Making our Futures – the shape of Bristol to come

Making our Futures – the shape of Bristol to comersa
Tuesday 23 April 2013
16:15 – 19:30
Burges Salmon LLP, One Glass Wharf, Bristol, BS2 0ZX

RSA event blog

Making our Futures is a series of five events organised by RSA Fellows in Bristol around a core theme: ‘Think-Make: the future for Bristol’. The second event in the series was held in partnership with the RSA and The Academy of Urbanism, held at the wonderful offices of Burgess Salmon.

Cities have traditionally gone through a process of ‘planning’ – a framework developed by professionals who aimed to solve problems and view the future from a professionalised perspective. This event, facilitated as a ‘café conversation’ with a rich range of input and participation and a focus on action, sought to explore what the future city would look like if seen from ecological, cultural or personal living perspectives. What would this mean in terms of vision and practice? What are the challenges we face as a wider community and as stakeholders to that future?

The event attracted almost 100 participants and a surprise appearance from Bristol’s first elected Mayor and founding member of The Academy of Urbanism, George Ferguson. It comprised three introductory ‘Ted’ style talks on the three different perspectives (ecological, cultural, personal living), and set the tone for the discussion.

Conversation Café

During the Conversation Cafe, delegates were asked to discuss a number of themes in relation to the short talks that preceded (see presentations) and make notes on flip chart papers. The themes addressed the future of Bristol, and what it would look like if seen from various perspectives (ecological, cultural, personal living), the challenges we face in an era of change, and how we can ensure radical progress is possible.

The following themes came out during the Conversation Cafe discussions.

City of villages – noting that some communities were isolated (even more privileged ones) and Bristol was a patchwork. The question arose as to how we can celebrate the different villages and maintain inter-connectivity. Rather than a divided city, how can we join things up?

People and change – there was much discussion surrounding top down versus bottom up approaches and how real people will respond to change. How do you change people’s minds/thinking? And, how can you convince them to participate? Conversations have to take place within communities to feed into the wider picture. It is really about permissibility and how can we make it easy for people to take action at the local level and then scale/transfer these localized initiatives up into the larger scale?

Empowerment and action – the key is to set a precedent for action. Much of this is centred on breaking down barriers. There should be opportunity for self-leadership and for local/grassroots planning designed and lead by local people. Issues of leadership, control, and voice came up, leading to a discussion around neighbourhood partnerships and how they might be an effective mode for empowerment and community engagement.

Ecology – many groups discussed the need for ecologically friendly design and implementation practices. For example, green walls and roofs should be easy to introduce throughout the city, and greening can be created through good design initiatives. Food system planning is needed to encourage local growing, for example, through providing garden spaces. The question arose as to how we can have growth without [increasing] consumption?

Social activity – there was a feeling that there needs to be planned spaces for pop-up events or other community uses such as bazaars (rather than cathedrals) that add to street activity. The importance of festivals to healthy societies was mentioned, and developing active spaces around the M32 was another major point for developing local interactions. Street parties were brought up as an effective way to get people engaged in their community, which can then transfer into the wider community. Planning for people is a holistic approach to shaping the city.

Laboratory city – the idea that Bristol could be a test bed for innovative approaches to local planning was brought up numerous times. This is also something that George Ferguson promotes in his Mayoralty. New ideas can be tested in Bristol and used as precedents for other cities and for other programmes within the city. We shouldn’t be waiting for a big idea, but begin with Bristol, or adapt ideas from other cities – use what is already proven to work.

Youth – youth empowerment and engagement was a theme that emerged as well, suggesting they are influential in city-making. They could be utilized to fill the gaps and bring a more inclusive and diverse group into the process, also adding new perspectives.

BIG VISIONS – How do we influence the future? Respect for the past, live in the present, drawn to the future. Legacy cannot be managed or planned but can be facilitated.

After the papers were amalgamated in smaller groups to identify major themes that emerged in Conversation Cafe discussions, as discussed above, they were brought back to the larger group where a final discussion was hosted by Geoff Haslam and Nick Childs. Mayor George Ferguson’s participation was integral, as it helped to make light of the role that our public institutions can play and provided an insider’s take on the issues.

Discussion notes

During the final group discussion, to which the Mayor contributed, delegates further discussed the themes identified throughout the evening.

There was much talk about the Laboratory City to help make connection between people and places. The Mayor noted that he hopes this discussion will continue afterwards and that new ideas will come out of it. He stated that risk-taking experiments are important as they bring together experts in forums such as this event. “Until you’ve tried it on the ground,” Ferguson suggests, “you don’t absolutely know.”

Bristol has a fantastic history of making things happen, and George hopes to provide the space for people to test new ideas. It should be the case that you don’t have to ask permission to do – this requires council to slacken the reigns. Part of this as well, as brought out in the Conversation Cafe, is to encourage Neighbourhood Partnerships and to direct money to communities to allow them to make decisions locally. Ferguson notes that it would be ideal to devolve as much as we can to Neighbourhood Partnerships, but to be cautious as certain things may require expertise. The question arose regarding how to achieve that balance? And how do you ensure that local plans are scaleable – by removing institutional barriers? Geoff Haslam referred to this as “professional advice on tap not on top.” George Ferguson sees his job as breaking down barriers, and opening people’s eyes to possibilities, but he often needs the support (of council) to push things through.

The consensus was that we need planning that has a dialogue with those involved (ie. city planners and architects) and that we need to get the experimental parameters right. Perhaps one method would be to do a little at a time and find a model that works. It was noted that other European cities can teach us a lot. Bristol has the opportunity now and decisions can be taken (particularly with the Mayor engaged).

For more information on this event, please contact Stephen Gallagher on +44 (0) 20 7251 8777 or


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