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Our Project Was the City Bristol Ideas: 1992-2024 Written by Andrew Kelly with illustrations by Jasmine Thompson

Written by Andrew Kelly With illustrations by Jasmine Thompson

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For more than three decades, Bristol Ideas played an important – sometimes central – role in Bristol’s life and work. It led initiatives that transformed significant parts of the city; created an events programme on ideas, cities and economics that attracted involvement from people worldwide; and ran projects on, among other themes, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and engineering, the Bristol Aeroplane Company, aerospace today and in the future, making cities legible and easier to understand, Frankenstein, the First World War, Angela Carter, and contemporary poetry and cinema.

The city of Bristol and the future of cities has always been at the heart of Bristol Ideas. Cities offer home, work and life to 55 percent of citizens globally and this will grow to two thirds by 2050. Much of our work over the past 30 years has been about creating new organisations, institutions and festivals, and strengthening the existing cultural organisations and activity in the city. Above all, we wanted to make the city work for everyone. This meant addressing all aspects of the life and work of cities including architecture, governance, transport, work, housing, leisure, green spaces, immigration, health and education.

This was not just about Bristol; it was about all cities. I have always believed that cities are places where people come together to live and work, learn and play. Cities enable collaboration and creativity. It is in cities that futures can be created, including finding solutions to the environmental crisis. But many cities are developing in the wrong way: superstar cities are growing apart from the rest; and there is rising inequality, a housing crisis, poor transport and tension over immigration, despite its need. Bristol faces these challenges too.

There are many lessons to learn from the Bristol Ideas’ experience in culture and cultural planning, partnership building, adapting to changing cities and raising money. Here we look at the story of the organisation, our philosophy and approach, some of the projects we ran, and the lessons we have learned. Later in this book, some of those involved in Bristol Ideas – staff, audience members, project partners – write about their work with us and what resulted.

The Establishment of Bristol Ideas

A strong partnership committed to the future, and a rigorous evidence base focussed on culture in the city, were essential from the start. Bristol Ideas was established following Peter Boyden’s detailed research that took place in 1992. Funded by the three partners in Bristol Ideas – Arts Council England South West, the Bristol Initiative (later to become part of Business West) and Bristol City Council – this was the UK’s first ever detailed investigation of a city, its culture and its impact. Boyden concluded that a body should be set up that was independent of the partners but bringing them together to plan long-term cultural development in the city.

We started in 1993, although there had been much work done already. We were led by John Savage, the visionary head of the Bristol Initiative who, in those early years and for decades after, was an important city leader and a strong supporter of culture as part of city life and renewal as well as for business prosperity. The Bristol Initiative came out of the late 1980s report and project Initiatives Beyond Charity, led by the Confederation of British Industry, which promoted greater business involvement in the governance of places.

Each partner had its reasons for joining. Arts Council England South West felt that Bristol, as the lead city of the region, was underperforming and should have greater aspirations for cultural development and activity. Bristol Initiative members saw culture as important for the economy of a place as well as for providing momentum for social progress. Cultural development for them was part of a wider programme that included an initiative to house the homeless and plans to mark the 500th anniversary of John Cabot sailing to America in 1497. Bristol City Council knew that it needed to be more ambitious with culture and had to work better with others in the city. It also wanted more investment in culture because its own resources were limited and often spent on very few organisations, the largest grant being to the Bristol Old Vic. Despite improvements, especially in investment in some capital projects, the city council continues to struggle to support culture at the level it would like because it has a low funding base.

We were fortunate to have outstanding leaders in the partners who saw the value of culture in cities. John Savage led from the front; Louis Sherwood, then chair of independent television company HTV (now ITV West & Wales), invested passion and money and used his networks effectively; Martyn Heighton (then director of leisure services at the council) and Councillor Crispin Taylor helped drag a reluctant city council to work in new ways; and Maggie Guillebaud, Chris Bates and Chris Butchers led Arts Council England into the work and the partnership. Bristol Ideas would not have been created without these and many others, and a huge debt is owed to all for their leadership and ongoing investment. In recent years, both of Bristol’s universities have joined the partnership, fulfilling a long-held ambition to bring higher education into the organisation.

Cultural Planning and Cities

Boyden’s work and the setting up of Bristol Ideas was based on cultural planning: a concept not used widely, sometimes regarded with suspicion, but essential for our success. It remains important for the future of places.

For the past 80 years, culture has been seen as a lever for policymakers, stretching from culture for its own sake – the belief that everyone should have access to what was then regarded as ‘high’ culture – to an interest in the economic and social impact that culture can have in the regeneration of cities and neighbourhoods.

Cultural planning links culture with the economic, social and community life of a place. It is more than planning for cultural activity, putting on a festival, delivering a community arts programme, installing public art or the creation of an arts strategy. It might encompass some or all of these, but it is wider and involves many people and organisations that would not normally be involved in planning cities or traditional arts activity. It is about the whole place, not just cultural infrastructure. For the urban planning expert Charles Landry of Comedia – a strong influence on our work – ‘the city is the project.’ It is both a method and approach because it is concerned with the way things are done as much as what is done.

Cultural planning makes culture integral to the life and work of a place, as well as ensuring the widest possible involvement. It starts with developing an understanding of local cultural assets and the networks that connect them, often through a process of cultural mapping. The people involved in the process need to be as wide-ranging as the assets identified. Going beyond traditional planning boundaries means that more ideas come forward. And this includes gaining the full involvement and talents of communities.

An assessment of what makes a place unique – which might be as much about community spirit as it is about history and industry – is essential. For cultural planners, culture is about more than the arts. It includes habits and history as well as natural assets such as parks and gardens. It embraces urban myths – the topic for one of our Bristol Ideas walks – and how people and communities perceive a place.

Cultural planning should not be restricted to an arts or culture department nor solely to a local authority. Rather, it is about collaboration between people with a shared interest in a place. The approach needs to be cross-departmental, bringing together city planners with professionals working in economic development, health, leisure, housing, education and – perhaps most importantly – members of the different communities that make up the place. I recently interviewed cultural planners and city leaders and almost all pointed to transport being the biggest current problem in terms of gaining access to culture and enabling people to work in cultural organisations. Cultural planning without considering public transport will not succeed.

