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Bristol: European Green Capital 2015 (Or, How to Win Without Making it Look Like You're Trying)

04/07/2013 11:13 BST | Updated 02/09/2013 10:12 BST

David Cameron is missing a trick. While The Greenest Government Ever and The Big Society have been consigned to the dustbin of history, a quiet revolution has been occurring in the West of England to create the greenest city in the country. This has culminated in Bristol being named European Green Capital for 2015 .

I sat down with Darren Hall, Green Capital Partnership Manager, to discuss Bristol's win, and how the Green Capital year might change the city. Recounting the win, Darren doesn't betray any sign of being suddenly very much in demand, despite being snowed under from offers of support from businesses and organisations keen to find out what the win will mean for the city.

The win was made possible by a coalition of local government, industry and civil society, as well as by a personal presentation from the elected Mayor, George Ferguson. Significant environmental investments in Bristol that caught the eye of the judges include an investment in 6MW of wind power at the Avonmouth docks, £400m for public transport upgrades, £250m for energy efficiency, a recession-busting 5% annual growth rate in the regional green economy, an eye-catching plan to generate 1GW of electricity from solar, and doubling again the number of journeys by bike in the UK city that already has the highest rate of cycling.

Bristol spotted an opportunity to capitalise on its deep environmental roots by bidding for the award. It was the first British city to do so, the first to be shortlisted, and now is the first city to win the prize. A big plus for Bristol was the sense that efforts to win the prize came from the community first, and was sold to the council by a group of activists, rather than the other way around.

Business was less of a challenge than first thought, and the experience of Bristol Green Capital has been that businesses get the incentive to sign up. Reducing costs, particularly heating, lighting and cooling large office buildings, is ultimately pushing against an open door.

The real challenge as noted by the judges was in extending the sense of activism in the green movement, business and the council, with the wider public. Bristol does better on environmental awareness than many cities. 75% of the city's population agree with the evidence on climate change according to a poll conducted in the city, compared to just over 50% nationally.

But is it fair to say that progress in local government and business has yet to be replicated with the general population? The Green Capital report card showed that Bristol has successfully reduced its industrial carbon emissions year on year (2 tonnes per person per year, compared to 2.5 tonnes for Leeds and Liverpool and 3 tonnes for Manchester) but compares pretty equally on household emissions (1.8 tonnes per person per year). Part of this is due to Bristol's relative affluence, but it highlights the real challenge in generating behaviour change for even a 'green' city.

An even greater challenge emerges when the implications of these figures are unpicked. To return the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to 350ppm, the level at which scientists predict the threat of significant climate change can be averted, all rich carbon-intensive cities like Bristol in Europe, North America and increasingly across the rest of the world too, will not only have to follow Bristol's lead but significantly exceed the modest changes already made.

Bristol's Green Capital award is recognition of a city trying to overcome its challenges, not of a city that has solved them all. A number of problems remain.

A combination of weak long-term planning, the Luftwaffe and post-war brutalist reconstruction has created an inefficient road network and gridlock twice a day.

The view up the Avon Gorge to the Clifton Suspension Bridge is beautiful, but the best view of it from the city centre is from a flyover.

Brunel's Great Western Terminus, the oldest train station in the world, was derelict for years and only briefly reopened again to house a museum.

A massive Victorian warehouse in the docks has been turned into an environment centre and offices, but a similar warehouse next door is largely underused as a commercial storage centre.

Our major hospitals and University are inconveniently located at the top of a long, steep hill, further exacerbating traffic in the city centre.

The main cultural centres in the city such as the Watershed, Colston Hall and Hippodrome,are located on what is essentially a roundabout, rather than being on a pedestrianized square as they might be in some café-cultured European city.

Which brings us to the delicate matter of cars. As with many cities, Bristol's roads are a major source of civic conflict. Part of Bristol's challenge was to tackle what is pretty-well acknowledged as the city's poor public transport, well behind other major cities and certainly far behind London. Bristol is an affluent city, and while the city centre is walkable in parts - the city has just held the first Make Sunday Special event - the city sprawls too much to be described as a Walking City to go along with its title of Britain's first Cycling City. As such, Bristol has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the English Core Cities, with half a million vehicle journeys into and out of the city centre every day, for a city that only contains a million people. In fact, the city's council estimates that the average speed in the city centre slows to just 11 mph at peak times.

