Notes from a small, weird town

Just visited my old stomping grounds in Moab, Utah, pop. 5,200. A uranium town, adventure sport hub and now second-home magnet, this joyous mash-up of rednecks, hippies and everyone in between has boomed and busted repeatedly. It’s now at risk of becoming a municipal cautionary tale.

One of the better ones – but no sidewalk!

After years of gradual change, 2014-17 saw monstrous growth, and I use the adjective advisedly. The newest half of the 20-odd motels lining Main Street ignore local character and have no provision for staff accommodation, in a region where a cleaner’s one-way commute can be above 180km. The explosion of road-legal 4x4s called Razrs has meant this formerly seasonal town is now rammed 9-10 months of the year and rental homes are sprouting like mushrooms. Rooms are renting for US$600-800 each and the median home price is US$355,000. Median household income is £41,500, but the bulk of jobs are at or below minimum wage.

The construction mini-boom is all by the book, which is part of the problem. With one trained planner and a five-person planning commission v. an ardent and noisy pro-development lobby, city planning can barely keep up with applications and enforcement, and has no scope for strategy or policy review. (Their third agenda item for 22nd Feb is “Updated list of barriers to affordable housing”.)

Like all American municipalities, Moab operates on zoning (Wiki primer here) – the system has lots of fans because of its simplicity, but in resource-strapped towns like this one, zoning can be seriously out of date and no longer fit for purpose. And while zoning allows for variances, there is no scheme-by-scheme negotiation as in the UK, and there is usually no affordable housing requirement for new development. In a town where the bulk of employment is low-paid tourism work, that is massively counter-productive.

This is also high desert, where precipitation is tracked religiously and running out of water is not an idle threat (viz Cape Town, SA…). Moab caps an 18-mile-long valley, the southern half of which is in an adjacent county not known for planning or environmental restraint. San Juan County wants another 5,000 homes at that end of the valley – doubling the area population. While the county promises a new reservoir and infrastructure provision, any water or sewer failure is likely to be blamed on Moab, which will be the new subdivision’s services hub.

There is also a lot to be admired here (aside from the national and state parks, wilderness trails and snow-capped mountains at its doorstep). Moab City is home to the Best Small Library in America (2007), lovely bike paths, new schools and sports facilities, geothermal heating for municipal buildings, strong community and recycling support and a disproportionately large Pride festival; it has not forgotten locals in the scramble for tourist dollars.

Much of the town’s success is due to leadership: it had a hugely progressive city manager for 21 years, and its new and equally forward-thinking manager,  formerly Chief of Staff for Salt Lake City, is focused on strategy over catch-up. The City also seems to be getting along better with the surrounding and much more traditional Grand County, but time will tell.

Moab’s resilience is also due to the entrepreneurial and sometimes anarchic attitude locals and ‘seasonals’ – especially boating, biking and climbing guides – have about helping each other. Events like the Trashion Show raise funds for recycling, and landowners house needy kindred spirits in anything they can lay their hands on. Moab Valley now feels like a cross between (old-school) Burning Man and Pleasantville – not home to me any more, but still working for a lot of people.

Does this microcosm of tourism and development have any lessons for London? Aside from the above about leadership and the long view, we could learn from them and pursue a tourism or transient room tax of some kind to mitigate the burden visitors place on infrastructure (and our patience!). We can also take heart that for all its shortcomings, London is actively working on the relationship between jobs and housing, on improving the environment, and on allowing room for the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that thrives in these weird and wonderful places.

This post first appeared at www.futureoflondon.org.uk

Connecting Bristol

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.