Cultural planning draws on many ideas and influences. One of the earliest was the polymath town planner, ecologist, biologist, conservationist and sociologist Patrick Geddes, who was inspired by the French sociologist Frederic Le Playʼs triad of ‘Lieu, Travail, Famille – Work, Place, Folk’. Others include the city planner Lewis Mumford, the 19th century City Beautiful Movement, the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, contemporary planners and consultants such as Lia Ghilardi, Franco Bianchini, Harvey Perloff in Los Angeles, Robert McNulty and his work for the Washington-based Partners for Livable Communities and, more recently, some of the work of Richard Florida. Within the UK, Glasgow’s cultural plan was also influential. The Bristol Initiative made a visit to Glasgow in 1989 to see the role and impact of culture on the city and came back impressed.

Two further important influences on the work of Bristol Ideas were Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Kevin Lynch’s work on legibility and places. Jacobs, influenced by Geddes, and with an approach based on campaigning and much personal observation (another key role for a cultural planner), saw the city as an ecosystem with many people and organisations participating. Jacobs wrote about seeing all aspects of city life and the need to be involved in many different areas.

For Lynch, the city is ‘a work of art, fitted to human purpose’. Values are important, with Lynch highlighting: engagement, freedom, justice, control, learning, creativity, access, continuity, adaptability, meaning, health, growth, development, beauty, choice, participation, comfort and stimulus. Lynch’s work looked at how people perceive and evaluate their environments. His practice was primarily concerned with substantive clients – the present and future users of a place – and was focused not on how cities do work but on how they should work for people.

For Lynch, it was people, not designers, who made places successful. Although he appreciated the work of experts, he found their hold over city design aesthetics unhelpful because they failed to promote public debate.

Like Geddes, all cultural planners need to be multi-talented. A strong awareness of and immersion in the literature of cultural planning is essential. But reading needs to be much wider and needs to take in a range of literatures and voices including city histories, memoirs and fiction. It is also important to learn from other places. Any cultural planner working in urban areas needs to visit other cities, walk around them and talk to their people.

Rewarding though it is, it can be hard for cultural planning to be accepted, as we sometimes found in Bristol. Academic and consultant Franco Bianchini told me ‘cultural planning is marginalised and [is] not fully accepted by the cultural policy establishment. Either it’s seen as impractical or maybe… as a threat.’ It was easier in some years to work with planners and transport, for example, than with arts officers. Cultural planning is often also at the margins – the ‘fluffy’ end of policymaking – and yet is needed now perhaps most of all with the growth of people moving to urban centres and the need to make cities work for all.

The Bristol Ideas Approach

Bristol Ideas took these influences in cultural planning and made them locally meaningful. For Bristol Ideas, cultural planning was place-specific and built on and extended local strengths, assets and distinctiveness. In an age of clone towns and cities, off-the-shelf solutions to the challenges a place faces do not work, and cultural planning enables the character of places to shine through, however hard it is to achieve.

Bristol Ideas sought to bring together arts and sciences; build on, celebrate and commemorate Bristol’s unique history to help understand the present and plan the future; help raise and widen debate about ideas and issues crucial to the city; and embrace the widest possible range of organisations and individuals to do this. We aimed to implement a few projects directly; influence as many organisations and individuals as possible to develop joint projects through coordination of initiatives, fundraising and marketing; and inspire widely so that all can participate and take pride in what the city does and has achieved. In this way, significant projects were created, with maximum impact, for relatively modest support from public funds.

Questioning and debate was an important part of our work in Festival of Ideas and other festivals and projects we have run. (Jasmine Thompson)

Our view of culture was deliberately broad to embrace arts, nature and sciences. In his famous 1959 lecture (which we recreated 50 years on in Festival of Ideas, with a new lecture on the theme by Raymond Tallis), CP Snow talked about the split between arts and sciences that was impeding human progress. Bringing these together was important philosophically for us so that cultural planning could embrace Bristol’s significant scientific assets including Brunel, the Bristol Aeroplane Company and the BBC Natural History Unit. This belief led to the creation of the arts, nature and science centre which became We The Curious.

Bristol Ideas did the early work that few others could do – establishing the case and partnerships for each project, raising funds and doing all reporting. This meant that organisations and artists could get on with the work they are best placed to do. It also strengthened the cultural sector and artists as funds raised went to organisations, projects and artists directly – something we agreed we should do from the start. At its height, Bristol Ideas only ever had five employees. Having enough core funding from partners meant this work could be done without spending time raising money for salaries.

At the heart of our work were 12 principles:

  • Bristol’s past contributes to Bristol’s future.
  • Great art should be available to and celebrated by all.
  • Culture is about arts and sciences and embraces subsidised and commercial activity.
  • The arts and the creative economy contribute to economic growth.
  • Partnership is critical: the more people and organisations that are involved in a project, the greater the opportunity for successful creative thinking and action.
  • Lead where needed but mostly work through and with others where possible and appropriate.
  • Extensive research underpins all work.
  • Marketing and campaigning are part of all projects.
  • Renewal of vision, work programme and activity are ongoing and based on thorough evaluation of all projects.
  • Long-term relationships are nurtured – especially in ideas, fundraising and project development.
  • Diversity is central to all work.
  • At the centre of it all is culture and the importance this has for people; for the place where they live, study, work or visit; for jobs and prosperity; and – most of all – for quality of life.

Bristol Ideas’ Work

Bristol’s cultural roots run deep. The Bristol Story, which we published in 2008, told the story of the heritage and culture of the city from the start. There’s much from which to choose: Bristol Old Vic theatre built in 1766 is the oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world; Bristol saw the first publication of the works of the Romantic poets in the 18th century; Angela Carter did early work in the city and three of her books are known as The Bristol Trilogy; Bristol’s vibrant music, the ‘Bristol Sound’, showed the city’s cultural diversity; with Watershed, Bristol created the country’s first media centre; and the artist Banksy is world famous. As our wider definition of culture embraced science and nature as well as the arts, we also have engineering and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; Paul Dirac and Peter Higgs; parks and green spaces, and a wildlife-friendly city.

In 1993, Bristol Ideas started work in four main areas: making the case for Bristol; building the partnership and partnership working; leading on the cultural redevelopment of Harbourside; and establishing at least one new cultural initiative. I was appointed as Bristol’s Head of Cultural Development in December 1992 and took up the role in April 1993. I had been working in the School of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford (I graduated from the school in 1983 and then joined the staff) and then spent 18 months developing a media centre in Huddersfield. Within a few years, I had gone from researching the non-nuclear balance of forces between NATO and the Warsaw Pact and the impact of a nuclear attack on some of Britain’s cities (they didn’t survive), to building new cultural facilities and helping lead a programme of transformation of Bristol’s culture.

