In early April, I traveled to Birmingham, UK, to celebrate its intentions to become that nation’s first biophilic city. It was a heady few days, coinciding with a large national conference on Trees, People and the Built Environment (TPBEII). A pre-conference symposium was organized by the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Advanced Studies to begin to explore what this new declaration would mean (“Birmingham, the UK’s First Biophilic City: What it Means to the Citizen, the Health Services and Urban Forestry”), and was well attended. Brief presentations were provided by a range of experts and University of Birmingham faculty, discussing the different dimensions by which the city could become more biophilic, and the solid health and other benefits associated with this move. There were spirited questions and comments from the audience following the presentations, including some that wondered what a biophilic approach would include, and ways in which the city is currently is and is not very biophilic. Moderated by Rob Mackenzie, Professor of Atmospheric Science and the Director of the new Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR), the overall spirit of the event was quite positive, and there was a palpable sense (to this attendee anyway) that some history might be made through the City’s efforts at putting nature at the core of its’ planning. The forum was followed by a reception and a toast by the City’s Lord Mayor, Councillor Mike Leddy, declaring publicly the City’s biophilic city aspiration.
This event was followed two days later with a morning plenary session at the TPBEII conference devoted to biophilic cities, and at which the officially signed and endorsed biophilic declaration was unveiled. The idea of biophilic cities met with a generally favorable reaction among the 400 or so attendees and has already a number of them to consider whether their home cities might also want to join the Biophilic Cities Network. The conference was itself quite a powerful statement of the value of urban trees and forests, an extremely important aspect of urban nature and a good context and setting in which to make Birmingham’s announcement.
Birmingham’s declaration of its intention to become the UK’s first biophilic city strikes some as unusual given its industrial past. I had an interesting discussion with the British immigration official who checked my passport upon arriving at Heathrow. “You’re going to a conference about trees in Birmingham?,” he asked me incredulously. “Does Birmingham even have any trees?” While I am still getting to know Birmingham, it is remarkably green and there are indeed many trees and many green spaces. There are also some beautiful public plazas, such as Victoria Square, in the Center, and other lovely pedestrian environments to entice residents outside, a restored canal walk, and some terrific parks and natural areas, the most impressive being Sutton Park. There are other interesting green elements to discover when exploring the City Center, including a green wall at the New Street Train Station and flowers everywhere it seems (all part of the city’s Floral Trail, which includes the green wall).
Birmingham deserves a lot of credit for declaring, publicly and officially, its biophilic aspirations. This is entirely consistent with many of the other ways in which the city is pushing the envelope and pushing itself. It is the first city in the UK to have prepared an ecosystem services assessment, that parallels a study done at the national level, and, to its great credit, it has seen the value and power of nature and natural capital as an engine for economic development, poverty-reduction, climate adaptation. Much of the credit for this activism goes to Nick Grayson, the city’s Climate Change + Sustainability Manager.
It has been interesting to watch some of positive effects (from my perspective) of Birmingham’s announcement. These have included public and media discussions pondering what biophilia is, and why Birmingham is or isn’t a biophilic place. Mostly the reactions have been positive, with a lot of cheering. There has even been evidence of some friendly competition between cities. One letter to the Bristol Post, for instance, noting Birmingham’s step, calls on Bristol to do more. “We are pretty green but can do better,” the letter reads. Increased visibility for the Biophilic Cities idea has been another positive result, with considerable news coverage resulting, including a nice article in The Guardian and a BBC story in the works.
I have received several emails about city decisions that might call into question the city’s green bona fides (one a controversial decision to permit a new housing project in the city’s green belt). The biophilic cities declaration and associated positive press raises the bar and hopefully elevates and strengthens the position of those in the city defending and advocating for nature.
That said, every declaration and goal will need to be followed by tangible actions and measurable results in the months and years ahead. As the Biophilic Cities Network continues to grow and evolve we continue to work to develop a clearer set of expectations for what it will mean to join and participate. But Birmingham deserves much credit for its very bold move, and has established itself as an early leader and pioneer in this journey.
Post by Tim Beatley