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The Future of Birmingham.

The Ecotopia 2121 Project details the futures of 100 cities across the globe as though they've somehow overcome all the grave environmental challenges our age and grown to become super-Green and super-ecofriendly. This month, we highlight the future of Birmingham, England.

Birmingham is England’s second-largest city. During the 19th Century, it was famous worldwide for being Britain’s manufacturing heartland. Some nicknames coined about the city at that time include The Workshop of the World and The City of a Thousand Trades.

Birmingham, England, in the 19th Century

Nowadays, the manufacturing sector of the city has dwindled and been replaced by a service economy. Even the iconic Mini Cooper, once made in Birmingham in the 1960s and 70s, is now produced abroad. The heartland tag can now only apply as reference to the city’s geographical location -- since it's approximately in the middle of England.

Before it grew into an enormous manufacturing center, Birmingham was once but a small hamlet within the medieval Forest of Arden.

An English hamlet in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the Arden was a great oak woodland, intermingled with chestnut trees, with many birch, and with lime as well. These are all long-lived species hosting all kinds of animals -- large and small, rare and common.

The density of the Forest of Arden made it nigh-on impossible for three-thousand years to settle within or build roadways though. The Celts, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings; all left the Forest of Arden more or less intact.

There were clearings -- leighs they were called -- amongst the oaks and birches and many tiny villages were located in them. Within these villages, the resources of the forest were utilized sustainably at a small-scale for millennia. By long tradition, much of the Arden during this time was common land; open equally to all village families and guaranteeing them certain rights to graze animals, to collect wood and char, and to hunt and forage.

After the Norman invasion of England, towards the late 11th century, a slow five-hundred year colonization of the forest was to proceed. The new King, William the Conqueror, was not really of an egalitarian persuasion and he stratified the medieval society of middle England by granting power and resources to those only most agreeable to his goals. This included the very Catholic Arden family, who were given the right to control vast tracts of the Arden.

Slowly, as the centuries past, most of the forest was enclosed within fences, then privatized, and converted into farmlands -- mainly for the lucrative wool trade. Sheep and wool made England a wealthy nation by the end of the Middle Ages but it had also led to the decimation of its largest forest.

English sheep in woodlands

More than five-hundred years after the Norman invasion, in the decades of the late 16th century, the Arden family had grown to be very large and wealthy in the English Midlands. However, because they were Catholic, they lacked significant political influence since, by this time, the English monarchy had changed to being Protestant whilst Catholics were actively marginalized.

One of the members of the Arden family at this time was Mary Arden, the mother of William Shakespeare, and he too was born in the area that would have been within the boundaries of the ancient forest. However, by the time Shakespeare achieved fame, there was virtually nothing left of the forest -- save for some isolated stands of woodland.

This wouldn't stop Shakespeare from waxing lyrical about the Arden on numerous occasions, though. For example, here’s a passage from the comedy As You Like it, wherein an overthrown Duke has exiled himself to the Forest of Arden to escape the clutches of the new war-mongering tyrannical Duke, who also happens to be his brother:

Sweet are the uses of adversity, Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head; And this our life exempt from public haunt Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones and good in everything.

If that’s not expressive enough, then later on another character, Orlando, is found singing about the Arden to his faraway love:

Under the greenwood tree Who loves to lie with me, And turn his merry note Unto the sweet bird's throat, Come hither, come hither, and come hither: Here shall he see No enemy But winter and rough weather.

Shakespeare wrote these lines about the Arden as a haven in 1601 but the same area just four years later, in a village not far from Birmingham, served as a secret hideout of England’s infamous revolutionaries: the Gunpowder Plotters.

The Plotters (who included in their ranks the now far-famed Guy Fawkes) aimed to assassinate King James, the Protestant Head of England, whom the Plotters regarded as an oppressor of their Catholic faith. Their plan was to travel from Birmingham to London on horseback on the night of November 5th 1605, then blow up the entire House of Lords from underneath, thereby killing King James and all his Protestant ministers. The plot was foiled when Guy Fawkes was caught guarding twenty barrels of gunpowder in the basement.

The rest of the Gunpowder Plotters rode back to a hide-out in a small settlement near Birmingham before being hunted down and killed by a militia loyal to the King.

Shakespeare’s father was actually good friends with the leader of the Gunpowder Plotters. However, nobody has as yet to find out about Shakespeare’s true religious convictions and whether he sympathized with the Gunpowder plotters or not, but in both fiction and history, the woodlands around Birmingham have served as a green haven from corrupt authority.

Five hundred years on again, here in the 21st century, the story of the Gunpowder Plot survives as Guy Fawkes Night when the English come together on the evening of November 5th to light bonfires and fireworks.

Unlike the Guy Fawkes story, though, the Forest of Arden has not survived so well. Nowadays, there are just a few tiny remnant groves of the ancient forest left. Some of these, though, have one-thousand year old oak trees within them and lime trees twice that age. These small ancient stands serve as the last irreplaceable sites for Middle England’s rarest species; like the turtle dove, whose beautiful call has inspired many artists over the centuries, and the natterjack toad (see picture below), so stereotypically warty that it might need more than Shakespearean romance to render it handsome.

Looking hopefully into the future, we might believe that these ancient remnants of the Arden, and the wildlife they are home to, will soon to be appreciated as havens from city life and therefore worthy of conservation. Perhaps, the residents of Birmingham will see to it that each individual isolated glade of ancient oak surrounding the city’s north and south is cultivated to connect and converge with each other. Slowly, green corridors could multiply all throughout the entire city; allowing the forest to slowly re-grow and become sustainable again. This is the scenario for Birmingham 2121; where the ancient Forest of Arden re-inhabits almost every neighborhood of Birmingham.


by Dr. Alan Marshall

If the plan succeeds, and if it achieves broad popularity, then it is possible that Birmingham’s leadership will offer support one day in the future, to see the forest grow tree-by-tree, stand-by-stand, into their city. Amongst the leighs, though the glades, perhaps the original diminutive Mini Cooper may then be resurrected in electric mode -- its battery charged by domestic wind turbines. These may be traditional windmill-shaped wind turbines, or the flexible wind-catcher type that use the energy of passing breezes to vibrate their energy rods, creating gentle wind chime sounds as they do.


by Dr. Alan Marshall

To look romantically upon the past is not unusual in Birmingham. The city has many monuments and museums devoted to its 19th century history when it was reckoned to be one of the greatest cities of the industrial world. Sometimes it seems there are more museums of industry in the city than working factories. But why must Birmingham’s nostalgia be confined to the Industrial Age? Why cannot Birmingham’s cultural-keepers cast their scope wider, be more imaginative, and dream of Greener times?


by Dr. Alan Marshall

For the full Birmingham 2121 story, read the "Birmingham" chapter in the book Ecotopia 2121.

Or you can read an excerpt of the chapter for free at the ResearchGate site of the project.

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