I have always been interested in the arts – an interest which has grown over the decades and became both my life and work. But I’m also interested in cities; in history; in management; in making change happen; in politics; science; and in issues like the environment. Anyone running the kind of programme we did – a programme which changed radically every other year – needs to have wide interests. Extensive reading and the assiduous gathering of information is essential. I guess this is why reading and writing played such an important part in our work, especially with our Festival of Ideas but in many other areas as well.

Much of the work of partnership building and planning is never seen publicly: strategy development, networking, fundraising, planning and marketing. This is often the most underestimated though time-consuming and exhausting of all work and remains so to this day – at least 60 percent of our time was spent raising funds, building and managing networks and partnerships, and developing strategies and business plans. This is long-term patient work which benefits from endurance. It was a critical early part of the work of Bristol Ideas which continued to the end and may be what is missed most of all, or at least will need to be recreated quickly.

Additional early work was to build confidence in Bristol. In 1993, Bristol was not regarded favourably by some national arts funding bodies and national government. We couldn’t do much about government – although we did at least contribute to a sense that change was happening and the city, in cultural terms, was moving forward. We had more success with national funding bodies and especially the Lottery, then still young but offering opportunities which Bristol grasped eagerly.

What Did We Do?

The essays in this site look at some Bristol Ideas projects. Here, I look at work in five areas: culture and the city centre; making the case for Bristol; bringing together arts, nature and science; using Bristol’s past to understand where we are now – and where we might go in the future; and creating a city of ideas and building cities of the future, in particular Bristol.

Much of this work was delivered through projects. I’ve always been sceptical of the cultural strategy approach where large levels of investment are spent on creating a document that often gets put on a shelf and forgotten about. Have a plan yes. But work with people, embrace and harness their enthusiasms, and deliver projects with them.

The City Centre and the Renewal of Culture

Much early work was devoted to the renewal of Bristol Harbourside, then a top priority for the city, but it also involved creating new initiatives like the Brief Encounters film festival. This was probably the most exciting and the most important work that the partnership did in terms of early city renewal, even if one major project failed.

We were keen from the start to have a new film festival which reflected Bristol’s strengths. Encounters, launched in 1995, achieved this in its work on short film and animation. (Jasmine Thompson)

Harbourside offered great potential for the whole of Bristol: 72 acres of prime city-centre land, in the heart of the city, next to the floating harbour and near the cathedral, the Council House (later renamed City Hall), Arnolfini, ss Great Britain and Watershed. The case and support for culture in the development was strong and new cultural institutes were regarded as essential, though it was felt that they would come at the end. They were some of the first to be built. Plans for a new concert hall – what became known as The Harbourside Centre – were in my job description, but there were other possibilities too.

Early meetings with consultants – who seemed to want to make Bristol Harbourside the same as other harbour developments worldwide – were depressing (a problem of only importing ideas from outside, something that good cultural planning tends to avoid). At one session there was a reveal of their big idea: an aquarium. I’d already met Chris Parsons, former BBC Natural History Unit director and the genius behind David Attenborough’s Life on Earth, and he had told me about his plans for an electronic zoo, which would use digital media to show the natural world in a new way. I disliked traditional zoos and felt uncomfortable when visiting them (Bristol Zoo moved to a new wildlife conservation centre in 2023 which is better), so this was an attractive idea which also built on a Bristol asset of natural history filmmaking. There might be funding, too, from the recently launched Millennium Commission which offered support for transformative projects to mark the year 2000.

Our first major project was We The Curious on Bristol Harbourside. It was an early example of our work bringing together arts, nature and science in cultural planning. (Jasmine Thompson)

I argued for this electronic zoo (later called Wildwalk) rather than an aquarium. We quickly established a group, with strong leadership from the council and Nick Hood from Wessex Water as chair, and this, and The Harbourside Centre became the focus of our work. Soon after, science was added with the proposed move of the Exploratory hands-on science centre, then located at Temple Meads, to Harbourside to create Bristol 2000, later called At-Bristol, now We The Curious. The centre would also have an Imax cinema.

It was an exciting time. There was vision and will, a strong partnership, and there was money available from the Millennium Commission and Arts Council England if the right bids could be made. For me, it was an early example, even a vindication, of our approach to cultural development bringing together the worlds of arts, nature and science.

We made huge progress over these years and raised much new money. I felt we were creating something that was new and specific to Bristol, where culture was at the heart of regeneration; and where culture was democratised (a term we didn’t use in the early 1990s) in extending arts and sciences from the city centre to the many communities of Bristol.

After a year, I stopped working on Bristol 2000 and spent much of my time, until a director – Duncan Fraser – was appointed, on The Harbourside Centre. This was Bristol’s great opportunity. The building was architecturally world-class with plans for cultural programming that would have been brand new for the city. We were not just going to replace the ageing Colston Hall but create a new centre for the performing arts, an outstanding place for music and dance in a building which did for Bristol what the Sydney Opera House does for Australia.

We nearly got there. The Behnisch design for the building and the artistic plans were rightly applauded as transformative, ambitious and symbols of a city that was beginning to take its place as one of the leading European cities. Bristol 2000 was well on its way when the decision to refuse final funding for The Harbourside Centre was made in 1998. This came as a shock to those involved and to many watching, although some – including architects on the Arts Council England panel – had had their reservations. I was shocked and appalled. Locally, The Harbourside Centre was regarded as a done deal, and it was thought that any issues were minor and being addressed. The funding had apparently been reserved and Arts Council England had already paid for the car park so that Bristol 2000 could be built in time for the millennium.

The Bristol project was not the only one rejected that day. We got a very good car park out of it which continues to provide revenue support to We The Curious, and for that, and only half-jokingly, I always wanted to put a plaque up. However, most of those involved seemed to want to forget about it all and move on. This made determining what went wrong hard to identify. And while Harbourside is much better with the new and renewed cultural centres and public spaces that have sprung up in more recent years, some of the housing is poor. At the time, it was said we should avoid the perfect, which can be the enemy of the good. But some of the housing is not even good.

Having The Harbourside Centre there would have raised the game for the rest of the site and for Bristol. Later the Wildwalk section of Bristol 2000 closed. It was probably too early for this idea. An attempt to create something similar, but using technology not available then, was suggested for the old Bristol Zoo site in Clifton in 2023 but that will not go ahead there at least. Ironically, an aquarium took the place of Wildwalk, although Bristol Ideas did help bring back into use the former Imax cinema – which had closed in 2007 alongside Wildwalk – and this now features special film programmes including ones we put together.

