Viewpoint: Bristol’s capacity for future urban change

Where can the opportunity for change and investment focus next?

Edward Nash looks at the challenges and opportunities

If those of us involved in the dynamics of urban change have learnt anything from recent years, it’s that economic change is essential to urban life. Sometimes in areas of cities already made physically rich and diverse from their past economies – but now protected by conservation status – the buildings remain but one pattern of land use is wholly replaced by another. Bristol’s Corn Street is one such example.

Elsewhere, regenerative change happens over many years and development densifies where economic and spatial opportunities come together.

What is less apparent in the second category is that such central zone change can take place only where a city’s previous patterns of economic activity and location has diminished. The massive urban regeneration in cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol and now Bath have all needed this spatial capacity to change first. In all, new patterns of city and edge of city centre living and working have been created. They offer access to city centre social, cultural and retail amenities and the advantage of growing public transport networks. For Bristol, it was the capacity of a long redundant central harbour area that started the rediscovery of the virtues of city living. In Bath, it was the Riverside site west of the historic city centre.

This begs the question where the opportunity for change and investment can focus next? If capacity for new economic change is essential to vital cities, so must be opportunity.

Many cities that grew a large suburban hinterland – as Bristol did in the latter 20th century – have little capacity for urban change beyond their previous edge of a central area zone. The property-owning democracy that forged them has fragmented landownership so much and we do not yet have the regeneration models that can envisage redeveloping these suburban areas. Yet the pressure to build more houses means there’s a real danger that even those zones of current non-residential use that might one day facilitate economic change, will get swept up for housing and sterilise their future for decades.

So, it’s a very small step to see that those parts of a city that currently miss out on the fruits of its economic life, should be seen as areas of unfulfilled economic, social and cultural capacity. Where economic activity is at its strongest will always depend on several factors, but principally it is where primary activity, centres of excellence, diversity of skills and accessibility all come together. We have also learned that cities need – and are essentially defined – as having a diversity of centres of economic, social and cultural activity.

All city centre residents and workers are trying to balance a set of living and working decisions; a viable pattern of childcare, practical concerns in getting to and from their work, leisure time lifestyles, housing and living costs, family and friend connections. In today’s world, such things can playout in unexpected ways. For example, in commercial property terms, South East Bristol’s Paintworks work hub should not have worked. In the wrong place, unconnected and almost invisible. But by offering diverse tenures and a creative sector critical mass, it did, and so has defined and stimulated a whole quarter of the city.

Our research on the aspirational characteristics of Filton Airfield revealed just how much Bristol’s householders are now prepared to compromise on their lifestyle location and housing aspirations simply to find somewhere to live from where they can, practically, get to their places of work.

As we all get used to the new perspective of seeing the Bristol region as a Combined Authority, it is really important to shine a powerful spotlight on all of those areas of the already developed urban area that are currently operating below their economic, social, cultural and land use capacity. Just as some areas of a city can fall out of economic vitality as their circumstances change, they fall out of popularity as places to live too. But we know there are few parts of historic cities we now value greatly that have not in their turn been in the doldrums.

Throughout the whole of the existing urban area, there are new lifestyle quality balances and discoveries to be made for future householders. Now is the time to explore those opportunities, in order to meet the city’s aspirations and build for future economic health in the region.

This article was originally published on South West Insider.