Birmingham is the second city in the United Kingdom after London. It has a population of just under 1 million located at the heart of the West Midlands conurbation with a population of some 3 million. It is the largest municipality with the most unified system of urban governance of any British city.
Birmingham is an industrial revolution city and as such a city of innovation and immigration. Migration to the city has remained high and the diversity of population in terms of ethnicity, religion, culture and family history is significant. Birmingham has a large ethnic minority population, nearly 30 per cent of the city total in 2001, which is more mixed than in any other part of the U.K., except London.
Birmingham has undergone major changes in the structure of its economy in the last thirty years. In conjunction with the adjacent Black Country, it is the home of major parts of the United Kingdom’s manufacturing and engineering industry. As the “city of a thousand trades” it has gone through a series of waves of industrial restructuring but the period since the 1970s has involved rapid loss of jobs in manufacturing and left a legacy of industrial dereliction and contaminated land. At the same time a combination of residential and employment change have left high concentrations of deprivation in the older, inner core of the city and in areas of public sector housing through the urban area. While the city has successfully replaced jobs lost in declining sectors, it remains at risk because of the continuing over dependence on low-value manufacturing sectors and especially employment linked to the fragile automotive industry. At the same time its engineering and design heritage (for example in the jewellery and related industries) remains strong.
In the 1980s Birmingham policy makers responded to the growing economic crisis with a proactive development strategy that came to be recognised as a classic example of urban entrepreneurialism. This brought together flagship project development, innovative partnership arrangement between the public and private sectors, and vigorous place marketing campaigns in an attempt to diversify and modernise the economy and to promote an new image of Birmingham as a forward-looking international city. This has brought some significant economic and environmental successes – notably in some impressive public spaces and a revitalised canal network as well as substantial employment growth in financial and professional services, business tourism and other aspects of the consumption economy.
As part of this transformation, Birmingham has seen a strong increase in the role of creative and cultural industries. These have been particularly important in the ongoing regeneration of two historic city centre districts, the Jewellery Quarter and Eastside/Digbeth. The former, still one of Europe’s largest clusters of jewellery-related businesses, has experienced diversification into related design industries and sectors such as architecture and advertising. Eastside, the focus of the city’s largest current regeneration programme, is emerging as a centre of multi-media activities, graphic design, visual arts and music production and performance. In both quarters, major conversion projects such as the Custard Factory and The Big Peg provide a focus for new creative activities and a catalyst for further redevelopment in the immediate vicinity. While Birmingham has been slower to promote creative industry growth than some other UK cities, it is presently keen to accelerate the development of these creative quarters in a sustainable manner that draws upon the talents and aspirations of its young, increasingly diverse population.
Overall, then, Birmingham’s prospects in 2006 are much brighter than in the 1980s, with creative and cultural activities at the forefront of its attempts to manage successfully the upheavals of economic restructuring. However, it still faces several significant challenges, most notably a fragile underlying economic structure, deep-rooted deprivation in many inner city districts and among many ethnic minority communities, and continuing image problems that act as a barrier to the attraction and retention of young, skilled, and mobile individuals. These will have to be addressed in tandem if the city is to achieve a sustainable renaissance and fulfil its potential in the years ahead.