I think the failure of The Harbourside Centre affected the city. The city council seemed reluctant for a while to think about big cultural projects. It took the Capital of Culture bid for 2008 to reignite some of that ambition. There may be similar problems now: Bristol Museum & Art Gallery needs major investment, but will a future council do this? Can it even afford to do anything, following the experience of Bristol Beacon and the ongoing impact of austerity?

In addition to the cultural development of Harbourside, Bristol Ideas ran a bid for the 1998 Year of Photography and the Electronic Image – one of a series of Arts Council England themed years in the build up to the new millennium – and launched and managed the aforementioned film festival Brief Encounters, established as part of the national celebrations of the centenary of cinema in 1995 (but which was successful enough to become an annual event). Both were about building on Bristol’s assets, and both were about encouraging partnerships between city-centre organisations and those elsewhere in the city, west of England and nationally.

The development of Brief Encounters was another good example of how we worked. The idea began to develop in 1993 when I met with Aardman Animations. I knew of their work and an early visit to the offices was a treat. I asked them what we could do to help. They wanted two things: faster planning permission for the Portakabins they needed for production, and projects that celebrated the media industry in the city. We got nowhere on the Portakabins but went ahead with a festival focussed on short film and animation which celebrated Bristol and filmmaking internationally. The partnership that resulted – bringing together BBC, Aardman, other media companies, Watershed and the universities – led to Encounters which is now approaching its 30th anniversary.

We also spent time over the next decade helping Harbourside’s existing cultural organisations, including facilitating major investment in Arnolfini and Watershed by the South West Regional Development Agency and helping the Architecture Centre with its renewal plans.

These early projects showed our approach at its best, even if The Harbourside Centre failed and the Year of Photography bid was lost. They were about arts and sciences; they built on aspects of what Bristol was good at, even excelled in (hands on science, animation and short film, natural history media) and we did the work no-one else was able to do before handing the reins over to others.

These early projects established us as part of Bristol’s cultural planning and future and laid the foundations for the work to come. Twenty-five years after The Harbourside Centre was stopped, Bristol Beacon opened and was rightly acclaimed for its physical transformation and magnificent acoustics. It’s a shame that we were not able to see The Harbourside Centre built, but we do at last now have the concert hall that Bristol deserves.

Bristol Ideas spent many years working on a new concert hall and other performance spaces for Bristol. The work on The Harbourside Centre did not succeed but Bristol Beacon reopened in late 2023 to wide acclaim. (Jasmine Thompson)

Making the Case for Bristol

One of the aims of the cultural partnership right from the start was to put Bristol on the map. When I arrived, a developer said: ‘why have you come to the city where good ideas come to die?’ That belief was nonsense then and thankfully seems to have disappeared from current talk about the city, although I often tell the story in the many endless and mostly fruitless discussions that take place on city branding.

However, there was a problem in cultural terms. I also often tell the story about the competition that Venue magazine ran on a slogan for Bristol. The winner was ‘It’s better than Stroud’. It seems hard to believe this now, and it was not true then, but there was a feeling that Bristol was underperforming culturally. This was one of the reasons why we had been established. But there was also the problem that the city tended to be looked at by funders with only the Bristol Old Vic in mind. The Bristol Old Vic is critical to Bristol’s culture but had been a problem for many years: when it came to funding, Arts Council England felt the city council didn’t fund the theatre enough while some council members felt it got too big a share of support from what was a meagre arts budget.

Our job was not to solve the problems that Bristol Old Vic faced. Our job was to build the profile of culture and Bristol’s offer and to raise awareness that, valuable though the theatre was, there was more to culture in the city. This is why we put so much effort, over many years, into improving cultural provision in the city, creating new cultural projects and facilities, and in bringing Bristol’s long cultural history to wider attention.

The most important work on this was the bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2008. We worked full-time on this from 1999-2003. Initially, there was not much support for Bristol taking on such an ambitious programme. The partnership wanted to pursue it but there was scepticism among some city council members. This changed after shortlisting when the odds of winning had shortened and funding might be needed. The leader of the council, Diane Bunyan from Labour, was a great advocate at the first stage and was pivotal in convincing judges of the Bristol case as was Simon Cook from the LibDems, Peter Abraham from the Conservatives and Helen Holland from Labour.

More than four years spent focussing on the bid meant we were able to make the case about, and campaign for, culture in the city. I didn’t think we would win, although never stated this publicly. Bristol had many problems but for the judges the priority was always going to be a city that needed more of a hand up than Bristol did. What I wanted was to make cultural planning citywide, to aid the recovery from the disaster of The Harbourside Centre decision, and to lay the foundations for a new programme over the following four years. All of that was achieved – and, unofficially, we do know that Bristol was ranked third behind Liverpool and Newcastle/ Gateshead.

What came out of the bid? A focus on sport in 2005; Brunel200 in 2006; numerous Great Reading Adventures, when we encouraged everyone in the city to read the same book at the same time; a year on Charles Darwin, art and science in 2009, and BAC100 the following year when we marked 100 years of the Bristol Aeroplane Company and looked at the future of aerospace. We also launched our Festival of Ideas in 2005 which ran for 19 years, and which saw spin-off festivals on economics and future cities.

This, to me, is the importance of bidding: it provides an excuse to plan and to campaign and to deliver a programme. Winning competitions is hard, but it is not a failure to lose. The only failure is failing to plan for disappointment. In 2016, Bristol had another opportunity to bid for the 2023 European Capital of Culture. I thought it essential: culture needed a similar plan and campaign as we provided in the years of 1999 to 2003, but Brexit stopped work on our bid as it did for places like Leeds, another early contender. Leeds adopted a similar approach to Bristol in that they delivered anyway in 2023. Our programme for Bristol 2023, a year which marked the 650th anniversary of Bristol becoming independent, was minor by comparison with previous projects we had led as neither the momentum nor the money was available.

This work – and it was the work of a generation – led eventually to projects like Bristol 2000. We also focussed on Bristol’s importance in the world of cinema and filmmaking; celebrated the fact, rarely covered then, that Romantic poetry started in Bristol with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads; brought Mary Shelley’s time in the city to public attention, as well as the possibility (I always felt this a long shot but it was worth debating) that her creation of Frankenstein, a book that I have read many times over the years, was partly influenced by what she learned about the slave trade when she lived in Clifton in 1815.

