A groundbreaking community initiative in Bristol indentifies 'black streets' - the huge areas of tarmac-covered wasteland that carve up so many of our city centres - as the key to regeneration. Could this become a model for urban neighbourhoods blighted by a legacy of past planning mistakes?
Rob Gregory reports The mention of community consultation sends shivers down the spine of many professionals, fearing little more than opposition groups diluting proposals to their lowest common denominator. But Redcliffe Futures, a group of 20 or so representative individuals who live and work in Redcliffe, the historic core of Bristol, claims to have reached a unanimous consensus for future developments following a consultation process that head of planning Ian White describes as 'groundbreaking'.
Formed in 2001, with the support of the sustainability department of the city council, the group wanted to have a real say in how its neighbourhood developed, rather than being spectators to a dialogue between developers and consultants.
With Redcliffe identified as Bristol's next area of major change, having received a number of large-scale developer-led enquiries, the city council was keen to promote a different sort of regeneration that would be responsive to the established population and land uses.
By representing 20 different local and citywide organisations - including five resident organisations, the church, the schools, the police, the health service and perhaps, most uniquely developers, land owners and local planners - the group became a highly effective and strategic team; a pro-active facilitator, not a reactive opponent. Wellplaced and well-informed, it has considered long-term issues and avoided reverting to short-term goals that simplistically address community wish lists.
It is also pursuing a strategy that plays the developers at their own game. Adopting the developer's own language, it has produced a commercially viable and architecturally diverse framework which, most significantly, identifies a source of income that will help pay for the essential improvements to the area's infrastructure.
Reinventing the feel Bristol suffers a common syndrome evident in many of our major cities.Despite its proximity to the civic and cultural centre, Redcliffe does not feel like part of an historic city centre. Blighted by heroic highway engineering, it has few public spaces where people feel more welcome than cars as great swathes of over-engineered roads cut through the previously dense historic fabric, with little regard for public realm.
One of the most dramatic examples of this is Redcliffe Way, an unnecessary four lane high-speed link between the city centre and Brunel's Temple Meads Station. As part of the inner ring road planned in 1936, the dual carriageway not only cut across Queen Square (one of the largest Georgian squares outside London) but it also failed to make even the faintest nod of recognition to St Mary Redcliffe Church (the delightful parish church of cathedral proportions, famously noted by Elizabeth R as the goodliest, fairest and most famous of all).
Predictably, this urban motorway was subsequently lined with offices, and industrial warehouses and showrooms, to create a bleak monocultural community of alienating stand-alone buildings.A sad symptom of bypass thinking which has created a physical and psychological barrier between north and south Redcliffe.
Rather than allowing developers to replicate more monocultural landmark buildings, Redcliffe Futures advocated a radical piece of urban restructuring that not only would transform this prime area of the city from a loose fit industrial wasteland into a tight urban mass where vibrant diverse communities could thrive, but that would also release revenue and increase development potential.
The group is not conservationist, screaming 'not in our back yard'. Instead, it is actively seeking more development, more density and more people.
By identifying the economic, social and physical changes necessary to sustain the urban community, the framework promotes mixed-used development, the prioritisation of local, rather than global, routes through the area, and the creation of a new network of human-scale streets and squares.
Reclaiming the streets The kernel of the Redcliffe Futures strategy lies in reclaiming the streets. By considering the excessively wide roads, roundabouts, and undefined open space across the entire 72ha Redcliffe site, more than 6ha of cityowned 'black land' with a value of £35 million could be made available for redevelopment. This includes 2.4ha which currently surrounds Redcliffe Way. So while only a 0.4ha car park opposite the church is currently recorded by the council as a banked asset, land with an estimated market value of £15 million has now been identified which, if reappropriated, could help improve this lost place.
So convincing was this proposition that, as well as allocating significant funds to the group by providing two full-time planning officers to facilitate the consultation process, the city council also funded the construction of a large-scale model.
This model serves as an engaging manifesto of the group's ambitions, and crystallises the unpaid efforts of more than two and a half years' work.
Highlighting the area where buildings could be placed within the existing cityscape, the model demonstrates the proposals to repossess Redcliffe Way, and the masterstroke to remove the Redcliffe roundabout.
This bold move releases sufficient land to create a new public square - a long-awaited civic space from where people can truly appreciate the splendour of St Mary Redcliffe, instead of being forced to snatch views as they drive past in a rush to beat the traffic lights.
Sustaining Redcliffe Futures So where does Redcliffe Futures go from here? Clearly, it is essential that the eagerness and energy of the group is sustained before enthusiasm fades.
While there are aspirations within the group to engage even more with potential developers, by offering a consultancy service to help streamline the planning process for specific sites, there are also proposals to upgrade the group into a fully-fledged urban regeneration company. A consensus group that is genuinely capable of doing the joined-up thinking that the council simply cannot afford to resource.
But even before this, the next priority must be to actively pursue the participation of the Highways Department, which until now has not been as actively involved as the planners or other council departments. In this strategy tarmac equals power and, until this hurdle is overcome, the vision can go no further.
The current road networks do not work, and while the city has its local transport plan, which the framework document adhered to, there is a shortfall in funding.
Unless something visionary is done, the streets will continue to be clogged up by day with people seeking fruitless shortcuts, and act as bleak high-speed ratruns by night. It is therefore in everyone's interest to implement the aspirations of this initiative.
Clearly, if it works, with all or part of the £35 million-plus available from 'black street' sites helping to fund change, the situation could be vastly improved and offer hope to other similar cities across the country.
Rob Gregory is an architect and the assistant editor of The Architectural Review For further information contact Keith Hallett at hallett. pollard@woolhall. co. uk and Sarah Jones at sarah_jones@bristol-city.