When public transport can't be relied on, and cities become difficult for pedestrians, people retreat to cars and a vicious circle of poor and erratic services leading to more people using their cars, and traffic jams of single-occupancy vehicles silently fuming that somebody should really do something about all the other vehicles on the road. If the comments following the Mayor's announcement that a Low-Emission Zone may be brought into the city centre is anything to go by, it is obvious why this is tricky for any politician: "Well what a surprise, GF trying to stuff one up the motorist again. I see he's true to form by ignoring well established facts. Nothing new there then.""Low-emission zone? He should try keeping his mouth shut for a change", and "Don't blame me I didn't vote for Ferguson the anti-car idiot."

With a limited bus service and a single monopoly, Bristol's public buses are hardly what you would expect of a Green Capital, something Hall acknowledges but it has probably got to the point now at which the service provider realises that they are losing money by not investing in further routes and a more regular service. A £260m transport improvement plan for Bus Rapid Transit and a rail extension by 2020 persuaded the judges that Bristol's direction of travel (if the pun can be excused) and its determination to do something about transport was as important as any completed project. It is fair to say that recognising the need to do something about transport, along with energy use, was the big thing for winning Green Capital.

Hall has a solution for reaching the other Bristol, that part of the city that is ambivalent or actively enraged by perceived green-posturing. It can be reduced to a single word: fun. It is at this point of the interview that Darren becomes most passionate about Green Capital and the opportunities afforded by the campaign to make Bristol a city that people want to live in. BrisFest, Big Green Week, the International Balloon Fiesta, the Harbour Festival, all showcase a city that people would want to live in. A diverse and active environmental movement in Bristol gets things done, but it also needs to be aware of the dangers of just talking to itself and painting itself into a corner. Darren points out that the part of the official presentation to the EU that persuaded most was a focus on lower-income communities such as Easton and Lawrence Hill, where residents working on community projects associated with Green Capital recounted how for them Green Capital was addressing issues such as fuel poverty and community cohesion, issues far removed from the inner-city glamour and middle-class ghetto the green movement sometimes appears to be.

The slogan now for Bristol Green Capital is Laboratory for Change: encapsulating the idea that European Green Capital status is not just about a single year, and that cities are great places in which to experiment with new ideas. The hope is now that Bristol 2015 will be able to pilot new ideas such as limiting city centre advertising, and a special dispensation for the city to borrow against existing housing stock to invest in new sustainable communities to absorb the predicted growth in the city's population.

Ultimately, Bristol Green Capital is about the future of the city, not just about recycling or turning out lights. Massive change brought about by economic stress, demographics, critical resource shortages and environmental degradation are givens for a certain section of Bristol's population. They are already thinking about these changes, and in many cases starting to do something to prepare. But for a large number of people this premise is not a given. The economy will eventually rebalance, the thought goes, and while politicians and bureaucrats will continue to frustrate, the general curve is gently sloping upwards.

As we end we talk about how to sell the idea of being a Green Capital to a partly mobilised but often ambivalent city. Glasgow, a fellow finalist for European Green Capital, held the title of European Capital of Culture in 1990, and raising a city's profile at the European level is seen as a good strategy. Darren suggests the title 'Bristol: Capital of Life'. Sensing the humour, he explains that focusing on better living moves the debate away from carbon, which just tends to alienate people. 'Bristol is not bling' says Darren, and we try desperately to think of what the opposite of bling might be. We consider laidback, but this is getting dangerously close to village-idiot territory and the attendant Brizzle stereotypes of farmers, cider and The Wurzels. What we are becoming, we settle on, is a city that is comfortable in its own skin. If any city is to manage the challenges of coming decades that sounds as good a starting point as any. If we are not having fun, why would anybody else join in?

Keep up to date with what is happening in Bristol at Good Bristol.