Birkenhead is a town with a proud and passionate history. It’s the town that invented municipal parks, developed Britain’s first tram system and built some of the world’s greatest ships. In recent times the town has suffered from a prolonged and painful economic decline, been blighted by disastrous urban planning and overshadowed by its more illustrious neighbor, Liverpool. Working with clients ION Developments and Rotterdam-based urbanists, MVRDV, we set out to engage local people in an inclusive conversation about the town’s future – a process hindered by the fact that many of them believed it didn’t have one.
The engagement had two strands – to measure public and stakeholder opinion on specific regeneration plans for the Europa Boulevard area, and to begin to stimulate ideas and aspirations for a much more fundamental rethink of the town’s identity and potential.
We wanted to go beyond traditional consultation but make space for a conversation across a range of spaces and platforms. We also wanted to create a sense of possibility by collecting initial ideas, opinions and case studies from people who were already involved and delivering change. Under the banner Move Ahead Birkenhead we designed and produced a tabloid newspaper with contributions from a diverse range of local stakeholders. We began to share initial ideas through the newspaper, on-line and across social media that challenged the prevailing sense of fatalism and suggested building a future identity on the energies of local people and the things that made the town extraordinary. These ranged from big ambitions for waterfront landmarks, to small-scale organic proposals like building a distinctive retail offer around independent traders and a really exceptional market.
The conversation culminated with a two-day public event where plans and ideas were shared and extensively discussed. The event confirmed strong support for the initial Europa Boulevard development proposals, but also elicited a wealth of ideas and comments that are helping to shape the brief for the next phase of planning and re-imagination.