Rocket man Ferguson is Bristol’s cultural entrepreneur
I’m meeting George Ferguson CBE, mayor of Bristol, on the roof of Brooks Guest House above St Nick’s market. Why so high? We sit surrounded by luxurious, uber cool silver Rocket caravans – a unique B & B experience that contrasts the city’s ancient skyline with a contemporary edge.
Home boy graffiti artist Banksy would no doubt approve of a location that possibly makes Bristol the coolest city in the UK. It’s lunchtime and the air is full of exotic and cosmopolitan smells wafting from the many stalls below and this is no ordinary meeting with a politician.
Cultural entrepreneur Ferguson made history when he created his own political party and was elected Bristol’s first mayor. An architect by training, politically independent he caught our eye as a man with a vision to turn Bristol into the coolest city in UK – a beacon to challenger cities across the globe.
Since the 1960s George is renowned for people-first urban regeneration projects like the Tobacco Factory, At Bristol, The Paintworks… and as an advocate of the Bristol Pound, a currency to keep cash in the city that can be used to pay taxes and is accepted at 1000+ local businesses (George takes his salary in Bristol Pounds).
I ask George, who is wearing his trademark red trousers, about his motivation to take office and his vision.
“My career has always been in favour of architecture for people. I decided I wanted to change Bristol through architecture, make my own city the best in the world by 2020. Making things happen is my motivation. Leadership is all about inspiring and encouraging. Somebody once said that Bristol is one of the best known cities — in Bristol. I want to raise the profile of our city, globally. Now I’m Bristol’s brand manager.”
How do you intend to do this?
“By playing to our strengths. We’re a typical medium sized European city with the potential to be a blueprint for others. In 2015 we are European Green Capitol, the only city with an official green tag. That’s a massive international lever and I’m determined to become a global brand not just European.”
Why is it important to you?
“We should share learning and experiences with other cities, inspire and influence them. It’s a huge opportunity to sell Bristol as a great, healthy place. Why can’t I turn Bristol into an even more liveable, fairer, environmentally-friendly city? We can get there by involving all the citizens and on the way people should have fun re-awakening their communities.”
Is that why you came up with the idea of ‘Make Sunday Special’?
“Yes, it is a day you can do things differently, close the roads and do things in our streets that bring people together. A wonderful example is turning Park Street [a city centre main road] into a giant water slide. More than 95,000 people applied for just 360 tickets to slide down a soapy water slide on an inflatable lilo. People thought differently about their city for a day, had fun, and we generated global [media] coverage. Make Sundays Special has become a brand in its own right.”
I have read that George has seven visions for Bristol. What are they, I ask?
“They are what you’d like for any city: transport, work, health, learning, vibrant, safe and democratic. All to make Bristol great. I set up four commissions on affordable homes, education and skills, sport and wellbeing. Women was the fifth one, a fairness commission – the most important. I want to turn these visions into real work and real achievements.”
I wonder how being an independent politician enables George to deliver on those promises?
“[When sworn in] I promised what I believed I could achieve. Being independent means I can tear up the political rule book. My one big vision is to deliver an arena for Bristol. We are the last regional city of this size without such a venue. It’s about ‘place making’ and the arena will be a catalyst to create a really good urban environment to live in – even when there’s NOT a concert on. I believe the money we invest will be repaid into the communities we create.”
In 10 years time, what will Bristol look like?
”Bristol will be repaired from bad governance and Second World War bomb damage. It will be a cleaner, fairer city. We will be more self sufficient, a place where everybody feels they have a part to play with equal opportunity in terms of education and health. I see food needing a big revolution and I’d like to see Bristol at the heart of that.”
Given that this story is likely to be seen by influencers all over the world, what’s your message to them?
”Cities are the world drivers for change, better health, education, and environment. I don’t think Governments can move fast enough, so my ambition is that Bristol will be a driver for change not just for itself but for other cities. We all benefit from the generosity of sharing – ideas make better places. Let’s liberate our cities is my message.”
Lunch is nearly over and I have to ask about his iconic red trousers.
”They are not a statement, I’ve worn coloured trousers all my life, people seem to think they are a deliberate part of my personal brand. So why not, red trousers have always been the sign of a rebel, I’m an establishment rebel.
Tags: George Ferguson CBE, mayor of Bristol, George, Ferguson, Ferguson mayor of Bristol, Bristol’s cultural entrepreneur, Rocket man Ferguson, establishment rebel, seven visions for Bristol, Make Sunday Special, urban regeneration projects, Tobacco Factory, At Bristol, The Paintworks, Bristol Pound
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