For various reasons I’ve been thinking a bit about vision and what it would take to actually make a difference to the way our city works. Now that’s a huge question and one that is way beyond my capabilities, but just thinking about it did remind me of a couple of issues that I’d been meaning to write more about.
South Bristol has an accessibility problem and it’s a problem that the South Bristol Link and the Hengrove to North Fringe BRT or Metrobus routes are unlikely to solve. I have on occasion questioned the lack of clear vision or any kind of strategy for South Bristol from either the council or the LEP, so perhaps it’s time to offer some solutions or at least some positive ideas, and there are many of them around. Equally, some of the issues I am about to raise I know are just as relevant to other parts of the city, so maybe this could help to spark a bit of a debate about wasted land, or access improvements or quality in the design of spaces and places across the city. But my focus is South Bristol because that’s the bit of the city I know best, I lived there for over 20 years, represented 2 wards in the area and worked there for quite a while too, so it’s the area I have the most affinity with.
I’m going to take you on a journey out to Hengrove and along the way identify 3 key areas where vision is definitely needed and where some creative thinking could really change the way we view this journey and our perceptions of the area. At the moment, travelling over the Cumberland system, with its congestion, dual carriageways and high level roads into Winterstoke Road is not the best of journeys but is one of the main routes out to South Bristol. I’ll leave others to talk about just how much we could do with the whole Cumberland system if only we could bear to take road space away from cars and redesign the area completely so it works for people at a human scale, and instead will focus on the bit once you leave the system.
So, my first area of focus is the bit from Ashton Gate to the Parson Street Gyratory system – the tin shed land that is Winterstoke Road. Now I’m sure when first developed it served a purpose and was the right thing to do (or maybe not), but looking at it now, much of it is very dated, some is empty and it is certainly one of the biggest wastes of space I can think of this close to the centre of the city. The density levels are incredibly low, the amount of space given over to tin sheds, warehouses, out of town shopping and car parking is stunning in its stupidity. Think what could be achieved here in terms of affordable housing and community facilities if only we didn’t just look at empty land for development but also considered underutilised land. Think also how different this area would look if it was redeveloped and how the journey through it would be different if the spaces were better used, with quality design, higher density, spaces for people and community infrastructure as well as new housing.
The next part of the journey brings you to Parson Street, that fantastic traffic engineers dream, and everyone else’s nightmare. The one-way system here is a constant source of congestion, conflict between road users and a nightmare for all concerned. It is one big traffic island which effectively acts as a gateway to South Bristol but lacks any quality, design or impact in a positive way, it’s just a barrier or hurdle car drivers, pedestrians and cyclists alike have to navigate. How different would your journey through this area be if it were totally redesigned, if the railway station were opened up and made more accessible and noticeable, with proper entrances that actually make you want to use them. Imagine there is no one-way system but the whole space is redesigned as a transport hub for buses and rail users, pedestrians and cyclists and the route for cars is improved. I’m sure the engineers out there will tell me it’s impossible, as they often do, but my view is we should find a way, it’s a critical barrier at the moment to the notion of improving accessibility to and from South Bristol, it’s also a serious waste of space where we must be able to do so much better. And what about the school, the most polluted in the city because it sits on a traffic island – surely we can do better than that?
The final part of the journey takes you along Hartcliffe Way to the Hartcliffe Roundabout and the edge of Hengrove Park. Now this is a seriously underutilised area if ever there was one. Much of the land is in council ownership and so much more could be done, but the desire, vision, and strategy just doesn’t seem to be there. It’s not attractive to developers, partially because of the accessibility issues and partially because of the perception of the area. But if we make the other improvements discussed above maybe some of those perceptions will change. Just maybe we need to broaden our thinking in terms of how we look at the issue and see development of this particular area as part of a grand plan for South Bristol as a whole, with a focus on that journey route and providing interest and quality along the way. If you could use the roundabout and edge of Hengrove Park to create a destination, to do something bold and visible you would know you had arrived somewhere. Most of the discussion to date seems to have been about how we get people from South Bristol out of the area to jobs, shops, leisure etc. Very little has focused on creating a destination in South Bristol, to bring other people in, to create that extra vibrancy and energy that other areas of the city have, to provide houses, jobs and spaces that people want to use and be part of. My question to the people that make decisions in this city is – why not, why do we dismiss South Bristol so easily, where’s the vision for the area and how can we make it a destination of choice?
I know others have identified similar types of spaces in East and North Bristol, where land close to neighbourhoods and the city centre is underused and undervalued, but could provide so much more. Wouldn’t it be good if we could get some consensus on key spaces and potential new uses to bring these areas back into effective and quality use that Bristol deserves rather than hanging on to existing uses that are no longer relevant or desired? Do you have a list of these types of spaces that no one uses or cares about? Where are they and what would your priorities be? Let’s get the debate going.