We recently interviewed Nick Grayson, Climate Change and Sustainability Manager at Birmingham City Council, to learn more about the city of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and its progress in becoming a biophilic city.


Q: Please tell the story of Birmingham as a biophilic city – how did the journey begin and where are you now?

It is difficult to say when the journey began as there have really been many beginnings. Birmingham was one of the first cities in the UK to pass its own Act of Parliament (The Birmingham Parks Act 1854) to allow the Authority permission to acquire land to create Public Parks, following the early success of Birkenhead Park (1847 – the world’s first public park). Over a century later Birmingham was the first UK city to start an Urban Wildlife Trust; previously they had only existed in rural areas and counties. To mark the Millennium in the year 2000 Birmingham created the Millennium Woodland project, planting a woodland in every one of its 40 Wards, with a school, a community group, and the urban wildlife trust. This involved 40,000 trees the largest single planting anywhere in the UK to mark the Millennium. The Birmingham Open Spaces Forum is an umbrella organization that now represents over 160 community groups who support a local park or open space right across Birmingham; the largest network of Friends of Parks Groups in the UK, and the national forum is chaired by the Birmingham group chair person. In 2012 Birmingham together with its neighboring Boroughs, an area known as Birmingham and the Black Country (5 authorities altogether), were granted Nature Improvement Area status by the UK Government and given a 3 year grant to facilitate community-led nature improvements across the area; this is the only urban area in the UK that was successful in applying, due to its well-established networks of people and ecological data. In 2012 Birmingham was awarded the Lord Stafford Award for Environmental Sustainable Innovation for its BUCCANEER Project – the first comprehensive climate impact model for any city in the UK.

Q: What/where are some unique places or opportunities to interact with nature in the city of Birmingham?

There are many. According to our register, there are 571 parks and spaces across the city that people can freely access, so the choice is quite varied. Sutton Park is superb as it represents a piece of land that has had populations making use of it for centuries, millennia even; it is a scheduled ancient monument which puts it on the same historic ranking as Stonehenge. We have, for example, a section of Roman Road visible particularly in dry weather that looks much as it would have looked when the section of road was first constructed. To have that within your urban boundary is pretty special for any city anywhere in the world. Sutton Park is also designated as a National Nature Reserve, which is the highest rank of status it can be granted from a government preservation point of view in terms of its wildlife content, and it is the only nature reserve of its kind in an urban center in the United Kingdom. Sutton Park is very large – 1,000 hectares – so you can truly escape the city. There are also some real gems that are hidden away, and they are probably best left hidden away – a few local people know about them and they can pop in and really feel an escape from the city, but we don’t widely publicize those because they don’t have the carrying capacity of larger places like Sutton Park.

Q: What challenges are you facing in making Birmingham more biophilic?

Birmingham is the UK’s second city and our population is growing fast; we are anticipating 150,000 more residents over the next 20 years. This will involve building between 50-80,000 new homes, but strictly within the municipal boundary. In order to achieve sustainable outcomes that meet Biophilic principles and give Birmingham residents as rich an experience as we can – things will have to be done differently to business as usual. Both represent the greatest challenges, accommodating that much growth, whilst maintaining public support for the environment and achieving the type of development that adds to the environment- rather than taking something away.

Q: What are the city’s plans and long-term goals related to incorporating nature into design and planning?

The city has a draft development plan, due for adoption in 2015, which incorporates that growth agenda. Various supplementary planning documents sit alongside that, and one of them also in draft form is a sustainable development policy. This will be a first for Birmingham; its working title is Your Green and Healthy City, which will require future development in the city to have a sustainable footprint. And of course it’s not just access to nature: the city has a vision of becoming a global green city, and there are a whole spectrum of issues coming together. The city on behalf of the UK Government has also devised a new site planning tool, with the help of 4 industrial partners. It is based on ecosystem services science, so puts nature first in the drafting of new developments. The trials to date have shown it to be workable and has the added potential to identify additional stakeholders and co-investors; this is called the Natural Capital City Tool.

In 2013, Birmingham published its Green Living Spaces Plan, which introduced 7 new principles across the planning framework linking cross-over agendas of climate change, health and spatial planning. The whole document was embedded on an Ecosystem Services Assessment for the city based on the national UK methodology, the first city in the UK to do this. Using that same science it then combined the lessons learnt from the Buccaneer study and re-mapped Birmingham on a GIS basis showing how dependent Birmingham was as a city on its natural environment across 6 urban issues. These GIS maps were then all combined into a single multiple challenge map for the city- representing the challenge map for the Green Living Spaces Plan to follow. This was a global first. Now we are at a point as a city wanting to move to a green future – measured against global benchmarks; being a member of the Biophilic Cities Network is seen as an important early step on that journey.

Q: How would you measure your progress? How will you know you have reached some measure of success as a biophilic city?

I think that is the challenge that faces all of us as a network of cities, is to come up with a series of metrics or measures that we can each apply that then could be effectively benchmarked. There really isn’t a set of global indicators or measures at present in use to date.

Q: What do you see as the value of participating in the global Biophilic Cities Network?

I see a lot of advantages. More importantly so does the leadership of the Council with the report being signed by the Deputy Leader and the Cabinet Member for Green, Safe and Smart City; and representatives of business, (UKBCSD) the third sector (Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country); (Local Nature Partnership) and voluntary groups (BOSF); see attached quotes. The city has set itself the challenge of benchmarking its progress against mainstream global green cities; some of those are members of the Biophilic Cities Network; so straight away we can commence that process. The other cities offer us new knowledge and ideas that we can study, learn from and apply to help accelerate our progress.

From a professional point of view, it’s always fascinating to see what other cities do, what other practices have worked, what lessons there are to be learned, what scientific or social experiments or pilots have happened elsewhere that we could try here. It’s also the fact that as a city we have this wider ambition to become a global green city and most of the other cities in the network are along similar paths so there are natural synergies in being involved in the network. We’ve all got to re-think how cities are going to function and be re-designed to work right in the twenty-first century and beyond.

Interview by Julia Triman, Biophilic Cities Project Researcher 

Julia is a Masters Candidate in Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia.