…the city has been plastered in colour, shrink wrapped in bright festivities, and has a garish new mascot poised to pose with the one million visitors landing on the city for this summer’s Commonwealth Games. The city is unrecognisable, but it is not only because of these gaudy drippings to welcome athletes and spectators. Birmingham has been going through a phase of “regeneration,” ushered in by 2010’s Big City Plan. Long gone are John Madin’s modernist library replaced by the “Paradise” development, the half-century old Pallasades shopping centre subsumed to the domed Grand Central station, and James A Roberts’ iconic brutalist Ringway Centre is concealed by a huge advert, ahead of its imminent demolition. The city is unrecognisable, a decade of transformation welcomed and loathed in equal measure. On the margins of the city as well as in its centre, life hasn’t changed only for human residents: urban nature and animals are also having to negotiate life in the heart of regeneration.
the “more-than-human city”
Cities have been built on the exploitation of non-human life, but they are also offering increasingly viable new ecologies for some animals. As (human) urban spaces have expanded, they have overtaken vast non-human habitats. Most of the animals and plants encroached on by the city limits are, however, categorised as ‘pests’ or ‘trash’ animals who are invasive and unwanted. With a projection of around 70% of humans living in cities by 2050, consuming more and generating more waste, some animals can thrive in these expanded urban spaces. But Britain’s cities, like many others around the world, are agents and landscapes of gentrification, spaces of displacement and exclusion for human and non-human beings and not all species can survive in the city. Looking to five stories of non-human species, new questions can be raised of urban life that open the city to new considerations.
Unusually for a city of its size, Birmingham has a small urban badger population. These elusive creatures usually prefer the solitariness of the countryside, but in one leafy suburb, badgers in Birmingham thrive. In Edgbaston, on the edge of a large student halls complex, an urban badger spends their nights roaming. In the city, badgers have much smaller setts and territories than their rural counterparts, with some reports showing their ranging area being just a tenth of the size elsewhere. While the city might provide food and opportunity, for this badger, it also spells disaster. One night in 2014, a badger was killed and burned by a group of drunk students living in these flats: the badger’s solitary cohabitation was suddenly and violently stopped in a city that was quickly changing. As new humans move in, their priorities shift. One year, animals might learn an area is safe, never suspecting that the annual turnover might bring a more bloodthirsty population into the neighbourhood. But is the badger, viewed by human residents as an interloper, not also deserving of the right to a safe and welcoming city home?
The fox is an emblematic urban animal, attracted to waste and thriving living in close (but not too close) company with human settlements. Birmingham regenerated in the 1950s around cars, making the city more dangerous for roaming animals, but foxes have adapted to tolerate cars and avoid road traffic accidents. The survival of the fox in Birmingham’s concrete centre is testament to their thriving through precarity. Urban foxes have adapted to city life so well that their skeletons have morphed, becoming smaller in both head and body. As the sleek and shiny new Birmingham is terraformed, it is unlikely that the kinds of environmental protection that urban planning promotes will include animals like the fox who are often viewed by human residents as pests. Despite the urban fox being a disliked creature for many humans, they actually face less intentional harm than their rural counterparts who have long been co-opted into economic and class debates. They are, however, associated with unclean space: attracted to waste. With foxes thriving in the wake of human life, can the city become a hospitable place to the natural world?
“More canals than Venice” is often exclaimed on marketing materials for Birmingham, with its 35 miles of waterways being the epicentre of the country’s canal network. These bustling canals are filled with history and life, in them and beside them on paths and cycleways. In the city centre, Birmingham’s waterfront developments have become manicured centres for business and leisure, transformed from 1970s post-industrial wasteland to desirable real estate. The waterways are “green” infrastructure, idyllic spaces for realising the sustainable city. In the 1990s, when Birmingham’s canals were regenerated, local people were wise to the city’s regeneration, knowing that this facelift would not benefit the poorest in Birmingham, but instead displace them. On the canals, non-human life thrives and nowhere is this more emblematic than with the heron: their stretched legs, long necks and beautiful shades of white, blue and grey offer camouflage and splendour. Herons live in, yet are so separate from, the human city and while they do not face destruction in cities, they do live in the edges of city, anticipating expansion. Currently, herons enhance the city, connecting it to nature, but is their urban existence conditional on their separation, on still being considered beautiful?
Parakeets are much more recent residents in Birmingham, arriving slowly over the last few decades, but seeing a population explosion more recently. Parakeets are ‘invasive aliens’ in Britain; they were introduced over a century ago and in the last few decades have seen dramatic population increases, contained largely in urban and semiurban areas. The parakeet is one of the fastest-growing ‘alien’ species, who have been accused of impacting native species, ‘beating woodpeckers and nuthatches [native species] to the choicest nesting sites.’ In 2011, there was a cull of monk parakeets who caused economic damage to power lines in London and in 2021, the British government began considering a cull of ring-necked parakeets, specifically of a flock on the Isle of Dogs, London – the financial centre of the city. Birmingham’s parakeet populations are not yet posing a threat to the regenerative churn of the city, being confined mostly to areas on the outskirts. They are, at the moment, sought out and intriguing, but their noise and electric green feathers are a novelty that is at risk of wearing off. How can a bird ensure a future in a country and city so hostile to invasion – both human and non-human?
It isn’t just animals who are affected by regeneration, with trees – fundamental to urban ecosystems – being key targets for clearance at the whims of landlords and developers. Despite their air and ecology benefits, trees are not always valued when they are in the “wrong” place, and can be easily felled not by the people who live with and care for them. In a city like Birmingham, rapidly regenerating, all life is precarious. This precarity is not human alone: animals, humans and nature are bound together in a ‘creative, generative, and multi-layered relation of species and environment-making.’ Urban belonging – and ecologies – are fragile, not top-down systems dictated by perceived value. When trees fall, more than just trees fall: urban ecologies are disturbed, with tangible negative impacts for animals, humans, other plants, and the land itself. Birmingham’s relationship with “nature” values those trees that can be marketed and productive, whilst allowing those in the way to be lost. Should these trees – and the more-than-human communities who rely on them – not have a right to the city, one that supersedes the accumulation of capital?
Birmingham’s beyond-human regeneration
Nowhere is the tension between regeneration and more-than-human life exemplified more readily than in the new “Paradise” development, constructed on the ruins of the modernist library and the vision of Birmingham’s mid-century designers that signalled the city’s metamorphosis from an industrial heartland to a post-industrial trailblazer. Paradise has since been regenerated into a place ‘where commerce and culture come together in harmony,’ with shiny buildings home to professional services firm Price water house Coopers and outposts of London’s famous restaurants.
In June 2021, Paradise ‘welcomed 80,000 new inhabitants’ (Beavan, 2021: np) when bees were installed in two colonies in private areas of the development. The hives were ‘installed as part of an ecology-led initiative to bring more wildlife to the development and encourage a greater diversity of insects in this part of the city centre.’ The hard-working bees are being employed in the regeneration of the city, intended to symbolise community, producing ecological value for the city’s investors. The new Paradise aids flows of capital through the city and the bees, brought in as commodified urban nature, may seem inconsequential to Birmingham’s story but the Paradise bees represent concurrent and contradictory states of more-than-human thriving and precarity in the city’s neoliberal regeneration.
Birmingham has seen huge private investments over the last two decades, transforming the city skyline and changing the city’s “more-than-human” milieux. Much of this transformation has been rooted in a determination to ‘connect’ Birmingham. Birmingham, whilst too far from the capital to be directly incorporated, is seeing private funders capitalise on London’s wealth and Birmingham’s cheap land, which realised in projects like high-speed rail, which benefits wealthy commuters at the expense and opposition of local people and unpredictable biodiversity impacts. As the city is once again adorned with the so-called spoils of regeneration, neoliberal Birmingham’s development has, both architecturally and spiritually, entrenched the ideology of atomised and idealised citizens both human and non-human, binding its residents in a more-than-human precarity – even as the city appears to thrive.
Read more on Birmingham’s more-than-human life (and death) through regeneration in my latest article, published in Urban Studies Journal: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F00420980221104975