Ecocity Snapshots Real cities

Ecocity Snapshots, Chapter 7: Bristol, United Kingdom: Incubating change

Written by Rick Pruetz

Bristol describes itself as a “Laboratory for Change”. In awarding the 2015 title of European Green Capital to this city of 441,000 in South West England, the judges highlighted Bristol’s accomplishments in energy performance, transportation and sustainable land use, particularly the redevelopment of contaminated sites in the city center and the coordination of its greenspace for active travel and wildlife preservation as well as recreation (European Commission, 2013).

Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places” is Ecocity Builders Vice President Rick Pruetz’ latest book, profiling 19 cities and their efforts to rebuild in balance with nature. We are publishing each chapter on Ecocities Emerging to make this important work available online. Visit Rick’s page for all chapters posted so far or get the paperback at Amazon.

As proof of its change-agent claim, Bristol became the UK pilot for ICLEI’s Cities for Climate Protection program in 2000. The emission targets adopted by the City in 2004 were among the most ambitious in the UK. In 2009, the City surpassed the targets established by the EU and UK, calling for a 40 percent reduction by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050 using a 2005 baseline. True to that commitment, Bristol lowered its emissions 19 percent between 2005 and 2010 and now has the lowest CO2 emissions per capita of all major UK cities (Bristol, 2012).

In 2013, Bristol installed wind-generating turbines on a former oil tank site, creating the first council-owned wind farm in the United Kingdom (Bristol, 2013). Leading by example, Bristol became the first UK city to fuel its boilers with wood waste from its parks and street trees. The City also motivates its citizens to adopt energy-saving lifestyles using its eco-home to demonstrate sustainability features and hosting a program called Bristol Green Doors which encourages people to tour retrofitted homes to see energy efficiency upgrades (Bristol, 2012).

In 2011, Bristol adopted building policies aimed at decreasing carbon emissions including a requirement that all new development install on-site renewable energy sources capable of achieving CO2 emission goals that exceed UK standards by 20 percent. The UK Environment Agency headquarters here was the UK’s most energy-efficient building in 2009. Similarly, the Southmead Hospital in Bristol is the UK’s most energy efficient major hospital (Bristol, 2012). The Bristol development named CO2 Zero was the first private residential development and the first live-work development in the UK to achieve Code Level 5, a near-zero standard for heating, light and ventilation (United Kingdom, 2009).

Figure 7-1: Harborside is a successful redevelopment of the City’s former docklands.

Figure 7-2: In addition to being the City’s most famous structure, the Clifton Suspension Bridge is also a key link between central Bristol and its green belt.

Bristol is commtted to concentrating new development in central areas. In the first decade of the 21st Century, 98 percent of business development and 94 percent of residential development occurred on brownfield sites. In 2007, the City adopted a policy of steering all development away from greenfield sites and into brownfields. The Harborside project transformed 26 hectares of contaminated city center land into a high density, mixed use neighborhood with walkways, cycle paths, waterfront access and vibrant public spaces including an amphitheater and Millennium Square, now the City’s central plaza. Barton Hill, another inner city redevelopment project, reestablished the historic street pattern and created a neighborhood preferred by social housing tenants. Bristol is also redeveloping 80 hectares of industrial land near the central rail station into the Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone geared to attracting digital and low-carbon companies (Bristol, 2012).

By building entirely on brownfield sites, Bristol aims to keep sprawl out of the surrounding countryside. Bristol and its neighboring communities cooperate though the West of England Partnership to focus growth in existing centers and brownfields using strategic investments in housing, transportation, green infrastructure and maintenance of a sprawl-limited Green Belt. The region’s Strategic Green Infrastructure Framework aims to protect rivers, wildlife corridors and parks that cross jurisdictional borders. (Bristol, 2012).

In addition to concentrating development, Bristol reduces transportation emissions by improving public transportation and providing non-motorized travel options. Bristol became the official demonstration Cycling City of the UK and invested 20 million pounds in cycling improvements between 2009 and 2011. There are now 299 kilometers of cycle lanes of which 131 kilometers are physically separated bikeways and bike paths (Bristol, 2012).

In 1977, Bristol citizens formed the group now known as Sustrans, a non-profit organization promoting sustainable transportation throughout the United Kingdom. In 1982, Sustrans led the construction of a 13-mile rail trail between Bristol and Bath which now links with a 45-mile path through the Forest of Avon around Bristol. The Bristol and Bath Railway Path has become the most popular trail in the country, transporting more people than the trains that formerly ran here. Today, Sustrans is coordinating development of the National Cycle Network, a system of cycle paths and routes that is already located within two miles of 75 percent of all people in the UK (Sustrans, 2016).

