green shoots of recovery
In July 2009, he WMRO published a 10-essay collection under the title West Midlands: Fit for the future: Positioning the region for economic recovery to be discussed at their Annual Conference on 20th October.
Only one contribution, by Roger Levett, adds something surprising, even startling to the debate.
But let's start with Ian Austin’s Foreword. I quote: we know what we need to do to make the region the workshop of the world again.
We know? Eh? Workshop of the world? Which century is this man in? Or is he merely pandering to some vague nostalgia about what went on in Matthew Boulton’s time?
The accidental empires of the 20th century weren’t forged in workshops (not even facilitated ones), but in back bedrooms, unused garages and fusty university research labs. At the forefront of this revolution were pizza-fed, caffeine-fuelled nerdy boys who couldn’t get a date. These brainy T-shirted lads did weird math, challenged their mates to do even weirder stuff — not in order to make money or lead a revolution, but simply to explore what it was that they could do.
A few, a very few, with serendipity and luck on their side, went on to found the start-ups that later made a fortune.
So in the 21st century, what might be coming next? West Midlands manufacturers morphing into new-tech superstars that will change the world? They’re stretched enough in dealing with today’s uncertain demands, without taking a wild punt on radically different kinds of minds.
No-one has a clue. All we can do is muddle through, albeit making sure we leave ourselves with lots of options. And here in Birmingham with neither great intellectual nor financial capital, we need options that don't need loadsamoney, and that rest on us and the communities we make.
In his WMRO essay, Roger Levett outlines an opportunity, a low-cost option for us. And it might change many of our lives for the better. He's titled his essay Sustainability and recovery: digging the West Midlands out of recession.
And he means digging. Spades, soil, plants. Digging as in digging for victory. Mock not. We are, he reminds us, aberrant in human history in taking food security for granted and leaving its production to a minority.
Food for cities is the concern of the United Nations. June’s National Geographic featured high-rise farms. John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Officer talks about the ‘perfect storm’ of a growing population, failing energy resources and food shortages by 2030.
Could Levett’s big-minded, low-power ideas happen here? It’d take some planning, sure, but not much. A little hi-tech science would be handy, too.
As well as lots of waste ground and empty buildings ripe for ‘development’, Birmingham has more allotments than any other local authority. 115 sites, nearly 7000 plots, 80 associations, mostly the young and older women taking up new tenancies.
Birmingham and Aston Universities have first-rate scientists with relevant knowledge — botanists, urban ecologists and other life scientists. Warwick’s Horticultural Research International is down the road.
The usual politico-stuff could still go on while putting Levett’s ideas into practice; so consultative exercises can continue, the odd iconic building flung up, yet another strategy report reported, and the general hand-wringing all round.
And if the perfect storm does hit us, then allotments, high-rise farms, making waste-land and buildings productive, plus the age-old skills of growing food will be vitally, literally vitally important.
NOTES: This article was also published in the Birmingham Post.
Photo of the No 45 bustop by Joe Jabbar of Bongo Vongo, that of Court Lane Allotments by The Pepper Tree. Thanks to both of them for kind permission use their photographs. See also Court Lane Allotments, and guerrillagardening