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Harbourside and Cultural Planning John Savage

Written by John Savage

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If there is one person who can be credited with having founded Bristol Ideas, it is John Savage. His work in leading The Bristol Initiative from 1988 saw the creation of Bristol Cultural Development Partnership and he remained involved to the end. Savage writes here about the critical role that the Bristol Initiative played in the renewal of Bristol Harbourside and what Bristol Ideas contributed to this. He reflects on the failure of The Harbourside Centre, the concert hall planned as the centrepiece of the regeneration programme, and what this meant for the city.

We turned 74 acres of worthless land, with little access for people, in a central part of the city, into a place that continues to improve and offer experiential activity about life.

The renewal of Bristol Harbourside was a key part of our work in The Bristol Initiative and culture was central to our thinking from the start. We spent many years bringing the five landowners and parties – Bristol City Council, British Gas, British Rail, Lloyds Bank and the JT Group – together in the Harbourside Sponsors Group. Before this, for many decades, development of the site was piecemeal and had little impact.

It was not an easy task to create this group. What was easy was agreeing that new cultural institutes were essential. Harbourside was already an example of culture-led regeneration with the Arnolfini art gallery and Watershed Media Centre. But they needed help and we lacked so much. We wanted a new concert hall for the region in the twenty-first century. Colston Hall was old and faded. The Harbourside Centre – which eventually failed to be built – would have been a jewel in the crown of Bristol. The magnificent building would have provided outstanding concert and music education facilities, and its very presence would have done for the image of Bristol what the Sydney Opera House has done for Australia.

Bristol Ideas led this and added a new centre looking at wildlife – the Electronic Zoo – and science when it incorporated the Exploratory then at Temple Meads station which was looking to move. This eventually became the arts, nature and science millennium project At-Bristol, now We The Curious.

The Bristol Harbourside project was a key part of the work of both The Bristol Initiative and Bristol Ideas in the period 1988-2000. The land had been derelict for many years. This aerial shot, taken in the early 1990s, shows much of the site after the completion of the Lloyds Bank buildings but before the millennium programme renewal. The area has been transformed, even though the major cultural project – The Harbourside Centre – failed. (Bristol Post)

For the Bristol Initiative, Bristol Harbourside was also about placemaking: offering new opportunities to sit in the sun, take a walk, grab a drink and a meal, visit the cinemas, galleries and museums. We wanted to give people access to more things that make their lives interesting and bearable. Two new public squares were created following Bristol Ideas’ work – Anchor Square and Millennium Square – as well as a large underground car park (paid for by Arts Council England), the revenue from which still provides annual support to We The Curious.

Although the funding ultimately didn’t come through for this ambitious development in its entirety, I’m pleased that Bristol Harbourside has become a better place for Bristolians as well as a destination for others.

Bristol Ideas was operating in this reimagining of Bristol Harbourside in the most successful way I’ve ever seen. Without that ability to get people interested and to think ahead, the Bristol Initiative would not have achieved anything, and the dream would have been incomplete, locally shallow and short term. The Bristol Initiative had vision and imagination, but we were all businesspeople at root. Bristol Ideas and their very small team constantly beavered away to make things work.

Models for The Harbourside Centre, Bristol. (Behnisch and Behnisch, 1998)

Culture in a city is relevant to and must be applied to everybody, and people who understand that are vital to success. Bristol Ideas gave us that ingredient; created the vision; invested the hard work to make it happen; and provided the will and determination to get us through the setbacks and disappointments.

And there were disappointments. I still regard the failure of Arts Council England to make their final investment – after eight years of work with them to create The Harbourside Centre – as a betrayal and a great lost opportunity. However, the reopening of Bristol Beacon in November 2023 was much needed and a triumph. I like to think the ambition we showed in the plans for The Harbourside Centre inspired the plans for Bristol Beacon in giving the city the concert hall it has long deserved. The successes outweigh the disappointments.

We The Curious now attracts more than 300,000 visitors annually. It helped transform derelict land in the centre of the city. Arts, nature and science were integrated from the start. It brought together landowners, planners, Bristol City Council, artists and scientists (among many others). The ideas were rooted in placemaking as well as education and economic development; and there was significant citizen participation. We The Curious created new places where people could congregate, learn, discuss and debate. And it showed that culture could lead the way in major city renewal. Bristol Ideas had the vision, the knowledge, the ability to build the partnerships needed, and they were able to marshal resources. Additionally, following the collapse of the Harbourside Centre, they had the resilience to carry on.

Their work also strengthened the Harbourside’s existing cultural provision and fomented new cultural projects: the creation of The Architecture Centre; the renewal of Arnolfini and Watershed; the expansion of ss Great Britain; the development of Underfall Yard; and the Bristol Industrial Museum becoming MShed. The completion of a continuous walk around the harbour and wider development including new restaurants and retail outlets on both sides of the river makes the place even more valuable, especially for Bristol people who have long held affection for the historic heart of the city. Only a few decades before, serious discussion took place about getting rid of the water to create space for more car parking. I’m glad we fought so hard to put culture at the heart of Bristol’s Harbourside.

Models for The Harbourside Centre, Bristol. (Behnisch and Behnisch, 1998)

John Savage was pivotal in founding Bristol Ideas in 1992. He was full-time chief executive of The Bristol Initiative from 1989 and, from February 1993, chief executive of Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Initiative and then executive chairman of Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Initiative.

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

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