When construction works

The redevelopment of Birmingham New Street Station is a great example of construction making things better, not worse. 

Way back in the mists of time (a shockingly long time, now I think about it) I was a student in Birmingham. It was a pretty grubby city in the late eighties, and there were parts of it that even cheap-beer seeking students would not enter.

One of the main reasons that Birmingham was just so grim was its architecture. It was a city built for the era of the car, so if you were a car-less student then getting around involved  walking (quickly) through some quite intimidating subways and underpasses. Sometimes it was difficult to work out how to actually get across Five Ways in order to reach the shop you might be heading for.

When I look back on that time, the overriding colour I think of is grey – a concrete city with not much light or people-friendly places to see or visit.

So I have taken a personal interest in Birmingham’s renaissance over the past decade or so. Now the canals, and area which was once a no-go zone, are full of restaurants and bars. The library has been refreshed and the city centre is a lot more lively.

Most recently, Birmingham New Street Station has completed a five-year, £750 million upgrade and has been transformed from a dingy cavern of permanent semi-darkness which was voted the country’s worst station by the rail passengers’ watchdog.

Better architecture has transformed New Street into a place of light and space. It  is the UK’s busiest rail interchange with a train coming through every 37 seconds. There used to be only five escalators and even fewer lifts to cope with thousands of people each day. Now there are thirty six escalators and 15 lifts, all aimed at helping the new station move 300,000 passengers smoothly through their journeys.

Not only has the upgrade created a much nicer environment for rail travellers, the use of combined heat and power is helping to reduce the environmental impact of the building. The site has a number of other ‘green’ aspects including rain water harvesting for use in the station toilets.

It is easy to criticise the construction sector, which often gets things wrong. But it’s also important to take a step back now and again and recognise the positive impact that buildings can have on how people feel about their towns and cities. Like most readers of MBS, I now visit Birmingham regularly for exhibitions and conferences, and believe me, it’s much improved by better buildings. Although the price of a beer has risen with the new buildings, I think it’s a small price to pay for a better city. 

Karen Fletcher is Director of Keystone Communictions

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