Yesterday I interrupted my blogging to meet up with the group trying to turn an abandoned school and area of wilderness into a sustainable community in Bedminster, South Bristol.I have been meaning to get involved with them for ages, but with all my problems, just never made it.
The site is about 100 acres, at one end is the former college were I did my English A Levels 11 years ago; it is a mix of a fine brick building which I thought dated from between the wars but I am assured it is an impressive 120 years old. Its extension is a great 1960s addition – all glass and pillars and light. I loved going there. But the college moved to the outer suburbs, so this has been boarded up for some years.
The outbuildings are now being taken on by local group ArtSpace that have contributed to a lot of great public art, inhabiting such sites as the old police station at Bridewell and the ProCathedral in Clifton, and several innovative groups have arisen from them. What really impressed me was the old gym which is now a skate park. It is full of noisy kids, really crowded. And NO ADULT SUPERVISION! It seems they are capable of managing their own space, something unheard of in this country. How wonderful.
The council is doing its usual dance with promising community consultation then doing the opposite. A local councillor was very open in how far his involvement could go, but ultimately that any group would have to convince local landowners of the commercial viability of any schemes. Fair enough, but as always, he is assuming the council is being open and honest, two words that really don’t belong in the same sentence as Bristol council.
What really impressed me with this group was the high level of professionalism involved. Led by property surveyor, he knows how to talk property talk, and like most there is also fully aware of the realities of commerce. People had a wide range of skills, came from very different areas of interest but were all local, and all had a genuine interest in making something special here, something that will work for the benefit of locals.
They are talking of preserving the buildings wherever possible, opening up a school, community space, social housing, self build, environmentally sustainable community with no roads being built to interrupt the important wildlife corridor that runs through the centre of the site. These are all professionals, some retired, some students, others in work; the meeting was a truly inspiring meeting of minds, a sense that it is possible to work together creatively and efficiently to do something genuinely original in the middle of one of the city’s most deprived areas.
It’s been a long time since I have felt such an air of optimism, of preparedness to pull together in the long term to make this city a better place. Not out of self interest, but because such a project matters.
Britain has the lowest level of self builds in Europe; people were citing the example of Freibourg in Germany, but I have seen many restoration projects in the Netherlands, a country where it is not unusual to see people sitting by a riverbank in the heart of a city, in close proximity to herons and ducks.
Cities do not need to be ugly, dirty, depressing places. BS3 is a sign that things might be about to change in this city. And if here, then maybe elsewhere as well.