About one sixth of the City is subject to a pilot program limiting vehicles to 20 miles per hour in an effort to promote biking and walking. Based on the success of this demonstration project, the City plans to apply the 20 mph speed limit to all residential neighborhoods. Between 2004 and 2012, cycling increased 80 percent with impressive growth in commuting, female cyclists and trips within the city center as well as the 20 mph pilot zones (Bristol, 2012).

Over three quarters of Bristol residents live within 300 meters of bus, rail or other forms of public transportation. A zero-emission hydrogen waterbus is now under development with funding from the Bristol City Council. Bristol is also closing or removing roads in the city center to create civic and recreational features. As a prominent example, the City removed roadways that previously bisected Queens Square, creating a public park with pedestrian and cycle paths (Bristol, 2012).

Figure 7-3: The 850-acre Ashton Court Estate Park offers ample space for recreation and nature.

Almost one third of Bristol’s total land area is blue or greenspace including 1,600 hectares of public parkland. Furthermore, more than 87 percent of Bristolians live within 300 meters of parks or other greenspace The Frome and Avon rivers meander through the City Center before passing through the Avon Gorge and flowing into the Severn Estuary. In 2011, the City added 80 hectares to the public park system with the acquisition of Stoke Park Estate. On the southern city limits, the Ashton Court Estate is the third busiest country park in the UK, offering 850 acres for all outdoor activities including a deer park. The historic, cycle/pedestrian-friendly Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge connects this mammoth park with the center of Bristol (Bristol, 2012).

The Bristol Wildlife Network, which applies to 27 percent of the city, protects habitats and natural corridors in new private developments as well as public projects. This network incorporates inner city segments of the Floating Harbor, originally a bypass of the Avon River controlled by locks to isolate docks from tidal-generated water level fluctuations. The wildlife network also includes several city parks including Greville Smyth Park and Brunel Open Space. The Severn Estuary, which provides habitat for birds of European importance, lies partly within the northern city boundaries and has been classified as a European Marine Site, Special Protection Area, Ramsar site and a Special Area of Conservation. The Avon Gorge is home to 27 species listed nationally as rare and threatened (Bristol, 2012).

Bristol pioneered urban wildlife protection in the UK, creating habitat in Brandon Hill Park in the city center in the 1980s and preserving Royate Hill as a Local Nature Reserve in the 1990s. More recent accomplishments include the protection of Troopers Hill and the designation of Grove Wood as a Town Village Green. Floating reed beds were recently introduced to the site of the city center’s former industrial docks and otters have since returned to this area (Bristol, 2012).

In 2008, the City adopted the Bristol Biodiversity Action Plan which has been recognized as a model by the UK Government. In an effort to put people and habitat close to one another, the City adopted a goal of establishing 16 Local Nature Reserves by 2016 (Bristol, 2012).

Bristol uses renewable energy generated by its sludge biogas digesters to power the entire wastewater treatment plant. All of the sludge produced at the plant is used as soil amendments on local farmland. A triathlon, complete with swimming competition, is held annually in Bristol’s floating harbor, one indication that the wastewater treatment system is effective as well as energy efficient (Bristol, 2012).

Bristol’s green brand has been good for business. Sustainability and a high quality of life have succeeded in attracting high tech industries and a highly-educated work force as well as leading environmental organizations like City Farms, Forum for the Future, the Schumacher Institute and the national headquarters of the Environment Agency (Sawday, 2012). As a result, Bristol is incubating prosperity as well as change.


Chapter 7: Bristol, United Kingdom: Incubating change

Bristol. 2012. European Green Capitals Application 2015. Bristol: City of Bristol.

Bristol. 2013. UK’s first Local Authority wind farm takes shape. Retrieved on March 15, 2016 from

European Commission. 2013. Expert Panel – Synopsis Technical Assessment Report: European Green Capital Award 2015. Brussels: European Commission.

Sawday, Alistair. 2012. What makes Bristol the UK’s green capital? The Guardian. Retrieved on March 15, 2016 from

Sustrans, 2016. Vision to Reality in Bristol. Retrieved on 3-11-16 from

United Kingdom. 2009. The Code for Sustainable Homes: Case Studies. London: UK Department for Communities and Local Government.

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.