Candidate: St Marks Road
Location: Bristol, UK
Category: The Great Street Award
This street is diverse, popular and full of delight. It is a perfect example of community-led urbanism. The local community have achieved success in terms of identity, culture and vitality. The street creates cohesion across many cultural backgrounds and this mixed group are well served by the local business and the quality of street life here. The assessors enjoyed seeing this vibrant mixed community. Community cohesion is extremely impressive and the transformation from a red-light district to the desirable street in 30 years is striking. The international interest in the Grand Iftar shows how the street has many lessons across the world for multicultural urban street life. We should ensure more urbanists know about this success. The resilience of this street is extraordinary. It has witnessed cultural and economic changes and many levels but bounces back each time stronger than before.
1. Leadership and Governance
The twenty-year transformation from a no-go red-light area to a ‘cultural crown’ has great lessons for bottom-up local activism. We met impressive leaders of the local community, including representation of the Easton Jamia Mosque, the Baptist Church, Up Our Street (previously Bristol East Side traders), a local Councillor, local poet and historian, and business owners. Many of the uses of the street overlap and mutual respect creates cooperation. Only thirty years ago anti-social behaviour and cultural tensions gave the street a bad reputation. This street has been transformed into a destination with all of Bristol as its catchment area.
2. Local Character
The railway embankment severs the small neighbourhood of tight Edwardian streets fanning out from St Mark’s Road from the rest of Easton. This separation meant that the land remained open fields and orchards running out towards Greenbank until C20th. This made Easton a relatively affordable place to live in Bristol. Thirty years ago the council’s traffic calming scheme pinched the carriageway into an arrival space outside the Sugar Loaf pub. The footways are now stained and patched, the pink concrete paviors and heritage bollards relics of that once radical public realm scheme. Their tired veneer is part of the street patina, with ad hoc lighting and flags suspended over the heart of the street. Shop stalls on narrow pavements complete the narrative of this unglamorous but well used short street.
The street was a typical Victorian high street with brick built terraces with almost all of the shops owner occupied. In the 1980s the Council and Government had a £30 million cash injection for Easton which this street benefited from. In 1996 the British Civic Society awarded the street a plaque celebrating the progress made. Although this funding has now stopped, the Council still offers 95% of the cost of work to shop front improvements. Information boards and craft signs decorate the elevations although the graffiti is less attractive. In the late 1990’s the street was made one way and some traffic calming measures were introduced. The assessors believe that the scheme could be enhanced by restricting deliveries to fixed hours and achieving even more pedestrian friendly streets.
4. Commercial success and vitality
The street’s best example of success is also a future threat. ‘The Bristol Sweet Mart’ is the anchor point of the streets and sits opposite both the Mosque and the Church. It stocks over 10,000 products and creates a wonderful multicultural culinary stimulation. The shop supplies over 100 local restaurants with produce and has responded to demand by stocking a wide range of products from many cultures.
The growth of the shop by Ugandan refugees from forty years ago has created local jobs and real community pride. However, the delivery regime to the warehouse relies on mutual respect and appears fragile. The demands of internal display have made a shop front a blank wall. Although the mural here is impressive it diminishes the active frontage.
5. Environmental sustainability
Sustainability is the key challenge still confronting St Mark’s Road. The connectivity of St Mark’s Road via rail, the Sustrans bike path, and a network of walkable residential streets make it easy to visit car-free, which is a good start. But there is room for improvement. Sustainability concerns appear to be at the forefront of plans for the next five years among local leaders.It was recognised by traders that finding alternative packaging solutions (while keeping prices affordable to loyal locals) was more challenging for small traders because of the inability to buy in bulk.
But the drive is coming direct from their environmentally-conscious consumers and they are listening. It is encouraging to see that local shop owners are seeking solutions through a joint effort, in a continuation of the community spirit that has won them success in other areas.The local sourcing of the new bakery in town and the eco credentials of Thali cafe are likely to spur on others is likely to be a new source of ideas for neighbours to up their game. The street is less blessed with green infrastructure than others in the city, and some small-scale interventions would further help to enliven the street and combat the poor air quality.
6. Community, health and wellbeing
The Easton Jamia Mosque was extended and the glazed and patterned dome gives a visual punctuation to the street. The Baptist Church opposite offers a food bank, a ‘community café’ and admirable outreach programmes. The accepting nature of this multicultural street is created by the community leaders of all religions. The Grand Iftar celebrates the breaking of the fast during the Muslim month of Ramadan. The street is closed and thousands of people gather for the event.The Baptist Church kitchen help prepare the food and many people who may not traditionally come to the area visit to break bread with the local Muslims. As the local councillor says “It fosters understanding if you are sitting down with people who might never have sat down with before.What better way than to break down barriers with food?” Sydney, Singapore and Chicago have approached the organisers to learn from the success of the Grand Iftar. An article in a Bristol publication emphasises the turn around. Local residents Vanessa Kear said that “if you lived (here) then people looked down on you and now they want to come and join us”.The Church at the end of the street is now a homeless shelter but this is not integrated in the street.
St Mark’s Road is a model of a sustainable, walkable neighbourhood hub. As a mid-Victorian neighbourhood high street, St Mark’s Road is a typical spine, with numerous residential terraced side streets. This ensures high levels of footfall for the shops and businesses. The attractive character of St Mark’s Road is not eroded by intrusive through traffic which is directed to the Stapleton Road, some 150 metres to the west, where the bus routes are located. St Mark’s Road is a calmed one-way street, ensuring essential access for deliveries and residents. The short footpath to the local rail station is located at the end of the street. The line directly connects to Temple Meads, the main regional rail hub, two stops away.
Alistair Barr AoU