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    Birmingham, Sustainable Travel

    Stirchley’s proposed new road layout

    By now you might’ve seen there are some plans to temporarily change the road layout of Stirchley high street as part of the emergency transport plans.

    They’re not perfect, but they’re pretty bloody good. As someone that has an unexplained enthusiasm for public and active transport, I wanted to explain why they’re good.

    A quick overview:

    • reduce some of the on-street parking in favour of social distancing and parklets
    • remove a lane on Hazelwell St to reduce speed and congestion
    • Put a refuge island on Bournville Lane / Hazelwell St to allow people to cross properly
    • proposed colourful crossings

    There are also some other plans coming from some section 106 money that means more cycle hoops for parking along the high street, but that’s kind of a different story / different blog post.

    Feel free to have a look at the plans at the Council’s website – and make some comments before the 31st July. I’m here to explain to you why, using examples from elsewhere, why I’m so excited about this.

    Car dominance hurts residents and local communities

    There is a funny thing within transport, that if you build more roads you don’t make things better, you make them worse. It’s a strange paradox and one that traffic engineers have known since the 1960s, but politicians are just about getting the hang of this news. 

    Put it another way: making driving easier means that people take more trips in the car than they otherwise would. And we see this in Birmingham, where Birmingham City Council reports 25% of all car journeys are less than a mile. That’s about a 20 minute walk if you’re an able adult. And that can’t account for all the weekly shopping trips, collecting heavy goods, people with mobility issues or whatever other legitimate reasons there are for not being able to walk it.

    Unnecessary car journeys are adding to the illegally high levels of air pollution in the city, health problems for residents and there are numerous issues around why a sedentary lifestyle just isn’t good for you.

    We also know that access to green space makes people happier, and whilst we can’t put a park in the middle of the high street, we can add some greenery (more on that later).

    And there are plenty of examples worldwide when reducing road-space had a positive impact on areas. Check out the likes of the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project is Seoul, South Korea; Central Freeway in San Francisco; Paris, France; and the one Birmingham City Council talks a lot about, Ghent.

    Removing one of the lanes on Hazelwell Road will reduce road space, but coupled with the changes at Bournville Lane and the nearby removal of car parking spaces, it will also stop cars speeding down the road.

    Retailers overestimate the number of people who use cars to get to their businesses

    To quote the Sustrans Common Misconceptions of Active Travel Investment report: “In Toronto they thought 25% of customers arrived by car whereas in fact it was only 10%. (Smith Lea et al, 2017).The differences were 58% to compared to 32% in Graz, and 41% compared to 22% in Bristol (Sustrans, 2006).

    The same Toronto report said cyclists and pedestrians were also better customers, spending more time and more money per month than the people who drove there. Central Madrid saw a 9.5% boost to retail spending when it it was closed to cars and Cracow showed an impact of car restrictions to be favourable by residents and business owners did not want to restore the previous situation.

    In the absence of any data about Stirchley, doesn’t it make sense that most people coming to the high street are likely to be local? Pop down to Daves or Stirchley Newsagents to grab the paper, wander down to get some fresh bread from Loaf or get some fruit and veg from Wards. Whilst we have some very good curry-houses, there are a number of them in the area – why would you drive to Stirchley when you’d likely pass another one? Wouldn’t it be better to walk and make some more space for a table naan?

    And then thinking of people coming from outside Stirchley, we can’t forget about them. But when we have the likes of nationally recognised cocktail bars like Couch and numerous beer venues, who is going to offer to be the designated driver when they could get the train, bus or share a taxi home?

    No one is expecting everyone will be able to walk, or cycle, that was considered when doing the walk around. Spaces were left outside the doctors, builders merchants and dentists, as well as some of the shops where you carry heavy things. There’s also two car parks at Wickes and Morrisons and regular public transport via both bus and train.

    ‘Free’ parking is a lie

    Essentially, free parking is subsidising that person parking there – this should annoy you if you’ve given up some of your land to be a garage (where it might’ve been another room in your home) and especially if you don’t drive at all. No one’s giving you a free 15.7ft (4.8m) by 7.8ft (2.4m) bit of land to do with what you like, so why do we do it for private property cars?