Some of these projects took a long time to happen. In 2016, we used the excuse of the 800th anniversary of the first mayor of Bristol to run many events we had planned for some years. We did a weekend on Frankenstein and marked Angela Carter’s early work in Bristol with an exhibition and book. It took longer to develop our cinema work. Our planned project on William Friese-Greene, the Bristolian pioneer in early filmmaking, was originally intended for 1995 and the centenary of cinema, but lack of funding and time meant that it took another 21 years to come to fruition. This was no bad thing: in that time more research was done on his life and work and a more rounded picture of his contribution could be made.  

Making the case for Bristol also meant being involved in debates taking place elsewhere as well as generating our own. We ran a series of conferences with linked publications: an early one was on managing partnerships; another looked at the impact of arts and culture; two looked at legibility and cities; another at arts sponsorship. It meant accepting invitations to speak and attending many national and international events where we could put the Bristol case. Far-reaching research was needed to underpin all work. All this activity brought people together and gave the momentum needed for the development of spin-off projects.

CP Snow’s influence on our work helped us understand the artificial split between arts and science and how this might be bridged. We wanted to make sure that our cultural planning work helped to overcome this problem and bring in science and nature as part of culture. We were not interested solely in the creativity of artists, writers and poets, important though this has been. We also wanted to look at the creativity of scientists and engineers and promote cross-learning and collaboration.

Our annual Great Reading Adventures saw tens of thousands of people read the same book at the same time. An early project was The Day of the Triffids. (Jasmine Thompson)

Bringing Together Arts, Nature and Science

Given Bristol’s eminence in this area – from Brunel’s projects in the city to future Nobel Prize winners Paul Dirac and Peter Higgs attending Cotham school, to the contemporary work in natural history media – here was another example of our assets that told us something about where the city had come from as well as where it might go in the future.

Much of our early work on this was devoted to the successful creation of We The Curious (and its partner project The Harbourside Centre). The linking of arts, nature and science was extended in our bid for 2008 Capital of Culture. As part of the Capital of Culture bid we launched our annual Great Reading Adventure with Treasure Island in 2003. The following year we chose John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, which meant we could discuss environmental and climate issues through this magnificent book.

Our plans for the approach of 2008 included a huge project on Brunel for the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2006. Looking back, Brunel200 was my favourite project. It was the biggest one we did and engaged the widest range of people and organisations. It was Bristol-based but regional in its importance and reach. And it inspired widely, with schools, scouts and guides, universities and businesses doing their own initiatives but all contributing to a coherent, coordinated, national celebration. Our press coverage, locally, regionally and nationally was enormous. My essay in this collection covers Brunel200 in more detail.

Four years later, we returned to arts and science with our 2010 programme on the Bristol Aeroplane Company. Aviation is an underappreciated part of Bristol’s history, but it is a remarkable story: the Bristol Aeroplane Company started with aircraft made of wood, paper and glue and went on to build Concorde, with successor companies creating the Airbus A380. We were able to work closely with the local aviation industry, the companies and their current and retired workers, to explore not only the history and what followed but also what it meant to them. Like all our major projects, we brought together exhibitions and creative workshops in schools, books and celebrations. One project within the wider programme I liked a lot was the building of a replica World War One aeroplane by the apprentices of Airbus and Rolls-Royce.

Aviation is controversial. If the centenary had been just a decade later, it might have faced public protest. However, we did work with the companies to explore how the aviation of the future would work to reduce environmental impact and there is more of that needed.

When Bristol was made 2015 European Green Capital we ran the major arts projects for the year. Nature was key to this, as was operating in a more sustainable way: a policy and practice that we had adopted early and maintained throughout, from the transport we used to the food we ate. Thanks to an Arts Council England Exceptional project grant, we were able to support six core initiatives. Situations – an arts group in the city – worked with the artist Theaster Gates on Sanctum, a new venue made from recycled material at Bristol’s Temple Church. We provided a grant to the artist Luke Jerram to stage his abandoned boats project, Withdrawn, at Leigh Woods. Arnolfini put on an exhibition of Richard Long’s work, Time and Space. The Bristol Whales saw two beautiful sculptures made from wicker and recycled plastic bottles in Millennium Square. Our Festival of the Future City started in 2015. And the legendary Arcadia Spider made an appearance for two nights in Queen Square.

The legendary Arcadia Spider made an appearance in Bristol’s year as 2015 European Green Capital. It performed to 34,000 spectators over two nights in Queen Square. (Jasmine Thompson)

Alongside this work we ran a project I had wanted to do for a while on Wordsworth, Coleridge, Romantic poetry and Bristol. The fact that Bristol could lay claim to being the place where Romantic poetry started is something we were keen to discuss and test. We already had the example of Thomas Chatterton – Wordsworth called him the ‘marvellous boy’ – and the story of his work here and his tragic death in London was marked in a special poetry project in 2020. In addition to this, both Wordsworth and Coleridge spent time in Bristol: Coleridge’s famous and radical lectures on the slave trade among other subjects took place here; and both poets worked with publisher Joseph Cottle on the first edition of the founding document of Romantic poetry, the Lyrical Ballads, published in Bristol. As Coleridge and Wordsworth were concerned with nature, our work linked well to Bristol’s Green Capital status. We commissioned 23 poets to write in the tradition of Romanticism, started our books of walks with one on the Romantic poets in the city (we regularly published new books of walks about ideas in the years after) and launched our Coleridge lecture series which ran for five years.

Each of these said something about the environment, sustainability, the importance of cities in finding solutions to the multiple crises we face (now called the polycrisis) and the role of arts, science and nature in addressing these challenges. What difference did we make? It’s hard to say; some of the other essays in this collection explore our impact.

Bristol’s Past, Present and Future

Our many projects have all had the aim of connecting generations so that a societal contract is emphasised: what we learn from the past helps us to understand the present and can contribute to a better future. This work included marking the centenary of the council estate in 2019 and what this means for housing in the future, and our work on Bristol’s trade in enslaved African people looked at what happened and why but also at social justice today.

We always offered multiple opportunities for participation. Some people involved might read the free books provided; others may read the books, take the walks, and join the debates; some might watch a television programme inspired by the work, listen to the poetry that had been commissioned, or visit a gallery exhibition.

In recent years, the German approach of ‘vergangenheitsaufarbeitung’ – working off, or through, the past – has been influential in how Germans have tried to deal with Nazism and the Holocaust, and inspired our work, as well as giving it an underpinning foundation.

The reckoning on Bristol’s role in the trade in enslaved people is long overdue. And, in recent years, Bristol has struggled with its past, especially its involvement in the triangular trade. The toppling of the Colston statue in June 2020 followed many years of campaigning. It should not have taken this long and could have been dealt with in a different way, but the follow up work and public debate led by the Mayor’s History Commission on how best to deal with a memorial to such a controversial figure was well received.

