Last weekend saw the staging of See No Evil Festival 2012 in Bristol. Although only in it’s second year, it is already regarded as one of the largest street art festivals in Europe, with artists and admirers visiting the city from all over the world. Its an interesting turn of events considering Bristol City Council was spending thousands of pounds a year cleaning up this type of ‘vandalism’ less than a decade ago. The change in attitudes could probably be called ‘The Banksy Effect’.
I find the festival incredibly refreshing and have huge respect for the team at the Council that initiated and supported the project. The Nelson Street area is notorious in Bristol as one of the ugliest parts of the city, irreversibly butchered by 1970s & 80s planning decisions that threaded dual carriageways between tall concrete tower blocks, and bred anti-social behavior throughout the undercroft walkways and pedestrian flyovers. The rents were rock bottom and the offices became un-lettable, leading to poor maintenance and creeping dereliction. 30 years of proposals to rejuvenate the area came to nothing, and the traditional development ideas began to dry up. That was about the time that someone suggested giving over the unappealing facades (which frankly would struggle to have gotten less attractive) to the city’s burgeoning Street Artist community as a token gesture to support an initiative for a new public festival. The rest is history.
What an fantastically brave and insightful decision by the planning teams, to let this project go ahead. Although it’s not entirely clear yet whether or not these annual bursts of intense energy will consolidate into some real regeneration benefits for the area, I for one am choosing to cycle via this living art gallery as my route of choice whenever I can, and the increase in footfall suggests many people are doing the same. Suddenly those rock bottom rents are starting to look attractive.
A new grassroots artistic quarter in this area would tie together the theatres and waterfront of the city centre to the south with the retail and leisure areas of Broadmead to the north, as well as reconnecting the medevial cross roads a stones-throw to the east with Christmas Steps and the University beyond. A new regenerated future is starting to become foreseeable for the first time in many years, and all the Council had to do was say ‘yes’.
The public turning out in droves to appreciate this vibrant and unique re-appropriation of urban fabric is also a positive step towards more widespread discussion of what the architecture of our city should be, how we can interact with it, and who should decide what it looks like. The festival was rightly celebrated as an urbanism success story during the recent ‘Retrofit Bristol’ exhibition at the Architecture Centre.