    There is also an issue about looking for space. If you take the 25% of journeys in Birmingham are under a mile, that’s a lot of people looking for car parking space. According to Gilles Duranton of the University of Pennsylvania “There are some estimates that say in the central part of cities up to 30 percent of driving is people just cruising around for parking,”. He might’ve been talking about city centres, but think about the streets of Stirchley. If people left their cars at home more for short journeys, there would be less need to be trying to find parking spaces.

    Okay, before you think I’m someone who suggests we get rid of all on-street parking, I don’t. But I do think we could be doing something so much better with the on-street parking on the high street that has a wider benefit for a larger number of people. Namely parklets – they reallocate public space back to public use, and with it encourage community. This is suggested in the plans and would be some of the first in the city.

    There is an alternative

    If you’ve never heard of a parklet, let me leave it to Living Streets to explain what one is; “A parklet can transform a parking spot or some road space into a place the whole community can use. These temporary small green spaces provide somewhere for people to sit, chat and relax – and because they make streets more pleasant for walking and cycling, they can help encourage people to get out and about. Parklets really don’t have to be expensive and the only limit is your imagination! Parklets have been popular in the US since the 1990s. In the UK, one of the first of its kind appeared in Hackney, London in 2015, with others now popping up in Leeds and Manchester.”

    San Francisco parklet on Divisadero Street increased people’s sense of neighbourhood character to 90%. It also increasing foot traffic, particularly during week days and they encouraged people to linger longer in an area (and all without increasing anti-social behaviour). Glasgow are creating parklets, Liverpool too…so why not Birmingham? And why not Stirchley?

    About Bournville Lane

    In separate meetings between the councillor, local residents and Mondelez, there have been efforts made to reduce the amount of HGV lorries using Bournville Lane. A new postcode has been given to drivers to get them to use Linden Rd side of Bournville Lane, missing out the bridge and narrow residential road. This is still new, but already have a positive impact.

    There’s also some talk about collaboration between the council and Mondelez about a roundabout to further discourage lorry drivers, but who knows on that one.

    But really that isn’t the point. These changes are about people and we should be putting priority for pedestrians first, not the lorries.

    In short…

    Re-allocating road-space for people is a great idea. Removing unfair on-street parking on the high street allows for more equal and community driven spaces and helps reduce speed of cars but encourages footfall for businesses. Discouraging people who don’t need to drive frees up space for those with mobility issues who do.

    These changes make Stirchley high street a friendlier place to visit. So, if you can, leave the car at home; walk, cycle or get the bus or train if you’re coming from a bit further.

    Birmingham, Theory

    Dreams, dreamcatchers and public engagement

    dreamcatcher libraryThe Stirchley Dreams project was born out of frustration and a desire to reposition the community back into the centre of an immediate decision which was due to be made, as well as provide some ideas for the future. And if I’m honest, a lot of it was curiosity.  Having worked in communications roles for years, assisting in campaigns which aimed to consult with the public and internally with staff, I knew only too well how hard this could be to get people to engage with consultations.  But I’d also learnt a lot about why people don’t engage and I wanted to do something which would benefit my community, using the skills I had.

    Why did I want to do it?

    There is a tendency to create a lengthy questionnaire, send it out and expect people to fill them in. Now I love a good questionnaire, but they’re also problematic if the questions aren’t written well, if they’re too long, if they lead people in a certain way with too many closed questions (yes / no type questions) and can take a long time to collate if there are too many open questions. They’re also really easy to ignore.

    A good consultation works to the people it is looking to engage with, so the consultation had to be something that reflected the area – a creative, passionate and fun community.  So it needed to be something that would spark people’s curiosity, but also be relatively simple and cheap to produce as there was no funding.

    The consultation requirement came off the back of an issue which was complicated and had a long of history; there were a lot of nuances but that if you boiled down what was being discussed it wasn’t about nuances of planning legislation, it was about improving the town centre. I took the core of the question, how would you like to see your high street improved, and looked at a creative way to reframe it.

    And so the idea of a dream-catcher was born.

    2019_stirchley_market_august_stirchley_dreamcatcher_6646_5x10_800

    How did I do it?

    Getting hold of a hula hoop and ball of wool was relatively easy, which probably says something about the creative community in the area.  Watching a few YouTube videos and some practice meant that making the large dream-catcher wasn’t as difficult as anyone seems to think. Labels were made from cardboard that would’ve gone into the recycling.

