Resilient cities: Bristol

Bristol’s year as European Green Capital has seen this UK city deliver a raft of projects that demonstrate its commitment to sustainable transport, energy, food culture and urban design. But a greater force is being summoned to maximise the programme’s impact: the creativity and enthusiasm of its citizens


Words Veronica Simpson

Resilience is a wonderful word. It implies elasticity, resourcefulness; strength with agility... optimism! The issue of resilience is high on the agenda for the world's major cities, as the population balance drifts inexorably from rural to urban.

Perhaps worryingly, it has replaced the term sustainability on all the global eco-conference agendas; as if the possibility of balancing out our abuses of planet Earth has now been abandoned and the best we can hope for is to create platforms - architectural, infrastructural and social - that might help us survive whatever the future throws at us.

Bristol mayor George Ferguson has introduced the Make Sunday Special Initiative, with one street every month (here, Park Street) being closed to traffic for food and entertainment offers. Photo: Chris Bahn
Bristol mayor George Ferguson has introduced the Make Sunday Special Initiative, with one street every month (here, Park Street) being closed to traffic for food and entertainment offers. Photo: Chris Bahn

Bristol is a UK city with a reputation for pioneering, left-field thinking: it was here that the UK's main sustainable transport consultancy Sustrans was born, when cycling enthusiasts realised they could link the region's two main cities, Bristol and Bath, via a cycle route along a disused railway track. The HQ of the Soil Association (on which organic-food producers and shoppers depend) is located here. It was the first UK city with its own currency, the Bristol Pound (£B446,000 is currently in circulation). Small wonder it was invited to be one of the Rockefeller Foundation's inaugural 100 Resilient Cities in 2014.

Bristol mayor George Ferguson has introduced the Make Sunday Special Initiative, with one street every month (here, Park Street) being closed to traffic for food and entertainment offers. Photo: Chris Bahn
Bristol mayor George Ferguson has introduced the Make Sunday Special Initiative, with one street every month (here, Park Street) being closed to traffic for food and entertainment offers. Photo: Chris Bahn

But 2015 gave Bristol a rare opportunity to demonstrate what resilience might mean, as European Green Capital 2015 (EGC). This annual European Commission award, begun in 2008, comes with no funding but an abundance of media and peer attention, plus the generosity of other past EGC cities (among them Stockholm, Copenhagen and Hamburg) in sharing what they have learnt.

As you would expect, the Bristol 2015 programme was rich in the kind of infrastructural and architectural initiatives that are now familiar territory in the 'greening' of cities. Having had two near misses at the EGC title (it was shortlisted both times it applied before), you might expect its bold commitment to investment in public and green transport, cycle use, new cultural facilities as drivers for regeneration, improved civic landscaping and planting, sustainable energy and better connected neighbourhoods.

Bristol’s Pero Bridge was at the centre of artist Fujiko Nakaya’s fog works for 10 days
Bristol's Pero Bridge was at the centre of artist Fujiko Nakaya's fog works for 10 days

But the quality that most distinguishes Bristol's EGC programme from the standard 'greening' menu is the way in which the citizens of Bristol were woven into the programme - activated, entertained, educated and, where possible, empowered by it.

A passion for civic engagement is evident in any conversation with Bristol's mayor, George Ferguson. 'I'm an architect,' he says. 'Where I come from it's all about the buildings. But I've always had a message: "It's the people, stupid". What I think really impressed the European Commission to which we're answerable, and the other Green Capitals, is the civil society involvement. We have 800 organisations coming together as the Green Capital Partnership - big ones like universities and small ones like growing groups. That has underpinned [the programme] and ensures that we have a real legacy.'

Since his election in 2012, Ferguson's policies have done much to engage citizens in a dialogue about the environment, their city and their role in protecting and enhancing it. He has invested in cycling education and infrastructure, introduced residents' parking in city-centre neighbourhoods to try to reduce congestion, and championed the electric car with new charging points. To promote engagement with the wider communities, one of his most successful launches has been a Make Sunday Special scheme where, every month, one street in the city is closed to traffic and offers food and entertainment to its neighbours.

For Bristol 2015, citizens were asked to pledge themselves to a greener lifestyle, under the banner: Do 15 in 15. An excellent website ( helped them select from a menu of worthwhile but very accessible activities that would help them individually make better use of the city's (and planet's) resources - and probably save them money, to boot: from reusing plastic bottles to hanging clothes out to dry rather than using energy-guzzling tumble dryers.

