The Future is Urban

By Antonia Layard

Bristol skyline in watercolor background
Bristol skyline in watercolor

Bristol’s Festival of the Future City, held from 17-20th of November 2015, was an incredible success. The quirky highlights included Will Self leading a walking tour around the city, armed with umbrella, urging participants to press their faces into an old stone wall and to feel its ‘this-ness’; Jonathan Meades, guiding a bus tour around Bristol; a master class with the Bristol-based, globally-facing public art producers Situations collaborating with Theaster Gates on Sanctum; and games in the street with the Watershed’s Creative Director, Clare Reddington, working with the 2014 and 2015 winners of the Playable City award (Chomkorosier for Shadowing and Lax for Urbanimals).

Taking to the streets reflected the widespread recognition that despite all the emphasis on cities as drivers of economic growth (by government or councils), cities are cultural as well as economic hubs. In particular, there was much discussion on fostering the ‘stickyness’ of cities. And while academics have long debated the precise details of the creative city debate – and who precisely might be in or out of a ‘creative class’ – there was widespread appreciation amongst all participants in the Festival of the geographies of talent. The Festival was in many senses a showcase. It reflected the broad consensus that talent is attracted by culture and cultural amenities as well as an entrepreneurial environment. So far, so Bristol (dancing cranes anyone?).

In more conventional ways too, the Festival’s integrated, multiple strands were evident. It provided the launch event for InnovateUK’s Future Cities Report and was funded by the AHRC (#AHRC10), with other collaborators including both universities, the City Council, Foresight and the Government Office for Science, as well as the Festival of Ideas’ own links with The Observer and the Guardian. The Festival was part of the lineup of events for Bristol’s year as European Green Capital. Coupling these resources with the Director, Andrew Kelly’s, incredibly productive networks, the Festival was able to invite a fabulous range of international speakers: from Mexico, Paris, Canada, Lagos and the United States, to name just a few.

One of the most compelling presentations was by Eva Gladek, from Dutch consultancy Metabolic, illustrating their projects based on a systems analysis and implementing incredible ecological – and aesthetic – results in practice. If, as the World Bank suggest and Gladek began, 80% of GDP is produced in cities, there are compelling arguments to laser in on how to make sustainable urban living a reality. (Let’s all move to Holland).

There was also genuine engagement. In parallel with the Festival, the Danish Government held a series of seminars on Liveable Cities, bringing together perspectives from Copenhagen (last year’s Green Capital) and Bristol on housing, open space and transport. On the last day of the week there was the Future of Bristol Day (with its student parallel), where participants could work with local authority representatives, city thinkers and activists to open up conversations about how the city might look in 2065. Sessions were held away from the city centre, including at the highly rated Knowle West Media Centre, who were also working with the University of West England’s Architecture School on the Next City: Reimagining the Means of Production, held at Novers Park Community Association. The week ended with the annual Mayor’s speech, given in the Great Hall of the University of Bristol.

Importantly, too, real efforts were made to ensure the Festival was as affordable as possible, with many events – including the Bristol day – free of charge and prices for tickets never exceeding £8. Nothing is perfect, however, and there were real and consistent concerns about limited inclusion, over-reliance on established networks and a lack of diversity. In many senses this hides deeper questions about engagement practices and the time consuming nature of much participation.

And the Bristol-focused events also highlighted ongoing tensions about the development of the city and its future: on the slow release of land for self-build and engagement with community land trusts; the difficulties of bus transport; and continued issues around representation, such as race, class, disability and exclusion. And yet, and yet, there is a sincere commitment within the Festival of Ideas and beyond to keep trying, to improve representation, to have multiple locations, diverse speakers and broad audiences.

The Festival had also commissioned its own yougov research before it began. All age groups cited overcrowding, including housing shortages, as the biggest challenge and George Ferguson, Bristol mayor, ex-president of RIBA and influential architect, spoke passionately at the joint Bristol-Copenhagen housing sessions of the need to change cultural perceptions of density. With London participants referring repeatedly to the proposed 230 towers planned in the capital, a Danish version of density, with light-filled apartments and beautiful lighting (very Borgen) was made to look incredibly appealing. Perhaps this is an unachievable holy grail? And yet Barra Mac Ruairí, Bristol’s Strategic Director for Place, spoke persuasively at a Liveable Cities event about the possibilities for aesthetically attractive, well-connected, dense and inclusive buildings at key sites within and extending beyond the city.

