Columnists / Tessa Coombes

Bristol –

By tessa coombes, Saturday Jan 10, 2015

Bristol has been described as a self-satisfied underachiever which lacks planning and design vision, where public transport is a joke and “nobody housing estates” sprawl out from the centre.

Is this a description you can relate to? Is this the Bristol you know and recognise? In his book Towns in Britain published last year, Adrian Jones uses these descriptions as a challenge to Bristol and to our planners – to do better, to have vision and to be bold.

You can read most of the text of the Bristol chapter online on the Jones the Planner blog. It caused quite a stir when it went live in 2013. 

Over the years I too have been critical of the lack of vision in Bristol, the lack of leadership and the fear of taking big, bold and difficult decisions. Too often what we have seen is unnecessary compromise, leaving us with plans, projects and developments that continually disappoint and fail to make the most of Bristol’s location, quality and existing townscape. Historically, there are areas of Bristol that have charm, character and quality, but sadly much of what has been added in the last 10, 20, 30 years has lacked any of these qualities. 

There has been some positive change. Think what Queen Square and College Green used to look like with major roads running through them. They are now key open spaces where cars are much less dominant and areas that people can enjoy. But overall, I would say that if big decisions have been taken on planning issues in the last 20 years or so, they have been poor, lacked vision and have added nothing positive to the city.

So on the whole I agree with Jones the Planner, something has been missing in the way we think about and plan our city. Too much short termism, too private sector dominated, too much compromise and no vision.

In some ways then, it came as no real surprise that Bristol citizens were the only ones who voted to have a directly elected mayor in the referendums held in 2012. After all the mayoral system is supposed to be about providing clear, accountable, visible leadership and about long term thinking, with elections every four years, rather than annually.

So presumably there’s now an opportunity to think differently, to take some of those difficult decisions, to risk unpopularity and to provide a clear vision of the way forward?

There’s an opportunity to provide the civic leadership that has been sadly lacking in recent years and to make the most of the relative prosperity of Bristol. And to some extent that is what we have seen over the last couple of years, since George Ferguson was elected as the first mayor of Bristol. He has taken some difficult decisions and been prepared to be unpopular. You may not agree with the decisions, but you can’t accuse George of ducking some of the difficult issues or of being afraid to take unpopular decisions.

But for me there have been missed opportunities, where the Mayor has fallen into the same trap that most politicians fall into, and that is a focus on projects without a clear strategy or vision to provide the framework. As a planner myself, I look at Bristol and see so many areas of the city centre where improvements are desperately needed and bold decisions need to be taken to bring the city to life, to provide for people rather than cars and to create the quality environments we all enjoy. But sadly, even the council’s latest plans for the city centre seem to lack the ambition that is needed, so the future still looks bleak.

If you walk through and around the centre of Bristol from Harbourside to Temple Meads you see the best and worst of the city. The best come in the form of the active frontages along the harbor by the Watershed and Arnolfini, the improve public spaces at College Green and Queen Square, and the eclectic mix of Corn Street and St Nicholas Market all of which provide the kind of quality, mixed uses and areas of interest that we enjoy and naturally gravitate towards. 

Then you have the worst; walking through parts of the new Harbourside, “master-planned” by Ted Cullinan, with second rate architecture, both brash and boring at the same time, with little sense of enclosure or space for people – it really is horrible.

You then have to try to navigate your way across the new city centre, a mismatch of car, cycle and pedestrian lanes initially delineated with different surfaces, now a complete mess of patched up paths, roads and cycleways that merely serve to create confusion. Add to this the marginally improved Broadmead and the new Cabot Circus, which exhibit little style and not much by way of design quality, except around Quakers Friars, where at least some effort has been made to achieve quality. Otherwise, they are faceless shopping centres that could be anywhere, separated by a ridiculous road system that serves to divide rather than integrate and which remains very much focused on car dominated retail.

Then, finally after a long trek not for the faint-hearted, you get closer to the station, a Brunel masterpiece surrounded by huge road systems that discourage walking and are flanked by corporate HQ buildings, where any notion of integration or quality are concepts that have clearly been left behind. Not the best way to arrive in or leave Bristol.

But then, Bristol is still flourishing. We’ve ridden out the recession, we’ve done okay, so we don’t really have to worry too much about the bad bits, because for some reason businesses still want to come here. The comment from Jones the Planner about the smugness and complacency of Bristol as a city is all too obvious when you listen to some politicians and business leaders. Maybe it is this complacency that holds us back or maybe it is that we don’t have any leaders with vision.

But one thing is for sure, whilst we celebrate and brag about how well Bristol has done and is still doing, we could surely do so much better. With vision and leadership, and with a willingness to be bold so much more could be achieved. As Jones the Planner concludes in his book chapter on Bristol – “just think what Bristol could do if it really tried”.

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