The city’s mayor George Ferguson, a past president of RIBA, plants trees in Bristol’s Castle Park with Christina Ennion. Photo: Bristol City Council
The city's mayor George Ferguson, a past president of RIBA, plants trees in Bristol's Castle Park with Christina Ennion. Photo:Bristol City Council

Ferguson is particularly keen to make Bristol more child-friendly. In the past, he has launched a tree-planting initiative (One Tree per Child), and he has lowered the speed limit in central Bristol to 20mph. At the start of 2015, he launched Sustainable Shaun, a computer-animated game developed with maverick Bristol-based animator Aardman around its popular children's TV character, Shaun the Sheep. This is spearheading a new sustainability programme in schools - all the more vital now that sustainability is off the national educational curriculum. Sustainable Shaun was designed to tie in with core subjects on the curriculum and was rolled out to primary schools all over Bristol in 2015, with a nationwide roll-out planned further down the line. Says Ferguson: 'The best possible legacy is inspiring our children and doing it beyond Bristol.'

Bristol's businesses have long been active in supporting the city's sustainability agenda. The aforementioned Green Capital Partnership was instigated in 2007 by the City Council to help organisations of all kinds connect with the breadth and depth of sustainability expertise already embedded within the city. Its membership doubled during the run up to and implementation of Bristol as EGC, with its ethos underpinned by a Green Capital pledge that commited them to measures designed to reduce the city's carbon footprint and boost its workers' wellbeing.

But, such worthy initiatives as these are only a small part of the consciousness-raising initiatives Bristol maintained or embarked on last year. If civic involvement is your aim, the really clever move on Bristol's part was to inject a massive dose of fun into the proceedings. As Ferguson says - quoting the erstwhile Queen of Pop, Madonna - 'If you're going to change the world you should have fun doing it.' A spirit of fun is writ large in the cultural programme which Ferguson and Bristol's EGC team developed, harnessing the energies and ingenuity of the city's creative community along with an army of local volunteers. Through big gestures and small, art and culture were brought to the party in ways that drove home the message while attracting the widest possible pool of participants.

Pupils at St Barnabas School play Sustainable Shaun, a computer-animated game developed with Shaun creator and Bristol-based animator Aardman. Photo: Bristol 2015
Pupils at St Barnabas School play Sustainable Shaun, a computer-animated game developed with Shaun creator and Bristol-based animator Aardman. Photo: Bristol 2015

Artists have a crucial role to play in bringing about change or raising consciousness because of their 'ability to show us things as if they might be different,' says Claire Doherty, director of Bristol-based art agency Situations. Doherty was brought in early on to advise on the programme and help administer an Exceptional Funding grant secured from Arts Council England, which enabled the commissioning of six major new artworks from a mix of local and international artists. A huge amount of thought went into how these artworks were deployed. Some were placed in quiet spaces, to be discovered by the community, such as Luke Jerram's eerie flotilla of seemingly abandoned fishing boats that were buried in Leigh Woods.

This installation evoked serious questions about the likely impact of climate change to our oceans and weather, but there was fun to be had here too thanks to a schedule of family bike rides ending in storytelling and a picnic by the boats. And temporary work by artist Fujiko Nakaya invited visitors to 'step into the unknown' by entering one of his poignant fog works, which veiled the Pero Bridge in Bristol Harbourside in a cloak of mist for 10 days. High-profile happenings included Bristol's leading contemporary art space, the Arnolfini, staging a major retrospective of Bristol-born and based artist Richard Long, celebrating his pioneering land art; every work a meditation on the wonder of our natural landscapes. In addition, it commissioned a new outdoor piece, Boyhood Line, a 'desire line' in pale stones, which traces a natural path that has been worn into the grass over many decades, near Long's childhood home on the Downs.

Most prominent for any shopper or commuter as they criss-cross the city, passing Millennium Square on their daily business, were The Bristol Whales, life-size sculptures made of Somerset willow, looming out of the pavement. Created by local studio Cod Steaks (former Aardman creatives), the whales danced in a 'sea' created by 70,000 plastic water bottles harvested after a Bristol half-marathon.

This city-wide arts festival culminated in November, with almost a month-long celebration produced by Situations and its music partners MAYK, under the direction of internationally acclaimed artist and activist Theaster Gates. Gates, who is slowly reviving Chicago's poorest neighbourhood through a grassroots programme of culturally driven, bottom-up regeneration, likes to awaken 'sleeping' or neglected parts of cities. He chose Temple Church as his Bristol site, a bombed-out church that's rarely visited, in whose remains he and architect/artist Andrew Cross conjured up a temporary timber auditorium out of the city's architectural flotsam. Here, for 24 days, a free festival of continuous, round-the-clock sound and spoken word was performed by musicians and artists from all parts of the city and all demographics. In this way, Sanctum truly acted as an 'amplifier for the city' and its many voices.

