A large part of this area is the wasteland intended for the supermarket.

National Cycleway

I call the River Rea route the National Cycleway but in reality, it is a shared cycle and pedestrian way. Frequently, there are people out walking their dogs, runners, pedestrians and cycle commuters. However, I seem to relax once I get onto this route. There is no longer the risk of cars going past that don't give me sufficient room and there are lights on all the road crossings. It is also a place where ducks are other wildlife become visible or can be heard especially in the spring mornings. The second part of this route especially is good for morning birdsong being surrounded by trees and blackberry bushes. I often seem to be rushing through or the sound of the wind or river seems to drown out the bird song. Because there were mills at frequent intervals along this river, there remains weirs which increase the sound of the water flow especially after rain has fallen. After really heavy rains, part of the path often has a flow of water across it. So far, I have never ridden along this path when the River Rea is in flood but I have seen the evidence of the flood waters on the vegetation and path. Now as we near the end of summer, people are out picking the blackberries.

Just past Dogpool Lane, there is another stretch of road past terraced houses. Cars are not supposed to turn right into this road but a reasonable number do. Being a very narrow road, they add to the risk of negotiating what really should be a quite stretch of road. Getting back to the side of the River Rea by the Pebble Mill Playing Fields, there is a stretch which every year comes out in daffodils. One of my work colleagues tells me that ducks and swans nest along this stretch and that he has seen a kingfisher here. I haven't seen evidence of either.

Cannon Hill Park

The next stretch through Cannon Hill Park requires a bit more care. It isn't simply that there are more users of the park out walking their dogs or exercising. Every holidays, an amusement park is setup opposite a children's play area and the military fitness group use the park in the evenings. The park is also very popular over the summer period so care has to be taken to get through safely. Squirrels can also present interesting obstacles as they dart across the path. I avoid taking the path near the ponds so stay well clear of the ducks and swans. I have seen a heron in one of the ponds. The heron is easy to miss as it stands so still in the water. Of these obstacles, it is the military fitness groups that I find most frustrating. They tend to use the park as though there are no other users sometimes blocking the path or crossing without paying attention to other users. In the mornings, there are often park staff out tending the flower beds. The plants are completely replaced a number of times during the year.

Leaving the park, I pass close to the Edgbaston Cricket grounds. Although we have been in Birmingham for five years, we still haven't been to an event at the cricket grounds. The lights dominate the surrounding suburbs and on event days, they close of the neighbouring roads and use a park further on for parking.

Social Engineering

I regard the area just beyond the Edgbaston Cricket grounds as a low income area. The houses are predominantly terraced and on rubbish days, the street can be lined with rubbish bags, some of which the contents have spilled across the road. Crossing the ring road, I enter Highgate. Although there are some more modern dwellings here, what dominates the skyline is a tower block that is being prepared for demolition. These were designed as a replacement for the back-to-backs to improve the accommodation of the “have-nots”. However, the tower blocks were a social failure and are now being pulled down in favour of low rise terraced blocks.

The back-to-backs or what remains of them are close to the centre of Birmingham. They are a sequence of terraced houses around an internal court yard. Each house was one room deep and three stories high. On the back of one house was another house. There was no running water or toilet facilities in the houses. These remained in use up until the 1960s when the people were moved out into the tower blocks. The tower blocks had better facilities but had none of the social dynamics of the back-to-back courtyard. The attempt to improve the living standards of the low income turned into a social disaster. Highgate isn't the only location around the city were these tower blocks exist. However, it is the highgate towers that are being demolished.

It seems clear that planners need to think about more than simply placing people in accommodation. How do you create a community in an area? It isn't simply tower blocks that cause social problems. Even in more affluent areas, the sense of community doesn't exist. It is simply that more affluent people are possibly more mobile and can form their own community support networks across the city or country.

Business Area

My ride through Highgate only goes a short distance before I turn through a business district. Here my concern is always the delivery vehicles that stop in the road and that I need to negotiate my way around. There are a number of buildings in this area that are no longer used and are in various states of disrepair. As well, there are a number of empty lots. Some have been turned into parking lots. One such lot gets used each year just before Christmas for the huts for the German Market.

This area isn't particularly attractive but I wonder what would happen if city planners considered how to utilise these areas for community development. In New Zealand, zoning practices usually designate area according to some intended usage. I suspect the same practice occurs here but is such zoning restricting usage and causing some areas to be neglected. I agree that some industries need to be separated from residential areas but what do you do when industries or businesses move out of an area leaving it neglected.

At the end of my journey through this business district is close the the junction of the Grand Union and Digbeth Branch Canal. I used to use the canal path to get round the construction area near Millennium Point. The Digbeth Branch Canal passes under the railway and has a number of locks. Now that the roads have been reopened, I go up and round the Millennium Point and Birmingham City University (BCU buildings).

East City Redevelopment

The east city area has and is under redevelopment with Birmingham City University (BCU) establishing its main campus on the site. My understanding is that BCU is the second largest university in Birmingham. On the south side of the buildings, they have made a park. It does make it more attractive and interesting. The area that is being redeveloped has been waste land for all the time that we have been in Birmingham. The area is bounded by Jenners Road, the Digbeth Branch Canal, and the railway that goes from New Street Station to the airport. Part of the area to the south of Millennium Point is designated for the HS2 (high speed 2) railway station. I wonder whether this is really an appropriate place as it is a reasonable distance from the city centre and the main activities in the area is education with BCU and Aston University occupying the land to the north. To the site is separated from the ring road to the east by the Digbeth Branch Canal. The canal also goes around the southern side of the site with the Grand Union Canal branching off. There are businesses along the side of the Grand Union Canal but I wouldn't see these as the draw cards for travellers on the HS2 system. To the west is the line into New Street Station and the Moor Street Station. I wonder about the traffic flow around this area since it became difficult to get to Aston University while they were doing a lot of the work on the East City site.

Arriving at Aston University

I arrive at Aston University by Woodcock Street and Aston Street. The eastern side of Woodcock Street are businesses and city council offices. However, the Aston University site is a mixture of buildings. The first is the Doug Ellis Woodcock Sports Centre and then the Aston Conference Centre and Business School.