Birmingham waterfront wins well-deserved acclaim

Cared-for canals alleviate the surrounding architectural grief, says Simon Calder
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The Independent Online
Cyprus, watch out. According to Judith Chalmers on Wednesday evening, Birmingham's city-centre waterfront attracts even more visitors than the Mediterranean island's

2 million a year.

But on Thursday morning, a survey conducted from the Broad Street bridge suggested a level of touristic activity rather lower than Larnaca, Paphos and Limassol put together.

Only a churl, though, would deny the success of the regeneration that this week won the UK prize in British Airways' Tourism for Tomorrow awards. The chairman of the judging panel, David Bellamy, said: "The city-centre canal waterfront has been transformed from an underused derelict area to a thriving focus for recreation, leisure and tourism."

The centre-piece of the development, Brindley Place, is named after the 18th-century engineer who placed Birmingham at the hub of England's canal system. His work was amplified in the early 19th century by Thomas Telford, whose cast-iron footbridges still make an imprint amid the redevelopment.

He finished work on the project just as the railway revolution was getting under way, whereupon the canal system began a painfully extended decline.

To recognise the scale of the achievement, you need not look far beyond the Gas Street Basin for other examples of "underused, derelict areas".

As most of the world's great cities recognise, water is essential for flourishing urban life. Cared-for canals add significant light and space to Birmingham, moderating the architectural grief in which much of the city centre wallows.

A handsome city has been involved in a terrible road accident, the calamity being the construction of the most dehumanising road network of any British city centre.

You discover this when trying to find your way from New Street railway station to the Waterfront. Before the city was signed away - lock, stock and Bull Ring - to the motor car, you could cover the half-mile in a sprightly 10 minutes.

Today's tourist must battle through a system of underpasses and barriers that look as if they were designed by Escher in collaboration with Kafka.

The persecuted pedestrian's reward is more than just Brindley Place - a mock-warehouse in supermarket redbrick, whose main attraction for me is the Balti House.

The area includes the National Indoor Arena and the International Convention Centre, where, in May, the Eurovision Song Contest and the G8 Summit will be in unfamiliar proximity. (Cyprus can't boast that.)

On the other side of Broad Street, the canal splays out into a wedge of water, where more of the original brickwork has survived.

One last thing: the most frequently quoted "fact" about Birmingham is that it has more miles of canal - 32, to be precise - than Venice. Given the industrial history and sheer size of Birmingham, it would be surprising if the city of ring roads did not boast a higher number of artificial waterways than the city of Canaletto.

But the view from the Bridge of Sighs is more beautiful than the Broad Street bridge; Venice has solved the car problem.