The early decision not to call The Harbourside Centre ‘New Colston Hall’ (which was one of many suggestions made) signalled our intent. Our first Great Reading Adventure, Treasure Island, looked at the triangular trade. In 2005, we collaborated with Comedia on a report about building an intercultural city which argued that, before Bristol could move forward, it needed to interrogate and deal with its past better. In 2006, we ran a debate with the then British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (which closed in 2013) on whether we should apologise for the past. The vote in the room was heavily in favour; the phone-in – run by local media – was heavily opposed. The following year, our Small Island Great Reading Adventure addressed the trade and looked at the Windrush generation and postwar immigration to Bristol and other cities. We worked nationally with Glasgow, Hull and Liverpool on this. In 2008, The Bristol Story, the cartoon history that was used widely across the city, dealt carefully and sensitively with this issue. We provided continuing support for groups, public events and education (some of our work for the 60th anniversary of the Bristol bus boycott in 2023 was a good example of this).

Bristol Ideas also looked for inspiration from Bristol and across the world. In 2016, we worked with the Black group Come the Revolution on film and literature initiatives about Malcolm X. We saw 1,000 people read The Autobiography of Malcolm X that year, including a group of prisoners at HMP Bristol whose essays written in response to reading the book were published on our website. The best three writers were given dictionaries, because Malcolm X had a dictionary when he was incarcerated, and he credits this with helping change his life.

In 2023, we gave books to HMP Bristol again as part of our James Baldwin project. We also supported 12 writers with their Baldwin work, some of which was published nationally by Writers Mosaic, part of the Royal Literary Fund. I spent much of 2023 re-reading all Baldwin’s work – my personal great reading adventure. Baldwin is one of my intellectual heroes, alongside George Orwell, the ‘silent spring’ environmentalist Rachel Carson, and Jane Jacobs who showed how American cities could become better places. I have often thought about why these writers and campaigners are important to me and it comes down to their pursuit of the truth.

This helped me understand Bristol more. In Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin writes that he still believes that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ and ‘I know that self-delusion, in the service of no matter what small or lofty cause, is a price no writer can afford’. Reading Orwell and Baldwin taught me about being a critical friend to places where I live and work and gives me hope that we can make something better from the problems of the present, and out of the ruins of the future – a task which becomes more urgent, and harder, by the day. I hope that our focus on the past of Bristol had the same impact on others so that we can all help create a better city.

Creating a City of Ideas and Cities of the Future

UK cities – and Bristol is no exception, and perhaps exemplifies the challenges more than most – are facing great problems. Bristol’s growth has placed huge strains on the resources we have, especially with a city council that does not get the funding it deserves and, like all cities and combined authority areas, does not have the powers it needs to manage effective change.

Bristol Legible City was an important development for us. This was a system unique to Bristol and one that highlighted the need to look at the whole city, how people used and understood it, and bring in different disciplines and thinking to find new ways of operating. It saw us run three conferences and publish two books. It influenced initiatives like Watershed’s Playable City. And the principles of city navigation and understanding that were developed went on to be adopted by other cities in the UK and around the world. I learned more about cities from this than any other project we have done.

As a key legacy of the 2008 Capital of Culture bid, we launched the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Given the importance of literature to the city, Bristol deserved a literature festival but everywhere else seemed to already have one. Planning for a new initiative, and inspired by work elsewhere, it was clear that ideas were the driving force in Bristol and that we should present and debate these. For nearly 20 years, we ran our Festival of Ideas with more than 2,000 events. We covered arts and sciences, politics and history, feminism and problems facing men, business and work, health and the environment, and more. We worked with partners across the city, launched a Young People’s Festival of Ideas (run by young people) and helped many communities and groups launch their own events, one example being Homes for Heroes 2019 on the past and future of council housing.

Building on this, in 2011 we launched our annual Festival of Economics. Our Festival of the Future City started in 2015, as part of the European Green Capital year. This led to more debates and learning across the city. More than 20,000 people participated in that first festival and the linked Bristol2015 events. In 2019, we had our best and most extensive festival yet with activity across the city, but the pandemic made the 2021 festival difficult to deliver, and we had only begun the recovery in 2023 when we announced we would close. Festival of the Future City will be relaunched as the Festival of Flourishing Regions in 2025 led by the Growing Together Alliance, a consortium including Business London, Business South, Business West, Cambridge Ahead, Northern Powerhouse and the North West Business Leadership Team providing a tangible legacy to this work. Our Festival of Economics will continue with the Economics Observatory based at the University of Bristol.

Festival of Ideas lasted until 2024. In the final two years, we focussed on the governance of Bristol with publications and events about Bristol’s elected mayor and the referendum to move to a committee system. It was not a good debate, to be honest: there was little public education (no booklet was issued to citizens about the vote as had happened in the past and there were few events, though a group of academics in the two universities put together an excellent report which  we and others used). And Festival of Ideas got progressively harder over the years. The pandemic hit us badly, but there were also problems of polarisation and an increasingly difficult environment for open discourse and debate. We stuck robustly to our freedom of speech policy, sometimes in the face of opposition.

As time went on, we got far less media coverage than we had achieved in the period to 2008, although we did benefit for a while from our national media partnership with The Observer. Local and national media has changed over the past 20 years. Locally, as sales plummeted and revenues dropped when advertising migrated to the internet, there was less space available for our content and substantially fewer journalists employed. Although local journalism can be frustrating, local newspapers are essential for democracy and we are poorer for their decline. The growth of alternative, predominantly web-based organisations like Bristol 24/7 and The Bristol Cable (we ran events with them in 2023) helped, but the day-in, day-out reporting of local politics and coverage of the courts has suffered and this is something we will not get back.

I am immensely proud of Festival of Ideas, despite all these challenges. We encouraged year-round coverage of significant ideas from Bristol and around the world. We reached widely into the city with the festival and its many linked activities. We encouraged learning about civic governance and about the city. And I got to meet and interview Margaret Atwood, Harry Belafonte, Ray Davies, Daniel Dennett, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Tracey Thorn, Rebecca Solnit and many others. I even got two custard pies thrown in my face by the Phantom Flan Flinger when we did an event on TISWAS with the Slapstick Festival. I learned much from all of this and think the city did, too.