    But more importantly, I engaged other people in helping, initially to sense-check the idea, but also gain enthusiasm and help spread the word.

    If you’re asking the community to engage on something, it is at best naive or at worst arrogant to expect them to come to you.  Instead I took the hula-hoop-come-dream-catcher, the labels and a pile of pens to the local monthly community market.  In the space of four hours we got about 65 labels filled out – some people did more than on, others put more than one idea on a label. After that, I was donated another four hula-hoops and local venues were asked or offered to host a dreamcatcher. So I’ve made more dreamcatchers, more labels and it has engaged more people offering to help.

    The project is currently ongoing, but I’ll report back once it is complete. What I do know is that it has piqued the interest of other areas, so the dreamcatchers may go on tour.

    Birmingham, Culture

    If you go down to the woods today…

    you’re sure of a big surprise…If you go down to the park today, you’d better go in disguise!  Just kidding about the disguise, but you’ll definitely be in for a big surprise if you haven’t been to Stirchley Park recently.

    camera_obscura

    You may have noticed a big black wooden box has appeared in a corner of Stirchley Park, which overlooks the car park for Stirchley Baths.  It’s actually a Camera Obscura, an ancient optical device which uses a natural optical phenomenon to flip the image upside-down.  Take a look through the hole in the side nearest the Stirchley Baths’ car park and see a whole new view of the park.

    The project is the latest in a series from Stirchley-based duo, Hipkiss and Graney, who crowdfunded the cost of the materials to build this impressive large-scale, permanent camera obscura.  The Arts Council and University of Birmingham have also supported the project.

    (This photo of the Dead Shrine is from Green Stirchley  over on Twitter)

    Jonny and Dale

    Who is responsible for this?

    That would be Jonathan Graney and Dale Hipkiss, a visual arts duo who live and work in Stirchley, based out of Ingot Studios.  Through large-scale interactive installations, performances and workshops, Hipkiss and Graney explore ideas around collectivity, community and counter-movements, particularly focusing on political and environmental issues.

    Using magical realism to bring these ideas to life, The Dead Shrines Project is Hipkiss and Graney’s latest work; a series of public sculptures scattered throughout the West Midlands.  The Shrines are designed to look out of place, like they’ve fallen from the sky into parks and high streets around the region.  Whilst Stirchley Park might be the location of their latest artwork, it’s the fourth instalment of the Dead Shrines Project, which has seen pieces installed at the Midlands Art Centre, Coventry Biennial of Contemporary Arts and Artefact Projects.

    You can visit their website at https://www.hipkissandgraney.com/

    Moonlight Symposiums

    Learn by moonlight

    As part of The Dead Shires Project, there will be a series of workshops and free talks taking place over the month of June.  The workshops include learning to make your own camera obscura, personal shrines and masks – I’ll leave you to find out more about them until the booklet is released.

    The free talks are being presented by a number of experts, including academics for the University of Birmingham, looking at everything from experiences of refugee camps to the influence of the media.  There’s also an interactive trading game which takes place on Sunday 16th June, which I’m really looking forward to.  It is worth noting that there will be limited space as the talks take place in a specific area of the park.

    Free talks

    • History of Camera Obscura – Sunday 9th June, 6pm
    • Social Justice and Climate Catastrophe – Sunday 9th June, 8.30pm
    • What is the EU? – Sunday 16 June, 6pm
    • Accounts from Refugee Camps – Sunday 16th June, 7pm
    • Influence of the Media on Behaviour – Sunday 16th June, 7.30pm
    • Fair Trade Orange Trading Game – Sunday 16th June, 8.30pm
    • Political Myths vs Historical Evidence – Sunday 23rd June, 7.30pm
    • What is National Identity – Sunday 30th June, 7.30pm
    Birmingham

    I have no shelf control (Exploring Stirchley #2)

    I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library…

    Jorge Luis Borges said that, and I think if he’d made it over here, he’d quite like Stirchley.  It turns out that not only do we have two libraries, but we also have a small press and a raft of book clubs. Not bad for a small suburb.  Have a read to find out about the smallest library in Birmingham, and the best named book club too…

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    Stirchley Library

    Built in 1905 from red brick in Flemish bond with stone dressings, the Grade II listed building on Bournville Lane sits next to Stirchley Baths and plays home to the local library.  As well as being able to borrow books, the library has free WiFi, a children’s library and the ability to print and photocopy (at certain times).

