The great toyshop of Europe

Sadie Plant makes the case for Birmingham as judges consider its bid to become a capital of culture

It lies on a plateau in the Midlands, a vast, flat stretch of urban sprawl with a high-rise heartbeat in a long skyline. It is home to millions of people, and millions more pass through it every day.

For all its size and centrality, though, few people outside Birmingham know the city well. With none of the glamour of the capital, or even the romance of the industrial north, it is often seen as no more than an interchange, a spaghetti junction of tangled highways, subways and flyovers, its character subsumed by its traffic flows.

Birmingham has never been an easy city to define: even in its medieval past, it had none of the outstanding features of the other nascent cities of the day - no fine castle, no ancient seat of learning, no great sights. Its rivers were not big enough to navigate, leaving it as far away from the sea as it is possible, in England, to be.

So the city had to invent itself. With no means of gaining access to the ports, and so the world, it built an extensive network of canals. By the late 18th century, its ability to improvise and innovate had turned the city into the "great toyshop of Europe", in the words of Edmund Burke. It produced small metal goods of every kind: buckles and buttons, toothpicks, snuffboxes, sugar tongs, tweezers, corkscrews, bells, coins, hairgrips, inkstands, watch chains, paper clips: toys and tools for workers and machines.

Much of this work was highly specialised, often conducted by individuals or small associations of men too loose to be called either companies or firms. Ideologues decried the city's unique, almost declasse mixture of individualism and co-operation; experts despaired at its lack of economic coherence, the duplicated, fragmented, small-scale and short-term nature of its work.

But these peculiarities were often the key to its success. Many of its best inventions involved small but crucial modifications of existing techniques and materials: the steel pen nibs that revolutionised writing in the 19th century; the electroplating of fancy goods, which made it possible to spread precious metals thinly enough for all to afford.

Birmingham is still a city in which goods, activities and people are always being mixed and remixed, processed and re-processed, built, knocked down and built again. It has had dominant industries - as when it armed colonial Britain, or produced the nation's cars - but its economic life continues to be varied and inventive: today, more new patents issue from the city than from the rest of the country combined.

This is a city of a thousand cultures, with a wealth of peoples, values, tastes and styles drawn from every corner of the world. The city handles its scale and diversity so well because it has never known life any other way. Even its most long-standing families haven't been rooted here for long: every newcomer is the latest in a line of immigrants reaching back to the city's earliest days, when it exploded into life with the industrial revolution, leaping from a village to a vast conurbation in a few generations. Then, it was especially attractive to the sorts of people who did not fit elsewhere: religious and political dissenters, or workers without guild membership.

Birmingham accommodates local dif-ferences and unexpected finds: the Viennese coffee shops, the Turkish baths, the catacombs, the many secret corners of its shady parks.

Birmingham makes all the usual claims to fame - great achievements, great people, great events. It can show off its magnificent pre-Raphaelite paintings, offer some outstanding architectural sights, music and food, not to mention countless shiny bars and waterside cafes. It was home to famous writers, too: J R R Tolkien, Hilaire Belloc and Benjamin Zephaniah; Samuel Johnson, whose first essays appeared in the Birmingham Journal; Washington Irving, who was living in the Jewellery Quarter when he wrote Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; and Arthur Conan Doyle, who, as a young city doctor, bought his first violin from a shop on Sherlock Street.

Even when its people make the headlines now - when Darius Vassell scores for England, or Ashia Hanson becomes world champion triple jumper, or The Streets has a bestselling album, or Jim Crace wins the Whitbread Prize - the city seems to take their achievements in its stride, as though it expected nothing less. You may be famous all around the world, but you're just another Brummie when you are in Birmingham.

At its best, this unassuming tone makes Birmingham one of the most unpretentious, unaffected, equitable, friendly and down-to-earth cities in the world. But after a few hundred years of extraordinary cultural synthesis, the city has a lot to celebrate, and can afford to lose some of its self-effacing style. Birmingham's bid to be European Capital of Culture 2008 is a sign of its new self-esteem, a bid to win the status it so richly deserves.

Such competitions do have their pitfalls: cities can find themselves chasing the latest fashions in city living, the latest images of what they should be, even at the risk of undervaluing their own special qualities. But Birmingham's cultures are resilient; this will always be its own kind of place. Should its bid for the title be successful, the city of a thousand trades will win itself a vast new audience, and Europe will gain a showcase for urban culture in its widest, fullest, richest sense. In any case, win or lose, Birmingham will always have a thousand things to do.

Sadie Plant is a writer and critic living in Birmingham

The European Capital of Culture 2008 will be announced on 4 June