Measuring Impact

Bristol Ideas was guided by a long-term vision of building a city with creativity at its heart delivered through a mission of partnership. Despite much work across 30 years, it is hard to assess impact. Raw data on numbers of people attending events and taking part in activities is sometimes easy to collect but evidence of changing behaviour, both immediately and over time, is difficult if not impossible. How can we measure whether through culture, and through Bristol Ideas’ projects, the city changed for the better? Improved the image of the place? Helped attract more jobs? Promoted the provision of council housing? Led to better civic discourse and reduced polarisation? Created a greener environment?

These have been some of the many outcomes we have attempted to achieve, and we tried many ways to assess whether we did so. We used the pioneering work by the Port Authority of New York in the 1980s on the arts industry in the New York and New Jersey regions. John Myerscough’s 1988 book, The Economic Importance of the Arts in Britain, which looked at economic value, was also influential. This, and linked multiplier effect analysis, was supplemented over the years with assessment of social impact, measures of city creativity, the presence and importance of a creative class; cities and interculturalism; the role and impact of creative bureaucrats and more. We learned from others about how they assess impact and lobbied and tried to get better impact measures developed.

Being reliant on external sources of core funding, as well as project-specific funding, meant that measurement was often designed to meet the needs of funders rather than drive the development of the organisation’s goals. After each project, reports were submitted on the amount of funding raised and spent, the size of the audiences who attended, and sometimes an element of wider impact. Questions might be asked about happiness and wellbeing and how audience members felt.

Most of our evaluation reports are available publicly on project websites. For this final part of our work, I wanted to go deeper than raw data and worked with the Bennett Institute at Cambridge University on research. I conducted detailed interviews with 85 project partners and collaborators, many of which I hope we will publish, about the impact of our work and cultural programmes generally. Two themes emerged: civic engagement and the role of culture as social infrastructure, with both contributing to social capital, the bonding and bridging needed for the successful operation of a place for all.

Civic engagement: To build a better city, where citizens can listen, learn about and debate different views needs events, spaces and publications. This encompassed many of our activities, particularly those that brought attention to stories about the city and that encouraged learning about the city. For each of these projects, the underpinning research was communicated widely, with much of it being published in a series of books and reports. This helped create wider engagement through enabling better debate. Our work on the history of Bristol and what this means today, as well as projects on city governance in the period 2011-2023 – conferences, the annual state of the city sessions, the output of our city poets, and our many publications – not only helped to promote the referenda taking place but also aid understanding of some of the issues involved. Our wider Festival of Ideas programme promoted extensive debate on topics ranging from polarisation to immigration; the potential of Universal Basic Income and many others.

We also tried to expand civic engagement in key issues affecting the city through creative ways: supporting other festivals and events, such as Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, the Working-Class Writers Festival, children’s literature initiatives and Come the Revolution; and commissioning writers to address important issues, such as the mayoral referendum of 2023.

Culture as social infrastructure: Linked to this was creating new social infrastructure as well as strengthening existing social infrastructure in the city. The programming of the different festivals and the use of many different methods to encourage people to gather was central to this. All of Bristol Ideas’ work was rooted in the Bristol Initiative, in which the churches, the voluntary sector, the arts, business, city leadership, and the universities and colleges debate issues of concern about the city and look together at opportunities for change. Our early infrastructure projects were about creating spaces for learning collaboration. We The Curious provided space for the arts and sciences, and The Harbourside Centre would have provided a similar space for music, dance and ideas. New squares and streetscape design – such as the work we did on Speaker’s Corner in Bristol and Bristol Legible City – and the public spaces created as part of the city centre and Harbourside renewal all contributed to the shared public realm of the city and provided places where people can meet. For part of the 1990s, Bristol Ideas also helped organisations renew themselves in terms of their mission and funding. Work with Arnolfini and Watershed, for example, not only saw significant new investment but also the creation of spaces where diverse communities could meet, hence strengthening and adding to the cultural ecosystem of the city.

Arnolfini is one of many organisations that Bristol Ideas helped over 30 years. Bristol Ideas facilitated major investment in the renewal of the building by South West Regional Development Agency. (Jasmine Thompson)

All this work encourages the development of connectivity and joy; increased trust and confidence; friendships and further collaboration; and resilience. How you measure these is an ongoing project.

Some Lessons Learned

Until our final year, Bristol Ideas had been able to adapt and respond well to most of the challenges and setbacks that it faced over the last three decades. What are the key lessons we have learned which might help cultural planning in future cities and any revival of an organisation like Bristol Ideas?

Leadership and vision: Leadership at all levels is critical to overcome silo thinking and bring diverse viewpoints and activities together. It is not just the responsibility of one person or a board of directors. Someone must lead, but leadership is about maximising the involvement of teams, partners, networks, funders and audiences to connect, gather knowledge, promote creativity, provide motivation to do better and involve those who may not have participated yet.

For all the problems they face, local authorities remain critical to culture, given their levels of investment (even in times of austerity, this funding is far greater than that provided by arts councils) and their responsibility to a place. They work best where key areas of culture are located together organisationally in the same department or service area. This is not the case in Bristol, unlike other places such as Glasgow and Manchester and the more recently formed combined authorities. These all have a broad conception of culture which is reflected in their organisational structure. It took a while for Bristol’s City Office to set up the Culture Board and the first draft of the One City Plan didn’t include culture at all.

The increasing complexity of places, the challenges they face and the difficulties of finding solutions and funding means cultural planning needs staff with wide ranging skills and competencies. Cultural planners need to have in-depth knowledge and the ability and keenness to gather new knowledge about the history and people of the place through ongoing learning; an interest in politics as well as the political nous to be able to work with changing political environments; a feel for how cities and places work; and an ability to scan the horizon to take advantage of opportunities coming up and to anticipate problems. They need to be players in their authority, organisation, business and place, constantly searching for resources. In 2023 and early 2024, I interviewed people involved in culture in cities, combined authorities and universities outside Bristol and admired much of the work underway. There remained the issue of acceptance by others, but the position was much better than 30 years ago.

In recent years, the idea of the creative bureaucrat has emerged and was the subject of a conference in the final Bristol Ideas’ programme in April 2024. Being a creative bureaucrat helps to meet some of these challenges and needs to be developed further.

Build on the assets of a place, including its past: Bristol Ideas always worked with and through the assets of the city. This included both physical assets and those that are less tangible. Key among these was the history of Bristol itself, which we used as a way of convening people around the commemoration of events in the long civic life of the city, as well as a starting point to think together about the future. Through these assets, culture contributes to social capital. It helps build trust, promote civic engagement, and bring together and bond communities. Culture also contributes to the creation and maintenance of social infrastructure in the city, such as new third spaces for networking, discussing and debating differences, and encouraging better ways forward.

