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Bristol Ideas’ Impact Owen Garling

Written by Owen Garling

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Bristol Legible City is an ongoing programme incorporating street signage, art, maps, digital projects to help better understand and navigate the city. (Bristol City Council)

Evaluation and assessment of impact was always important in the work of Bristol Ideas, although cultural programmes are hard to measure. In 2023, Bristol Ideas collaborated with the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge, on a study of Bristol Ideas. Eighty-five in-depth interviews were conducted and transcribed and the first report, The City is the Project, was published in late 2023. Research collaborator Owen Garling from Bennett Institute looks at this work and his experiences of Bristol.

The only real connection that I have to Bristol is through my mum. Her father, my grandfather, worked for BBC Schools and, during the Second World War, the organisation was evacuated to Bristol from central London. As a result, my mum was born in Iron Acton, just outside Bristol, and spent the first few years of her life there. She subsequently returned to study English at Bristol University at the very beginning of the 1960s and used to regale us with stories of both her lecturers and landladies. I remember talking to her a while ago about the Bristol bus boycott, which took place while she was in her final year at university. Much to her shame, Mum had no recollection of being aware of the boycott when she was in Bristol; she may have forgotten it or perhaps, more likely, the events of the city did not make an impact on a young student with a head full of Shakespeare.

This conversation came back to me a number of times while talking with Andrew Kelly of Bristol Ideas as we planned our report into the work of the organisation. Had Bristol Ideas been in existence at the time of the bus boycott, one can imagine that a number of events would have been organised to create both the spaces within the city to learn about the events taking place, and to enable debate between different communities within the city. One can also imagine a series of cultural events taking place, perhaps similar to the events funded by the Community Grant Scheme in 2023 as part of Bristol 650 for projects honouring the 60th anniversary of the Bristol bus boycott.

This ability to respond to events – be they from the recent or deeper history of the city – and look at them in a way that casts light on the present and future of the city, as well as reflecting them back onto the past, is, I think, one of the key lessons that I have learned from the work of Bristol Ideas. For Bristol Ideas, the past is not another country. The past is still present in both the physical form of the city, the memories and feelings of the people who call it home, and in the way that the city can respond to the events that will shape its future.

Another key lesson has been the ways in which the work of Bristol Ideas has contributed to the civic life of the city. Over the last few years, one strand of my work at the Bennett Institute has focused on questions relating to social infrastructure: in short, those spaces and places that bring people together. Being an academic research institution, our work focused on the ways in which the value of these spaces could be quantified, how they contributed to other related concepts such as social capital – ‘the glue that binds communities together’, in the words of Andy Haldane of Royal Society for the Arts – and the role that policymakers at the national, regional and local levels could play in supporting these types of places.

The opportunity to work with Bristol Ideas enabled me to move beyond the sometimes narrow confines of the academic debate and consider how social infrastructure could interact with questions of culture in a specific place. What struck me about the work of Bristol Ideas was that it was not centred on a specific venue – in many ways, Bristol Ideas is an organisation without a home – but rather used the existing assets spread out across the city. And this was not confined purely to ‘art spaces’. Projects took place against a wide backdrop, including traditional art spaces, but also taking in the city’s housing estates and the public realm across the city. This ability to use the most appropriate venue for each project meant that the role of the organisation was much more about animating the space in such a way as to bring it to life for participants. Sometimes when thinking about social and cultural infrastructure, we focus too much on physical spaces at the expense of those people and organisations that breathe life into them and who connect people together. In Andrew Kelly, Bristol Ideas has had a director who implicitly understands the importance of this, and who has continually looked to bring together different partnerships centred around the organising principle of ideas.

Having spent time working with Andrew looking back over Bristol Ideas’ proud history of projects, I think that the one that stands out for me as typifying their approach is the very early project that helped to waymark the city, Bristol Legible City. Rather than imposing its own design on the project, the ways in which signage across the city was re-thought worked with the grain of the place and helped to open the city up and make it legible for people, while demonstrating the connections between different spaces. The project approach also typified Bristol Ideas, working with the local authority, private sector organisations, including those companies providing advertising space across the city and, perhaps most importantly, the people of the city and those who visit.

And now, 60 years after my mum left Bristol, my niece is studying in the city. On the morning of the 2023 Festival of the Future City, we both went on a guided walk of Bristol led by Eugene Byrne, looking at the urban myths of the city. As well as seeing the city through my niece’s eyes, it was also a great opportunity to see the warp and weft of the city in a different light, and think about how stories are created, shared, remembered and – perhaps most importantly – connected.

Owen Garling works at Bennett Institute, Cambridge University linking researchers and policy makers nationally and internationally. He worked with Bristol Ideas on research on culture, social capital and social infrastructure.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

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