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Bristol: Europe’s green capital

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Sustainable transport, district energy networks and housing retrofits complement grass-roots activity to underpin Bristol’s status as European Green Capital for 2015

With solar-powered hot air balloons and a new Bio-Bus fuelled by human and household waste, Bristol is going all out to fete its status as European Green Capital for 2015.

Sustainable city-making is in the eye of the beholder. To some it means a compact walkable city, to others green infrastructure or a digitally connected smart city. Angela Brady’s recent book The British Papers collates more than 30 views on the subject from UK practitioners and includes almost as many approaches as there are contributors. So what is a European Green Capital?

The proposed Bristol Arena by Populous

The proposed Bristol Arena by Populous with Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios includes a pedestrian forecourt intended to regenerate the Temple Meads area

Initiated in 2008, with no funding attached, the accolade’s main thrust is knowledge-sharing and inspiring best practice in other cities. The European Commission’s (EC) Green Capital badge is awarded annually to a city with a population of more than 200,000 that can demonstrate a strong environmental track record and ambitious targets for the future. The judging panel rates candidate cities across 12 environmental indicators, ranging from transport to planning and green space. Bristol’s £400 million programme of transport improvements, cycling, electric cars, and bus rapid transit (including £200 million spent on MetroBus, covering three bus routes) particularly impressed the judges.

Bristol had applied twice previously before securing the coveted title. Previous winners include Stockholm, Hamburg and last year, Copenhagen. In a departure from previous cities, Bristol established an independent company, Bristol 2015, to deliver the year’s events by partnering with the city council and Green Capital Partnership, a local umbrella organisation which includes more than 700 private, public and third-sector organisations. Bristol City Council allocated £1.2 million as set-up funding, which helped secure another £7 million from the Department of Energy & Climate Change to support the activities

Bristol 2015’s approach to sustainable city-making tackles five themes: energy, food, nature, resources and transport. Three grant programmes have awarded £1.8 million to city neighbourhoods, community groups and arts and environmental organisations for activities throughout the year, as well as strategic funding for 28 organisations to deliver ‘longlasting environmental outcomes’.

Among these recipients, Bristol’s Architecture Centre has been granted £30,000 which – in partnership with the University of the West of England’s (UWE) Department of Architecture and the Built Environment – will support a year-long City Ideas Studio, launching on May 1. This will tackle the five themes with a programme of exhibitions, workshops and mapping exercises, acting as a catalyst for green action.

‘There are plenty of opportunities to become involved,’ says curator and programme manager Rob Gregory, ‘and we welcome approaches from architects and others who would like to work with us to promote sustainable place-making.’

Bristol’s community groups have long been its real strength in sustainability

Bristol practices Alec French and Ferguson Mann have lined up to support the ideas studio, and Elena Marco, head of architecture at UWE, notes: ‘The vibe is fantastic. We have 500 students who are more engaged than ever with the city and have access to speakers and opportunities usually only available in London.’

Bristol’s green trajectory has been evident in several recent key announcements, though  Mark Leach, city council project manager for climate change and sustainability, points out that because built environment projects are many years in the planning, any projects announced or completing now have been in the pipeline and predate the Green Capital designation. The fact that these projects are coming online now just adds to the buzz.

Planted walkway by Grant Associates

Planted walkway by Grant Associates

Grant Associates’ public realm landscaping of a 6.6ha site on Bristol’s historic waterfront for developer Crest Nicholson, the final phase of a 15-year masterplan by Cullinan Studio, completed this month. Dramatically planted waterfront walks which make intensive use of SUDS (sustainable urban drainage systems) link to the previously inaccessible harbour, while opening up views of the cathedral and Brunel’s iron steamship, the SS Great Britain.

Earlier this month, the council took the first steps towards implementing district energy networks, signing a memorandum of understanding with Bristol University and a nearby hospital trust. A second network is under study for Temple Meads. WarmUp is a four-year £60 million housing retrofit programme launched by the council last October. With different levels of grants available, up to 45 different home improvement measures are on offer. Further indication of the council’s commitment to the Green Capital agenda is its rationalisation of its own office space from several buildings across the city to just two. Alec French Architects is refurbishing the Grade II*-listed City Hall as well as a 1980s building near the rail station for council offices.

Priority areas for district heating in central Bristol

Priority areas for district heating in central Bristol

Leisure and transport are also key areas of development. Populous and Feilden Clegg Bradley’s winning design for a 12,000-seat arena was announced last week. The Bristol Arena will front on to a public plaza and is intended to anchor the revitalised area around Bristol Temple Meads station. Peter Clegg likens its potential to London’s King’s Cross. The arena will be conditioned by displacement ventilation, reducing operating emissions by at least 10 per cent, and its roof structure is sized to accommodate a 4,000m2 PV array – the largest in the city – if funding becomes available.

An early sign that Temple Meads is changing was the December 2014 relocation of independent energy supplier OVO Energy’s 750 employees to a headquarters in the area with a lobby design by design consultancy Nudge. Temple Meads’ regeneration will link the station through to Paintworks, Bristol’s creative quarter of converted warehouses.

It is Bristol’s neighbourhoods and community groups that have long been its real strength in sustainability. They host a plethora of food-growing and other activities. The Green Register’s Lucy Pedler observes: ‘Bristol deserves the European Green Capital for its grass-roots activities. Bristol is a terrific place to be – independent and innovative.’

Bristol's Bio-Bus

Bristol’s Bio-Bus

White Design’s Craig White concurs. ‘Bristol is typically bottom up,’ he says. ‘What’s interesting with George [Ferguson] as mayor is that now it’s top down, too, so more things are starting to happen.’

White Design is just completing seven straw bale homes on spec and recently obtained planning for a 50-unit straw-bale co-housing project, both in Shirehampton on the north-eastern edge of the city.

At the more fanciful end of the scale, Nudge founder Shankari Edgar has proposed a swimming pool in Bristol Harbour, further developed in conjunction with UWE students. The project is under discussion as a potential meanwhile use for the arena site. Another Nudge project for Grow Bristol, a hydroponic salad-growing venture, was recently submitted for planning. Edgar also values the Green Capital designation. ‘It is hugely important for Bristol because it puts us on the international stage,’ she says.

Bristol 2015’s mission to engage as many residents as possible appears to be working. Leach finds that ‘many Bristol residents know we’ve won the title of European Green Capital’. With all the buzz, or perhaps despite it, Bristol is well on its way to becoming the UK’s greenest city.

Comment: George Ferguson

My aim is to use our year as European Green Capital as a catalyst for local change, to use it to influence national policy and to support agreement on a global level. I want to ensure it helps in our aim to be a more resilient city, and define a new chapter in Bristol’s history.

 This is not just about 2015 – during which we shall approach this challenge with a real sense of creativity and fun – it’s principally about creating a platform for long-term change. I would like to see everyone in the city try something new – particularly around the way they travel. I’d like us to build on our cycling capital status and reduce our reliance on the car.

 In terms of physical changes – there will be an increase in investment in energy saving and renewable projects, further investment in cycling infrastructure and many hectares of additional tree planting, food growing and wildlife projects. I also want to use the year to further experiment with traffic free streets, especially in the old city centre.

  • George Ferguson, mayor
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