The importance of the local: Like every place, Bristol has many opportunities and challenges. An assessment of these is the starting point for cultural planning. In Bristol’s case this involved considering the city’s cultural strengths and weaknesses; its significant anniversaries, individuals and companies; the city’s built environment; urban myths and perceptions of the place; and past successful innovations and failures. Looking back at the history of the city does not mean ignoring the new. Rather, building on local distinctiveness and how it has developed over time helps to strengthen both the city and cultural planning and helps to build effective plans. This approach appeared in different ways in the work of Bristol Ideas. The first Great Reading Adventure, Treasure Island, was chosen because, in the novel, the ship the Hispaniola sails from Bristol. It allowed learning, discussion and debate about Bristol and trade, the British Empire, and specifically the trade in enslaved people. The national celebration of Brunel’s bicentenary in 2006, led from Bristol, meant that engineering then and now could be discussed as part of our culture. An early project with Business West was the recognition of individuals and community groups helping to Build a Better Bristol. Some years later, Bristol Ideas introduced the annual Bristol Genius Award to reflect innovation that made change happen, although this only lasted four years. We should celebrate more.

Partnerships and networks rooted in place: From the start our work was built and thrived on collaborative working. Our founders created a partnership. Each project was the result of strong and supportive networks. Bristol Ideas was deliberately small, never employing more than five full-time members of staff. It always worked with and through others. Managing Bristol Ideas was not just about managing an organisation but about simultaneously developing and managing multiple networks and stakeholders. At the heart was the network of Bristol Ideas’ core partners. There were also networks of funders and sponsors, political networks and project networks.

Partnership working comes down to relationships and trust; patience; building and making connections; diversity and inclusion. Trust is a key element, and a shared purpose is also essential. Any partnership needs to make sure that there are opportunities for each partner to gain benefits beyond the purely transactional and develop deep and lasting relationships. Generally, partnerships need to last as long as the project. Each partner needs to bring value with skills and connections that the other partner organisations do not have.

An important principle in bringing together and managing networks is to organise around enthusiasms. The idea is at the start of all projects. This builds on and is strengthened by enthusiasts who go on to deliver the projects. It is sometimes a long search, but enthusiasts can be found for most projects including amateur historians, academics, family history researchers, model plane builders, cinemagoers. We worked with all of these and many more over the years.

Longevity: It is essential to have a long-term approach that can stand the test of time. Bristol Ideas was able to adapt and respond to the changing world in which it operates for 30 years until a combination of the pandemic impact and core funding reductions, among others, led to the decision to close. We moved from being an organisation focused on the development of ‘hard’ cultural infrastructure such as a new centre for performing arts for the city and one-off initiatives such as the Capital of Culture bid, to delivering a wide programme of events that brought together different parts of a diverse city around the concept of ideas.

The importance of bidding: Losing the 2008 Capital of Culture bid was a blow. In truth, the odds were always stacked against us with a decision likely to be based on political and social need. I learned from this to make sure that political leadership was solidly behind a bid. We wouldn’t have won, but to go into the final judging panel interview with a council in which no party was in control, due to an inconclusive election result, meant that we gave the appearance of chaos when up until then we had shown unity and professionalism (this experience was partly responsible for exploring the potential for an elected mayor). Despite this, it is essential to apply for such awards. Bidding shows confidence. It provides an opportunity to debate ideas and develop plans. The only failing an organisation might make in the bidding process is to fail to plan for defeat. On Bristol2008, we were prepared to move forward even if we didn’t win the title and – in addition to the campaign seeing culture rise up the political agenda rapidly over those years – we received much financial support in the quasi-compensation deal established by national government which meant we could deliver Brunel200 and four other years of projects. If we could have bid for Capital of Culture 2023, we may not have won but we may have achieved similar results as we did 20 years before. Leeds did this. They wanted to be European Capital of Culture and were unsuccessful, but they delivered a year of culture anyway.

A broad definition of culture: Culture can be defined too narrowly. We always had a broad view of culture, moving beyond ideas such as ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and a division between the arts and science, to see culture as encompassing the diversity of the city. Alongside this broad definition is the role that cultural planning can play. For Bristol Ideas, cultural planning was more than just delivering a programme of cultural events. Rather, it was about enabling and convening partnerships, establishing standing and trust, and working together to raise funds. Above all, cultural planning provided a way in which the different communities that make up the city can be brought together to express their differences and understand their similarities with the vision of making the city a more equitable place.

Measurement: It can be hard to measure the impact of cultural activity. Various methods have been tried, including economic value-added, the contribution to wellbeing and happiness, as well as engagement, attendance and demographic data. Apart from basic information – such as details of those attending events – none have proved to be satisfactory. But this does not mean that we should not try to understand the role that cultural activity can play. It is through our awareness of how it can create a sense of civic engagement and contribute to the social capital of a place that we can appreciate its value.


There is no doubt that Bristol is in a far better position than it was 30 years ago, although the problems of growth, the lingering impact of the pandemic, and continuing austerity make it harder to sustain cultural programmes and puts the continued development of Bristol in jeopardy. The range and quality of cultural activity is stunning; the city is now seen as a cultural leader and is the city that others aspire to. We can’t claim all the credit. Bristol Ideas was a partner and colleague with many others, but we helped change Bristol for the better. I feel fortunate to have been a part of this.

Behind the conception of the organisation was a partnership involving both the public and the private sectors in Bristol looking to respond to the challenges faced by urban areas in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as crime, poverty and lack of opportunity. Some of these challenges may have changed over the life of the organisation. What is particularly noticeable is the longevity of Bristol Ideas and the other organisations, such as the Bristol Initiative, set up more than 30 years ago. Change takes time. And ideas take time to develop and come to fruition and so the ability to plan, convene and deliver over the long-term was a key feature of our work.

Bristol Ideas’ way of working was always with and through other organisations. This approach meant that strong partnerships were created across the city. Some partnerships were open-ended and continued without us and others focused on the delivery of specific projects and stopped when complete. What they had in common was their engagement of a wide range of different partners to involve anyone with an interest in the city of Bristol.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the relationship that we have had with the city. As well as being intertwined with Bristol’s cultural, social and economic life, we have drawn on its stories for our inspiration. Events which have started with a focus on significant moments from the city’s past have always led to discussions of the city’s future, and provided meeting grounds where different viewpoints and changing perspectives can be brought together and discussed. The city was our project and remains the project, whoever takes this forward.

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

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