Pupils at St Barnabas School play Sustainable Shaun, a computer-animated game developed with Shaun creator and Bristol-based animator Aardman. Photo: Chris Bahn
Pupils at St Barnabas School play Sustainable Shaun, a computer-animated game developed with Shaun creator and Bristol-based animator Aardman. Photo: Chris Bahn

On top of this programme, Bristol Council provided grants of £2m for 189 community arts and engagement projects. Facilitated by a skilled local team of project leaders, activities were brainstormed with neighbourhood groups, then developed and staged by them. Their output varied from film to music to food-based events. Topics such as waste were explored, but also deeper social issues such as youth engagement and ageing. The impressive scale and quality of these activities was undoubtedly helped by the council's smart decision to set up Bristol 2015 as an independent company to promote, administrate and deliver the cultural programme, as well as raise additional capital - some £11m.

Ferguson's architectural sensibilities undoubtedly helped bump the role of visual arts to the forefront of the Bristol 2015 menu, though his zeal seems greatest for having been able to enable and execute some really joined-up thinking. 'My background as an architect has been incredibly useful in running a city,' says Ferguson. 'As an architect and urbanist I've always looked at place making. I've always given priority to environmental matters and green buildings. As president of the RIBA a decade before [2003-05], I was pushing for a more environmental approach to architecture. It has been a huge help. But also for really solid things, like setting up our own energy company to competing with the big six, to supply energy within and beyond Bristol. We have taken control over our waste company so it can be more of a resource than a waste company, working together with reuse organisations.

'Those aren't things that we're doing because of Green Capital. We're Green Capital because we're doing those sorts of things. Because we're Green Capital it gives more weight, more momentum.' EGC status also helped secure additional funding, not just the aforementioned Arts Council Exceptional Funding grant, but an additional £7m investment from central government for community projects, summits and conferences, as well as the green schools programme, among other things. The first UK city to hold the EGC badge, after all, has to be able to set a benchmark for the rest of Europe, never mind the UK.

Ferguson's role as elected mayor (rather than a party-political appointment) has also been a boon in implementing and fast-tracking ideas. He says: 'The whole point of the [elected] mayoral system... is that it does enable much quicker decision-making than the old party system. Some people find that a bit challenging because they say it's less democratic.

I think if you ask Bristol people, they recognise that stuff gets done because we make the tough decisions. We are incredibly fortunate. It's a bolshie city in some ways. It's got loads of people who have strong opinions, but that's great when it comes to an opportunity like this because it gives people a chance to demonstrate what they believe in.'

The Bristol Whales, life-size sculptures in Somerset willow in a sea created from abandoned plastic water bottles, took up residence in Millennium Square. Photo: Frances Gard
The Bristol Whales, life-size sculptures in Somerset willow in a sea created from abandoned plastic water bottles, took up residencein Millennium Square. Photo: Frances Gard

What will its legacy be, now all the fun is over? A clear programme of past and ongoing investment is probably the most effective demonstration for citizens that Bristol 2015 hasn't been one giant PR stunt. Continuity is key in converting newly interested/activated citizens into participants in resilience building schemes, and showing them that the city is putting money where its mouth is.

Bristol has laid strong foundations in energy networks: Bristol City Council is one of the first authorities in the UK to establish its own wholly-owned energy company, Bristol Energy. A massive scheme to improve energy efficiency in homes will continue, as well as the establishment of three district heating networks and the installation of solar panels on its land and property.

Bristol already has several energy cooperatives; 2015 saw the opening of a community-owned Solar Park (Moorhouse Lane Solar Farm delivers enough renewable electricity to power some 430 homes each year), with more such schemes promised.

When it comes to transport, Bristol has gone as far as it probably can, given budgetary and existing limitations, with the aforementioned cycle infrastructure, traffic restrictions and electric-car charging points. But it is now looking beyond its own boundaries to help alleviate grid-locked rush-hour streets - apparently among the most congested of any UK city.

Construction is under way for the Metrobus high-speed commuter service, which promises reductions of commuter journey by as much as 75 per cent. Hopefully, the £200m scheme, run through an alliance between the four councils in Bristol, Bath, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset, will overcome local resistance and achieve its roll-out in 2017.

