To outsiders, Bristol’s One City Plan – navigating its first year of challenges, tweaks and additions – seems to embody exactly the kind of inclusive vision this unique place needs as population, sustainability and economic pressures bear down.

The timing is right, if not too late. Savvy investors and developers are turning their attention from the Southeast, and to a degree from cities like Manchester, to “edgy”, “evolving” “property hotspot” Bristol. As CBRE put it,

as a string of high-rises prepare to take their stand over our unassuming skyline, it seems that the next chapter of our city is finally taking shape. Bristol has a new generation at its helm: changemakers who share a thirst to put this great city firmly back on the map.”  – CBRE Bristol report: https://bit.ly/2Rfl1GX

With phenomenal per-capita talent across research, design, engineering, the arts, environment, health, economics, technology and social enterprise, Bristol could capitalise on all this new investment to build the equitable, green and thriving city locals want – and visitors gush over.

Getting there is a messy proposition, though, as shown in the June closure of the contentious Bear Pit. More generally, the city’s goals could be swamped by commercial imperatives as Brexit threatens to sap the Southwest economy.

There are promising signs that the latter (at least the goal-swamping) can be avoided, mainly thanks to Bristol’s people. Labour Mayor Marvin Rees presides over both the One City Plan and a unitary government, albeit one tied into a combined authority for complex projects like the rail station. Risk-embracing entrepreneurs, artists with faithful audiences and experienced activists all thrive – although their homes and workspaces are becoming less affordable. Notably, many of the developers and agents keen to extend that “string of high-rises” also claim a personal affinity with the city and its history.

One of the most useful assets in all this is the network of urban practitioners – professional, amateur and student – who connect those groups. Whether they’re based at engineering firm hot-desks or artists’ co-ops, they seem able to speak a common language, and to listen well.

The Placemaking Collective UK got to meet about 20 of them in early 2019, hosted by Michael Cowdy of McGregor Coxall and colleagues from Mott McDonald, APG Architecture, The Circle/Bearpit Social and Wapping Wharf. Despite the cold, it was the biggest PCUK field trip yet, with lots of local people sharing perspectives and learning from each other.

The trip started at Bristol Temple Meads (aka “the Poundland of national rail stations”, touched on the St Phillips Marsh/Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone and stopped at Castle Park, the Broadmead Centre, the Bear Pit and Wapping Wharf (map below).

While every one of these places has its eye on the future, each is also locked tightly to its past – some more harmoniously than others. Historic England is naturally heavily involved in redesign of Brunel’s Grade I-listed station, but the traditional rights of taxi drivers on the unlovely forecourt may be more of a drag on design.

As Mott McDonald’s Sean Symmons put it, Temple Meads definitely doesn’t say “Welcome to Bristol!”, so the successful redevelopment of the station and surrounds are key to city ambitions.

Interesting spaces are creeping closer to the station [timeline], but the adjacent St Phillips Marsh and Enterprise Quarter – with their promised 11,000 homes and 22,000 jobs already underway – are “still dead after 6pm” and need to demonstrate that they are connected and worth investing in, despite the challenges of contaminated sites, left-over infrastructure… and being a marsh…next to a river that floods. With the national economy, regional engineering strengths and local assets firmly in Bristol’s favour, it will all come good, but it’s still a hard sell, with the inherent risk of less-than-stellar developer concessions.

With less at stake, pretty but neglected Castle Park is embracing water, with plans to reconnect or uncover buried waterways as part of a larger effort to use the city’s public realm for sustainability and recreation. Bristol’s river, canals and floating harbour are all starting to be used more interestingly, including by brewery Left-Handed Giant – which raised £1.05m on a £450,000 crowd-funding target to set up.

What few tourists get to see is the functional commercial core of the city at the Broadmead Bristol Shopping Quarter, which could be Croydon, Crawley or any dated-but-useful shopping precinct. There are some decent buildings, but the key here will be to extend the good pedestrian links from the river via Castle Park and beneath Debenham’s (as of this writing) to the soon-to-be-reworked Bear Pit.

During the Placemaking visit, Bearpit Social Café owner Miriam Delogu talked about the community efforts she and friend Simon Green and others had tried to host in the space, a submerged roundabout that’s been a refuge for rough sleepers, but one plagued with violent crime and drug abuse. She and her colleagues gave up for safety reasons, and she talked about the difficulty of trying to connect with people who just want to be left alone.

With a current population of about 450,000 and another 120,000 expected over the next 10 years, the question of who lives in Bristol, how their needs are prioritised and how they get along will be increasingly fraught.

The last stop on the trip, Wapping Wharf and Gaol Steps, could be seen as typical hipster gentrification – or as a step in the right direction. The mixed-use development will provide 38% technically affordable homes mixed in with market sale property, shops, restaurants, shared workspace and access to the water on both sides. It’s an attractive place, and clearly adds to the city’s offer. Is it an exemplar for the new One City Plan? It will be interesting to hear what plan leaders say.

Thanks to Michael Cowdy for organising and hosting, to him and fellow hosts Sean Symmons, Miriam Delogu, Adam Parsons (APG Architecture) and Louis Lane for their time and insight, and to Michael, Maria, and Paul for the additional photos.

 

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