More Bowie than Towie

“Big enough to matter, small enough to change”. This is Bristol’s USP.

A few years ago I was privileged to work with inspirational communications expert Harriet Kingaby. A former “Futerran“, Harriet arrived in Bristol with huge energy and passion for  life, to see whether it would live up to its reputation as the UK’s greenest city. For those of us who had become jaded by Bristol’s ‘damp duvet of despair’ she reminded us that Bristol is not only the greenest of any city in the UK, it also has the greatest likelihood of achieving the dream of becoming genuinely sustainable.

How did Bristol get here? I think the answer is twofold. Firstly, that Bristol is the gateway to  the south west, attracting and retaining those that are more interested in quality than quantity of life. Since the late 60’s and early 70’s when activist first began their protection of the city’s heritage and green spaces, Bristol has resisted the onslaught consumerism, concrete and to some extent cars. It is laid back, unorthodox and creative. More Bowie than Towie, if you will.

Secondly, Bristol is a small city with big ideas. Indeed, many will refer to it as a collection of 14 villages (loosely connected by a dysfunctional system of 4 local authorities). Small in its politics, but big on its technology. Small in its public transport but big on its natural history. Small in its own carbon footprint but big on its aerospace industry’s. Diverging a few degrees from Birmingham or Manchester may not seem significant, but over 30 years, that gap has widened enough for Bristol to be the only UK city to win the European Green Capital award.

We won what?

It came as a big surprise to many that we won this prestigious award. Seeing it plastered on the back of a bus as they were stuck in the same traffic jam day after day, trying to get their kids to school was not the ideal first step. However, the facts remain that when Bristol entered for the third time in 2014, it was top amongst its peers on many of the judging criteria and, combined with its aspirational carbon reduction targets, convinced the jury that the award could be transformational.

Indeed, it is already possible to walk everywhere in Bristol, often quicker than going by car. Allotments are ubiquitous, and the local economy is holding its own (just) against big business. Bristol City Council has done more than any other to reduce its energy bills and is busy doing the same for many of its social housing tenants. Indeed, resident’s satisfaction with life is well above average, and Bristol regularly tops the tables in a variety of popular media surveys.

But in terms of health & wealth, Bristol is also one of the UK’s most divided cities. Its underpinning issues are hiding in plain sight. Ask anyone about their concerns and the conversation will be dominated by congestion, expensive housing and inequality.

Herein lies Bristol principal conundrum, and most likely source (local politicians aside) of its cynicism about Bristol 2015. Of course, progress needs to be hope led, not fear driven. However, our story must be authentic and our actions better balanced. We must address directly the gap between the have and have nots. We must challenge the contradictions between ‘city of sanctuary’ and attitudes to immigration. We must put as much effort into creating jobs for the long-term unemployed as we do our university graduates. Indeed, it is a microcosm of the issues facing humanity world-wide, but rather than wring our hands in despair, we can lead the way.

Bristol’s biggest opportunity is simply to share its success.

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