Sustainable food quality and sourcing is another area where Bristol has taken an innovative lead. The city is surrounded by rich, agricultural countryside, yet an estimated 75 per cent of Bristol's food is bought in supermarkets. The Bristol Food Network has been a major resource in supporting local growers to connect with consumers, but for 2015, funding was provided to launch the Bristol Food Producer's Network (FPN), a group of local producers, processors and distributors/retailers interested in overcoming obstacles to scaling up food production.

A CGI of the Bristol Arena, a 12,000-capacity venue designed by Populous and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, to be built in the blighted area around the Temple Meads Station. Photo: Populous
A CGI of the Bristol Arena, a 12,000-capacity venue designed by Populous and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, to be built in theblighted area around the Temple Meads Station. Photo: Populous

Regeneration is also a key part of the resilience jigsaw, and Bristol has done much to transform its former dockyards into high-quality, beautifully landscaped communities, involving masterplanning, landscaping and architecture from leading civic-minded practices, such as Cullinan Studio and Grant Associates. Future initiatives are focused on the area around Temple Meads Station, where Sanctum has hopefully performed the necessary acoustic acupuncture, reawakening an area blighted by ring roads and derelict factories. It will soon be the new home for the Bristol Arena, designed by Populous along with the West Country's most prominent ecocentric architecture practice Feilden Clegg Bradley. The new, multipurpose 12,000-capacity performance venue is billed as a 'colosseum' for Bristol, and will be located on the site of a former diesel depot.

It is due to feature an innovative displacement ventilation system and provision for the largest number of photovoltaic cells in the city, plus new cycle and pedestrian links between the station and residential areas to the south and east.

Christine Davis, who manages Bristol's Architecture Centre - for more than 30 years a resource for sustainable building practice - says: 'The Arena is designed to really help with the regeneration of that dreadfully dreary area around Temple Meads Station, to provide a destination that will become a cultural hub and that will help the whole area become more vibrant, with other businesses around it. If it works, that's sustainable in the best possible way. It will create jobs and its location - next to the station - will encourage people to travel in by train. It's exciting for the city. We haven't had that many big new projects, though we do really well with retrofit.'

Will real behaviour change be effected by all of this activity? Claire Doherty, who admits to some scepticism about the chances of meeting Bristol's bold EGC objectives two years ago, feels sure that the diversity, visibility and reach of the year's art outputs combined with the debates, conferences and workshops, have generated 'a kind of atmosphere in the city that is to do with thinking of our future...

'The crucial thing is to reach beyond the middle-class city centre to areas of the city, for example, which haven't engaged in those things or would feel that organic food is too expensive. That's something the mayor's office has done particularly well: thinking about what it means for the rest of the city.'

Long before the festivities had concluded, the EGC team was distilling lessons learned from the year into a handbook called The Bristol Method. Says Ferguson: 'If you're European Green Capital you have a responsibility not just to the city but to make sure you inspire others.' Cities rather than nations have to take the lead, he concludes: 'The world is moving incredibly fast via the cities. I took part in a very inspiring couple of days at the Vatican in 2015 with 60 of the world's leading Christian capitals; at least three-quarters of them were represented by their mayors. I was really impressed that we are all pushing in the same direction.'

A team of cyclists from the EU Green Bikers group, led by the EU’s Directorate General for the Environment Karl Falkenberg, arrive in Bristol after cycling the 630km from Brussels in celebration of the city’s status as European Green Capital last year. Photo: Chris Bahn

Ferguson was looking forward to making a presentation at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which took place in Paris in early December. The idea was to present 100 transformational changes by cities. Says Ferguson: 'Some of those are really impressive: cities becoming 100 per cent renewable; cities transforming the way people move around them. Cities have woken up to [the environmental crisis] more than nations because the evidence is on their doorstep.'

But how many other UK cities - hampered as they often are by party political and bureaucratic agendas - could follow Bristol's lead? Some say Ferguson's clarity, energy and enthusiasm for his role are only possible thanks to his complete lack of interest in being a career politician.

For now, he's clearly making the most of it. When we spoke in November, Ferguson was preparing to attend a weekend-long street party laid on by Arcadia, a typically eclectic Bristol performance collective, which is a regular at the Glastonbury Festival with its bizarre Mad Max machines fashioned from rejected industrial ephemera. All of its engines were being converted to 'bio fuel' in honour of Bristol's European Green Capital status. 'For 2015, they have literally cleaned up their act,' says Ferguson, gleefully; then he heads off to join the party.

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