What makes a flourishing city?

Went to an inspiring evening at Bradford Cathedral last night bringing together a wide representation of people representing the City. Flourishing City asked what it takes for a city to flourish. There were some very influential people there including senior management from the council, church leaders, faith groups and activists. Here are my notes.

Jerry Lepine the dean was great. I have to applaud his enthusiasm for the subject of ‘city’ and the welcome he gave. He introduced the evening by saying the cathedral belongs to the City – “it is your cathedral” he said.

We are not about just delivering big shiny boxes, we must step back and allow the next generation to come through endlessly curious, telling stories and connecting people.  [Kersten England]

The church he suggested takes a long term view from generation to generation, then presented some ideas from his own investigations. Great architecture can have a restorative impact on the wider community. He was thinking of great buildings like the Guggenheim in Bilbao. The arts are consistently at the centre of regeneration – including design and architecture. This rings true for me where I see the quality of lesser public buildings like community centres and re-ordered churches having a profound impact on the way people feel and behave. What we feel about a city and ourselves becomes a critically important and can make or break people’s future prospects.

Kersten England, the Chief exec of Bradford Council, pointed out that in their time the cathedral and city hall were once signature buildings. Interestingly she told everyone of her hope that one day, (not saying when), she would like Bradford to have its own major new architectural signature.

It might seem extravagant to talk about buildings when there is so much poverty but the conversation did put the focus on people. How we feel about our city and ourselves is very important and a great city environment can promote confidence and enable people to connect – the mirror pool was evidence that great spaces can have a positive human impact.

Kersten England brought the question of flourishing down to three things – unlocking talent, providing infrastructure within which people can thrive and gathering round a common cause.

Terry Bramall, former chair of Keepmoat talked about strategy and reminded everyone that the idea needs to be simple and memorable. He appeared to warn against vision statements that were difficult to absorb or remember. We must gather round simple ideas. So what simple vision can the whole city buy into?  Can we be the UK’s most welcoming city or the most resourceful city? Can the vision be anchored in diversity or creativity – or faith?

Youth is seen as a key strength – Bradford has one of the youngest populations in the UK. Youthfulness is an asset Kersten said. She pointed out that the city has an impressive record for producing successful young people in the arts, sport and business.  She said we must put the achievement of great people at the forefront – David Hockney and other world renowned figures have their roots in Bradford. Those inspirational people and achievements that can build confidence and hope. A contribution from the floor reminded everyone that the small valuable contributions made by ordinary people should also be celebrated.

Bradford is a big city, Kersten said – Bradford is actually bigger that many people realise. Outside London it is the 5th largest city even bigger than Manchester.

Kersten England also talked about the radical shift in approach the council is having to take in the way it approaches its responsibility to ensure prosperity for now and in the future. “We are having to think radically about how we fulfil this responsibility with fewer financial resources”, she said, and also underlined the need to ensure there is equality of provision. Those assets are needed to address basic needs; education, employment, health, transport. The need for a decent income and ensuring wealth enjoyed by everybody.

Now it’s more about, “creating possibility and bringing people together” she said – looking at the assets within the community rather than focusing at the problem.

A robust comment from the floor suggested that the council puts too many bureaucratic obstacles in the way of progress – a point that was applauded. Kersten England’s response was to say that the good stuff must be appreciated, but also that we must all challenge the council when it isn’t getting it right – “letting go in order to release energy” Listing rather than telling.

“We are not about just delivering big shiny boxes”, we must step back and allow the next generation to come through endlessly curious, telling stories and connecting people. 

There is likely to be another session in the Autumn. Please watch out for it.