In one sense all of these inspirational, imaginative and challenging presentations reflect an expression of belief. The Situationist proposal of “an autonomous organization of the producers of the new culture, independent of the political and union organizations which currently exist” pervaded the festival. It was a consistent message: cities can do it for themselves. We can use creative technologies for good, to create a sensefull social. As such, the Turner-prize nominated architects Assemble were preaching to the choir. As one tweet put it: “Abandon Notions of Permission! Reclaim the City! Use Your Analogue Tools! Use Paint, Screwdrivers, Your Hands!”

Of course in Bristol, as elsewhere, austerity localism is a constant reality, which amateurism and handmade can only provide a very partial response to. City representatives were open about the painful experience of local authority job cuts, losing friends and colleagues, as well as the fear of what this week’s Spending Review will bring. In addition to art for art’s sake and socially engaged practice, if cities become increasingly reliant on business rates for funding, with no devolution of property taxes and continued limits on council tax bands, then the need for cities to do it for themselves becomes an issue not just of artistic practice and communal beliefs, but of dire political necessity. There were also plenty in the Festival audiences who were fully aware of the importance of available land – the most expensive urban resource – to build new housing or provide access for creative acts. Few remain unaware of the implications of ongoing privatisation and defensive property practices. Unsurprising then that Bradley Garrett’s call for an urban Kinder Scout movement was enthusiastically received in a city where non-conformism has a long history and even Visit Bristol extols property incursions.

Here also is the evidence of devolution. Set against a landscape of city deals as asymmetric as national devolution in the UK, cities are working in an ongoing network of localism and centralism. In housing, the dismantling of the planning system by the National Planning Policy Framework and definitions of ‘viability’ are the absolute backdrop to any city-scale discussions on affordable housing in England. A Bristol mayor has many powers but few resources. Overhearing an audience member grumbling about residents’ parking was a stark reminder of how a consensus within the Festival to get cars off the streets, improving flow, air quality and connectivity, is not always paralleled in mayoral voting intentions. And at times the academic itch to say “yes, but …” was overwhelming. The city bargains in the shadow of national regulation and global flows of capital and people. While smart data was a frequent subject of discussion, data in an academic sense – findings – were rarely evident.

The take-away message on engagement, however, was that as academics we need to present our research and ideas in ways that are more easily accessible. There wasn’t a single reference to a journal article, only, consistently, to experience and (readable) books. The academic presentations that were invited, and worked well, used visuals or rousing speeches (including Guy Standing, Anna Minton, Mark Tewdr-Jones and Danny Dorling). These academics are able to keep things on point, and refrain from complex problematizing (even when they know all the details). Writers, more used to the festival format, included Gillian Darley on Jane Jacobs (with a wonderfully nuanced description of William Whyte by Miriam Fitzpatrick at University College Dublin), alongside provocations from Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley (“Jane Jacobs is the younger generations’ Corbusier”). They were in some sense the intellectual backbone, being more represented and easier to digest (again, with an academic’s “yes, but…”)

These and other presentations illustrated how, as academics, we need to become more succinct and visual if we wish to engage with a wider audience. Nick Dunn’s presentation of his Foresight report on a visual history of the future, to take one example, was spellbinding both in its use of visuals, innovative methodology and a talk well versed in the complexities of these debates. Similarly, Michael Edward’s report on housing brought in graphs and infographics prepared for his Foresight report on prospects for land, rent and housing in UK cities. There are movements within academia to investigate the visual, even where this has not the conventional format (see Amanda Perry-Kassaris’ project on Visualising Law, for example). These matter at events such as the Festival, where the hope expressed in the Situationist manifesto that “at a higher stage, everyone will become an artist” comes close to being realised. Perhaps, at least in Bristol, we are all Situationists now.

Disclaimer: This is a wholly personal view of the Festival. I missed many sessions through overlaps (#futurecity15 took fear of missing out to new heights), meetings and teaching.