The saga of Stokes Croft highlights Bristol’s battle with gentrification

Stokes Croft, May 2016. Image: Getty.

Nowhere is the sharp injustice of gentrification so grossly demonstrated as in Stokes Croft. With its world renowned street art and buzzing local scene, this area is the main fount of culture and creativity, which has propelled the city of Bristol to international fame. For many years, Stokes Croft has been a seat of resilience and rebellion against the inevitable creep of corporate interests into “up-and-coming” areas.

This is a place where locals staged a peaceful sit-in against the opening of a chain supermarket – a protest which escalated into riots when local squatters were evicted by police a few days later. One of Banksy’s first murals – The Mild, Mild West – still remains, a beloved memorial to the ravers who resisted police in the 1990s.

Stokes Croft: creative frontier. Image: KylaBorg/Flickr, CC BY.

But like so many creative hubs before it, Stokes Croft is becoming a victim of its own trendiness. Now, one of the area’s most central hot spots – Hamilton House – is at risk of being redeveloped. In our research on developments in Stokes Croft, we traced the tragic arc of dereliction, rejuvenation and gentrification up to the current moment.

The story so far

It’s hard to imagine Stokes Croft without the hustle and bustle that surrounds Hamilton House. The building has thousands of visitors every day. It is home to The Canteen, a bar, restaurant and music venue which also trains disadvantaged people in the hospitality sector.

The Canteen at Hamilton House. Image: heatheronhertravels/Flickr, CC BY-NC.

It also hosts the Bristol Bike Project, providing bikes and services to underprivileged groups; the Misfits Theatre Company, a theatre and social group led by people with learning disabilities; and many other groups and projects providing everything from co-working spaces to event management.

The success story started in 2008 when the owners of the building, Connolly & Callaghan (C&C), invited a group of local people to come up with a plan for the community to make use of a derelict building in the centre of the high street. At the time, Stokes Croft was notably downtrodden; a place replete with pawnshops and massage parlours. Many people avoided walking through it at night.

Less than salubrious. Image: чãvìnkωhỉtз/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

These people went on to form the community interest company Coexist. Their idea was simple: create the “operating system”, a community interest company, which rents out office spaces to artists, projects and various organisations under market rates. At the same time, necessary renovations and marketing were done by the free work of Coexist volunteers, keen to turn their neighbourhood into a more attractive place.

Since then, Hamilton House has been central to the rejuvenation of Stokes Croft as a cultural and creative quarter, attracting many artists, creatives, charities and entrepreneurs to the building. Coexist has become a key actor in the quarter, alongside the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft and other community groups. It even gained a moment of international fame when it introduced a period policy for female staff.

A valuable asset

Coexist reckons that Hamilton House brings in an annual revenue of around £21m, and is responsible for around 1,260 jobs in the local area. It also provides free spaces, events and exhibitions worth around £100,000 annually to the community.

Coexist’s Community Kitchen at Hamilton House. Image: Ruth Davey/Flickr, CC BY-NC.

By raising the profile of Stokes Croft, Hamilton House has also contributed to rising real estate values in the surrounding area. And now, the owners of Hamilton House are seemingly tempted to cash in. In November 2016, C&C notified the council of their intent to dispose of the building, so that the community asset lock on the property would be removed.

While Coexist has, up until now, always said that C&C have been “sponsors, instigators and landlords” providing essential support for the Hamilton House project, C&C have also benefited greatly from the hard work of the local community. The financial statements for C&C reveal that when Hamilton House was valuated in September 2016, the value of the property had increased by a whopping £3.44m, from £2.1m in 2008 to £5.5m today.

Existing legislation gave Coexist the right to a first bid, but the community interest company has been unable to compete with market rates. Their pretty impressive £5.5m, face-value bid was rejected by C&C in July 2017. Bids ranging from £5.2m to £7.5m have reportedly been made by other parties.

A clouded future

Although conversations continue, fears about Hamilton House’s future run high. C&C have served Coexist with a notice to vacate the building by 11 August. An offer of a six-month recurring lease (with some caveats regarding the middle and back part of the building, which C&C want to develop) is on the table, but it means that Coexist and most of the tenants now lack the security to plan ahead.

A spokesperson for C&C said:

Connolly & Callaghan has supported and assisted Coexist for nearly a decade in its work in creating community. Coexist was brought into being in 2008 because Connolly & Callaghan wanted to create an experimental centre of excellence in sustainable community at Hamilton House, which we have owned since 2004 … Going forward, our intention is to maintain a flexible approach towards the future of Hamilton House. We hope to see Coexist continue its work in community building, and to also see Coexist build its own long-term social, environmental and financial stability.

Paradise lost? Image: jontangerine/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

Coexist and their tenants have made Stokes Croft into a more attractive area with their cultural labour. Here, local values, practices and people have worked to achieve social goods for the whole community, as well as those who visit. Now, the people who lifted up their local communities could be deprived of the fruits of their labour.

Of course, this resilient community is already exploring possible solutions. Coexist and the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft are proposing to use Bristol’s community land trust, to take over the building. This would allow the property to be owned communally, protecting this important infrastructure from market interventions.


The ConversationBut for these solutions to work, regulation must be put in place, to limit the power of real estate owners and to acknowledge those who regenerated the area. Gentrification is often understood as inevitable, but it can also be deeply unjust. It’s time for councils and governments of all colours to recognise the twisted logic of gentrification – which leaves strong and resilient communities at the mercy of private developers – and put an end to it. It’s only fair.

Fabian Frenzel is associate professor in organisation studies at University of LeicesterArmin Beverungen is junior director at the Digital Cultures Research Lab, Leuphana University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.