    But things haven’t always been plain sailing for the library.  Under threat of closure, the council have agreed to keep the library open, with the support of volunteers now known as Friends of Stirchley Library (FOSL) group.  The group are responsible for covering some of the shortfall in reduction of hours, as well as fundraising to help keep the library going and host some very fun events including Lego Club, late night openings and the occasional silent disco.  To find out more about FoSL or to get involved, visit their website.

    This photo of Stirchley Library is from Fiona Cullinan aka Katchooo over on Flickr.

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    Books and a brew

    It seems that for such a small space, Stirchley has a *lot* of book clubs, ranging from the very general to the very specialist, so there should be something to suit everyone.  Here are just a few…

    • Is This Tomorrow is a dystopian/utopian reading group which have read the likes of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World.  Their next meeting is on 6th June to discuss Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.
    • On the first Wednesday of every month, Stirchley Baths hosts a book club from 10-11.30am.  The advice, according to the website, is simple; “Just turn up and enjoy a book with a cuppa.”
    • On the second Saturday of the month from 11am to midday, Stirchley Readers meet at the library for their regular book club. It’s an all ages group, so feel free to bring your kids.
    • Book Marx, the best name ever for a Marxist book club, meet every Wednesday evening (aside from the second Weds) at Artefact
    • According to their website, Stirchley Primary School will be starting their own book club 
      in the spring term but I suspect that will only be for pupils.
    • Artefact have also hosted the first Slow Food Club book club and there’s another one due in June, I believe.

    Side note, as far as I know, none of the book clubs above have read Slay and I actually took this photo at Kafenion in Bournville. But if you want a (young adult) book which is about a boyband who fight demons, think One Direction meets Buffy/Supernatural, then I can highly recommend it.

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    The littlest library in the land

    This adorable little find is nestled away on Bosbury Terrace, just behind Stirchley High Street.  Part of the Little Free Library, “the world’s largest book-sharing movement”, Stirchley’s one is in fact the only Little Free Library in Birmingham.  Which surely means Stirchley has Birmingham’s smallest library, right?

    Run by Elenor, a confirmed bibliophile and a part-time librarian, it’s home to a handful of books and regularly topped up – but feel free to return a book once you’re done.  Follow their adventures on the Little Free Library Stirchley facebook page.

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    Our own publishing house

    Did you know Stirchley had its own publishing house? Well, technically it might be based just outside of the suburb, but Splice is Stirchley in spirit and that’s good enough for me.  Not only is Splice a small press, publishing three collections of short stories as well as novels, they also release reviews on their website and then literally splice the work of their published authors.

    Listen to the second episode of the Republic of Consciousness Prize podcast for a discussion on one of Splice’s titles, Nicholas John Turner’s Hang Him When He Is Not There, which was long-listed for the RofC Prize. About 45 minutes in is devoted to an in-depth conversation between four writers about the ins and outs of the sort of books Splice publishes.

    To find out more about Splice, head over to Splice’s website.

    This is part of the semi-regular Exploring Stirchley newsletter.  To find out more visit the Exploring Stirchley page of this website.

    Birmingham, Music and Movies

    3 Seconds Divorce at Impact Hub

    3 second divorce

    One of the things I really like about the events at Impact Hub is that they always introduce me to new ideas or new ways of thinking about things. 

    I’d heard about the three-times divorce (triple talaq) in Islam and hadn’t really given it much thought, mainly because I knew I didn’t understand enough about the context.  The screening of Shazia Javed’s 3 Seconds Divorce was, in some senses, what I thought might be what the three-times divorce might be if I was being pessimistic about it.  It was undeniably an emotional film and the story of the women who fought for what they believed in and for the protection of women in their country, a minority group within a minority group, showed a level of resilience that few would be hard pushed to be anything but impressed by.  Watching the documentary in a room that was mainly full of Muslim women and hearing their reactions to it felt like a real privilege at getting an instinctual reaction to the message of the film.  But that was only the beginning.

