Town Planning Review 91.4 Featured Article

The editors of Town Planning Review (TPR) have selected the following paper as the Featured Article in TPR 91.4.

This paper will be free to access for a limited time:

‘The Bristol Green Capital Partnership: an exemplar of reflexive governance for sustainable urban development?’ by Aksel Ersoy and Stephen Hall. 

When asked to describe the paper and highlight its importance, the authors stated the following:

Bristol: An exemplar of ‘reflexive governance’ for sustainable urban development?

Bristol is the most prosperous of the UK’s Core Cities with the highest levels of workforce qualification and labour productivity of any major urban area outside London. In addition to its high quality of life (for most, not all, residents) Bristol is home to a plethora of environmental groups, including green think tanks and pressure groups, energy co-operatives, waste recycling groups, a local currency (the Bristol Pound), local food networks, community self-build housing groups, and major national environmental actors such as the Centre for Sustainable Energy, Sustrans and the Soil Association. This critical mass of green activism and know-how is embodied in the Bristol Green Capital Partnership(BGCP), formed in 2007 by Bristol City Council and partners to develop a ‘low carbon city with a high quality of life’.

Bristol was awarded the title European Green Capital 2015, the only UK city to achieve this accolade. Its bid as a ‘green, inclusionary and diverse’ city placed a strong emphasis on business and public engagement, facilitated by BGCP. The bid highlighted the successful redevelopment of the historic harbourside area as a heritage tourism, leisure and amenity hub and the proposed ‘green gateway’ vision for the Temple Meads quarter. The explicit policy discourse was one of environmentalism and collaboration rather than the (more implicit) objectives of economic development and place marketing. Bristol’s ostensible aspirations as European Green Capital articulate a set of ambitions oriented towards citizen engagement and inclusivity rather than high profile ‘boosterist’ events that might be expected of an orthodox growth focused urban entrepreneurialism. This prompted us to write our paper The Bristol Green Capital Partnership: an exemplar of reflexive governance for sustainable urban development, in which we argue that Bristol represents, perhaps, a distinctive approach to the ‘urban sustainability fix’ (the balance struck between competing economic, social and environmental demands) compared to many other post-industrial cities in the UK [i].

This is not to deny that there exists, in Bristol, disputes between local partners of real substance. These include recent contentious debates on the adoption of resident parking zones and 20mph speed limits across the city, and the (periurban, car-dependent) location of the proposed Bristol Arena. However, in contrast to other UK Core Cities, Bristol’s path dependency of economic prosperity and flourishing civil society suggest that there is less a sense that environmental interests are obliged to oppose an antagonistic local authority from the political margins. In other words, Bristol represents an ideal laboratory to assess the presence of structures and processes that are deemed to characterise ‘reflexive governance’. The theory of reflexive governance[ii] offers a normative framework for promoting a ‘learning-based approach to governance’. It prioritises organisational adaptation over technological advancement as a response to the complex challenges of climate change and resource scarcity, focusing primarily on the process of governance, rather than outcome. Reflexive governance seeks to valorise diverse forms of knowledge (scientific, political, everyday), and champions continuous institutional transformation to enable, and respond to, broader societal debate.

We believe that the dissemination of a wide range of ‘alternative’ voices, through vehicles such as BGCP, is crucial to the debate on urban futures. We argue that the governance of Bristol displays many ‘reflexive’ characteristics. In BGCP, Bristol stakeholders have created a platform for diverse voices and forms of knowledge that abstain from the pursuit of consensus. In the words of one local official “if you’ve got something to say, join in … I do not know of another partnership in which a multinational German insurance company would sit down with a dreadlocked activist from St Pauls”. BGCP has exhibited considerable institutional flexibility, not least to conform to the assessment criteria of the European Green Capital competition. It has evolved from a small group of core activists to a large network with over 800 member organisations, ranging from transnational corporations to local community groups. Nonetheless, the deliberative space within which it has achieved this transformation remains tightly delimited. BGCP members typically exhibit an a priori interest in the green agenda; civil engineering companies, for whom the ‘green capital’ narrative is framed as an infrastructure investment challenge, and grassroots ‘limits to growth’ activists. The BGCP is, thus, less representative of ‘mainstream’ business or public opinion, especially in more disadvantaged areas of Bristol. Moreover, there are numerous and divisive ideas circulating within BGCP itself. As another local official noted “discussions about renewable energy in Bristol attract many suits and very few community activists, whereas meetings about local food attract very few suits”.

[i] While, A, Jonas, A and Gibbs, D (2004) The environment and the entrepreneurial city: searching for the urban ‘sustainability fix’ in Manchester and Leeds, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 28/3, 549-569

[ii] Voss, JP, Bauchnekt, D and Kemp, R (2006 eds.) Reflexive Governance for Sustainable Development, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Stephen Hall, Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments, UWE Bristol

Aksel Ersoy, Department of Management in the Built Environment, Delft University of Technology, Netherlands