Published on 23 October 2023
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Understanding the vital role of culture to the social, economic and civic life of towns and cities

Culture is important to the economic, social and civic health of all places. Bristol Ideas has been at the heart of Bristol’s cultural assets and helped bring investment of £130m to the city. In this blog, Owen Garling, the Bennett Institute’s Knowledge Transfer Facilitator and co-author, discusses a new report about the work of Bristol Ideas, and highlights some of the lessons that can be learned from the work of the organisation.

Bristol Ideas has been working with ideas of cultural planning to support the social, cultural and economic life of Bristol for the last three decades. In a new report, co-authored with Andrew Kelly, Bristol Ideas, we examine the history of the organisation, the ways in which it has worked with the cultural assets of the city, and the impact that it has had on the economic, social and civic health of the place.

Throughout the research and writing of the report, it was clear that, like earlier phases of its history, there were challenges facing Bristol Ideas, including recovering from the impact of the Covid pandemic and reductions in core funding and sponsorship. As the report was about to go to press, the board of Bristol Ideas announced its closure from April 2024. Reading through the responses to the announcement on social media showed the depth of feeling and connection that people in Bristol and elsewhere have with the organisation. And whilst there was an obvious sadness at the announcement, there was also an acceptance of the organisation’s closure.

If closure is the outcome of the current economic and social challenges for an organisation like Bristol Ideas, with a 30-year history of working within a city, what does this hold for other organisations? Within this report are glimmers of hope that can inspire other places to continue their work to ensure that the vital role of culture is fully understood in the social, economic and civic life of towns and cities.

One of the key lessons that can be drawn from the work of Bristol Ideas is that for culture, scale matters. Whilst there is an ongoing debate about where support for culture should lie, as seen through the debates about the most recent round of Arts Council funding decisions and the proliferation of cultural strategies being produced at a regional level, Bristol Ideas has demonstrated that the scale of a city is one that works. It is a scale that people understand and can relate to; is of a sufficient size to bring together a range of different communities and voices; and has a shared – and sometimes contested – sense of history.

It is of little surprise that one of the first and most enduring projects that Bristol Ideas was involved in was the Bristol Legible City project which focused on the waymarking of the city. Helping people to find their way around Bristol, both physically and figuratively has been at the heart of all of Bristol Ideas’ work.

The work of the American urban theorist, Kevin Lynch, has been influential in Bristol Ideas developing this approach. In his seminal book, The Image of the City, Lynch explores what a city’s form means to the people who live, work and visit it. For Lynch, “environmental images are the result of a two-way process between the observer and his environment. The environment suggests distinctions and relations, and the observer – with great adaptability and in the light of his own purposes – selects, organizes, and endows with meaning what he sees.”

The work of Bristol Ideas has been to walk alongside Lynch’s observers and support them in interpreting the images of the city and understanding the meaning that they, and others, place on the different elements of the city.

This connection between the physical spaces of a city and the more intangible feelings of connection and attachment between people and place is one that developed throughout the three decades of Bristol Ideas’ work. The report traces the work of Bristol Ideas from an initial focus on the construction of ‘showstopper’ physical infrastructure and events, such as the Harbourside Centre and the bid for European Capital of Culture in 2008, to an approach more concerned with deepening the organisation’s relationship with the city.

It is notable that the Festival of Ideas, Bristol Ideas’ flagship festival runs throughout year and is not constrained to a particular week or fortnight a year. The organisation’s decision in 2021 to rename itself Bristol Ideas from the rather more solid Bristol Cultural Development Partnership, is another example of the ways in which the organisation has moved to place ideas at the heart of its work.

Bristol Ideas provides an opportunity to create spaces in which the city can reflect on and debate issues that are of concern to its citizens. Every year since 2012, Bristol Ideas has organised for the City Mayor to address to the citizens of Bristol face to face. and provide them with the opportunity to hear from their civic leader. Also, in the run-up to the recent referendum on whether the city should retain the position of mayor, Bristol Ideas hosted a range of debates in different formats to show both sides of the argument for and against.

However, Bristol Ideas also recognised that reflection and debate – and indeed politics – is not the preserve purely of politicians and led on the creation of the role of the Bristol City Poet. As the Bristol Ideas’ website states: “the person who holds this role can become the city’s conscience and can also reflect on what makes the city tick. What they convey through their poetry and creative writing can provide important insights onto contemporary events and feelings, not all of which may make for comfortable reading.”

In a time when debates are increasingly polarised and the online world leans towards a binary, right or wrong interpretation of events, this ability to create spaces for reflection on the civic life of the city is an incredibly important role for any city.

Bristol Ideas’ longevity owes to its ability to adapt. From the perceived early failures of the Harbourside Centre and Capital of Culture bid, which both in fact helped to set the direction of the organisation, through to the more recent decision to focus on ideas as a driving force for the organisation, Bristol Ideas has always been able to adapt to the time. An important part of this is has been the relatively small size of the organisation, and perhaps most importantly, the way in which it has worked in partnership with different stakeholders organisations across the city.

Whilst it seems that Bristol Ideas, in its current guise has not been able to adapt to the current circumstances, this report starts to capture its legacy, and will ensure that the lessons learned from three decades of cultural planning in Bristol can been shared to inspire others to value culture as part of the prosperous and sustainable future of a place.

Report: The Project is the City: The work and ideas of Bristol Ideas 1993-2023

News release: Long-term cultural planning is vital to the vibrance and resilience of a place – Cambridge report

Image: Bristol Whales, Bristol European Green Capital 2015, Paul Box

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Owen Garling

Knowledge Transfer Facilitator

Owen Garling is the Bennett Institute’s Knowledge Transfer Facilitator and he provides an important conduit between our own researchers and policymakers in the UK and internationally. His work helps to...

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