Bristol: In the future city, we will no longer ask those that we meet, “where are you from?”

As part of the Festival of Ideas Future Cities, the National Conversation spent two days in Bristol talking about immigration, and how we can make it work in the future city. The festival focussed on the question “how do we make the cities that we really want to live in?”  Immigration needs to work for everyone if we want a city which we can all share and call home.

As part of the festival, we held an open meeting to hear local people’s thoughts.  Bristol has a long and rich history of migration, which has made it the city it is today. The events provided some important insights about integration in a city with many divides.

Our panel felt positively about migration which bought prosperity, skills and cultural richness to Bristol. They felt that migration was a normal part of everyday life and that Bristol was a welcoming city. One participant, a Polish PhD student, said:

“I’ve got friends, they don’t even know where I’m from. ‘Where are you from?’ is not the first question people ask you. In cities it’s a bit different, just you’re in Bristol”

Around 15% of Bristol’s residents have been born outside the UK. Bristol’s migrant population is super-diverse, with new arrivals coming as workers, students, refugees and family members from almost every nation of the world. The city has also seen high rates of internal migration, as many young professionals have moved away from London to the South West. This has had its own effect in pushing up house prices and rents, as certain areas of the desirable city become gentrified. As one person put it:

“Bristol’s been experiencing a lot of immigration from London, so it’s not really about the origin of the person, it’s how a city can cope with a big influx of people from anywhere. You can’t have a big change in population without putting extra resources in so that everyone can live a happy, healthy life.”

Current estimates see the city’s population to surpass half a million by 2029, growing at a faster rate than most other parts of the UK, much of this as a result of migration.  But a rapidly growing population comes with challenges, and the city’s working class and ethnically diverse areas such as Lawrence Hill, Ashley, Easton, Eastville and Cabot wards have experienced the greatest changes over the recent decade. With any population change, these areas will face increasing pressure on public services as well as housing.

We were told that more than a migration issue, “integration is more about socio-economic disadvantage in this city”, and that Bristol faced challenges in balancing the impacts of population change. It was thought that in areas which had seen rapid population growth, resources and access to opportunities became more limited, particularly impacting poorer members of society who became increasingly marginalised. The panel in Bristol felt that that migration had different impacts on different neighbourhoods and that some areas faced decline.

We were told that there was a strong sense of local identity, which could be particularly acute in more deprived areas such as the estates of South Bristol. Some panel members felt that this was a result of little change over time in these “close-knit communities”. Others felt that this was where hostility towards others emerged, and that meaningful contact with people was central to ensuring people of different backgrounds get along well.

One person summed up our conversation in Bristol:

“It is about how Bristol is ready to receive migrants and how Bristol is able to provide for migrants”

Our visit raised some interesting questions about how we make cities work for new migrants and longer-settled residents.  Making sure that housing, schools and the NHS can cope with population change is a good start.

But creating a city where we all want to live will involve much more. It is about bridging social divides and creating a city we all have a stake in, where we feel we belong and want to call home.  Politicians, local leaders and ordinary citizens need to promote what we have in common – our language, interests, civic pride, shared neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces – rather than dwell on what can divide us. In the future city, we will no longer ask those that we meet the “where are you from?” question quite so much, because we will think our fellow residents really belong here.

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