    The follow up panel was one of the most invigorating and educational I have been to in a while, and I don’t think I need to tell you how many talks I go to.  It was a shame Shazia had to dash off to get her train, but needs must, however I appreciated her input and it was great to hear more about the ideas and inspiration behind the documentary.  But the conversation between Dr Amra Bone and Dr Sabena Jameel was just superb.  I honestly can’t remember the last time I went away with some much new information presented in such an accessible way.  Lots of the topics covered, and there were so many, were things I’d heard lots about over the years but have never quite felt like I knew where to look for more information or unsure what was appropriate to ask.  Dr Jameel’s explanation of what she does as part of the Sharia Council, the system of Sharia rulings in general, the role of women in Islam, Islamic marriage and divorce, the cultural and religious understandings of triple talaq and probably a whole lot of other things I’ve forgotten to list was just phenomenal.  As someone that grew up in an Irish Catholic community, it was fascinating to compare and contrast the attitudes towards marriage and divorce, and hear not only from Dr Jameel as an academic and religious leader, but also some of the audience were kind enough to share their understandings of it, and answer some of the questions that I wasn’t brave enough to ask myself.

    I guess my feedback is just a really big congratulations, well done and heartfelt thank you for putting on an event that has given me so much more understanding than I thought possible from a few hours. I feel very honoured to have been welcomed into that space, able to watch the documentary, but also hearing from the speakers and members of the audience. A truly mentally stimulated evening which I gained a lot from.

    Birmingham

    Love is in the air (Stirchley’s Valentine Tree)

    stirchley_hearts

    What possesses someone to get up before sunrise and decorate a tree with origami hearts? I’m still wondering that myself.

    But that’s precisely what I did this Valentine’s Day.  I spent the weekend before sitting in a local arts space, drinking tea and folding around 60 origami hearts, with a break to teach a small girl how to make her own. The night before I turned them into hanging decorations, and then got up at 6am to walk to my local high street to decorate a tree on the high street before too many of the residents started their day.

    No one has really asked me why I decided to do this and I’m not really sure I have a good answer.  There are several small answers; I wanted to make the people who live in Stirchley smile, to challenge the Valentine’s Day sceptics that it’s only overly-commercial if you make it, and I thought it would be fun. But in all honesty, the real answer is that last year was pretty hard for me for all sorts of reasons, but one of the things that continued to bring me joy was the sense of community in my area – the enthusiasm and bread from Loaf; the wonderfully eccentric conversation and tea from Artefact; and the warm heart and beautiful houseplants from Isherwood & Co.  I wanted to do something for all of them to say thank you for helping keep me afloat last year, when treading water felt the hardest.

    valentines tree hearts

    The folding was pretty simple, because 2D hearts are not a complicated fold in the way many origami projects can be.  To start, I followed on online tutorial (is there anything YouTube can’t teach you), but after the first few I’d learnt the moves and muscle memory took over. Which meant I could sit in Artefact and start my own one-person production line.

    Cost wise, I made a few hearts from some paper I already had but most of them came from a £1.50 book of patterned paper from The Works, and the cotton and needle I dug out of my emergency sewing kit.  It probably took the best part of a day, all in all, but once I memorised the folding pattern, it was quite simple.

    Screenshot 2019-02-16 at 16.01.14

    And now…

    As the skies greyed and rain threatened, I took the hearts down. There were 45 left of around 60, so 15 or so have gone beyond that little tree in Stirchley. I suggested people take them, if they wanted them, and so I know a few have gone to good homes because they told me.  Ones have gone to people’s offices, to their homes, hearts were chosen by children and hopefully gone to be enjoyed beyond the few days they were up. 

    For those who prefer statistics, Twitter tells me the initial tweet had 4,674 impressions, 482 engagements, 74 likes and 13 retweets.  The tweet telling people they’d be up for a while and to help themselves to a heart had a further 3444 impressions and 60 likes, a further 1713 on a tweet when I couldn’t bear to take them down after just one day.  Which means the Valentines Tree, as someone called it, went beyond just the people who walked down the high street, especially as someone had added it to Reddit.  My favourite response was from someone who said they made a point of driving down the hight street to see them again.

    Those 45 hearts are in a bag and ready to go to a new home, for other people to enjoy.  I’d already found a home for the ones that stayed up the longest, and that’s the thing about doing something a random act of kindness – it usually goes beyond just the place you intended.