Helen Manchester: City Fellowship Report. January 2021

City Decision Making 

My focus and interest in the fellowship is particularly around the methods, practices and approaches we might adopt in order to enable communities at the margins to contribute to city decision making.  

Our work with the City Office was delayed as they were pulled into the Council’s response to the COVID pandemic however we have now established a way of working alongside three of the City Boards to support them to engage with communities at the margins as they work to embody the One City Approach. Myself and Lucie Martin-Jones are working with the Health and Wellbeing board to explore broader engagement with the board in relation to the voices of communities at the margins in the city. We have joined Health and wellbeing board meetings to observe and participate in their discussions. We have worked alongside the officer for the board – Mark Allen- to plan a stakeholder engagement event and to develop an idea around a working group exploring wider engagement in the health and wellbeing board activities. Our focus here is on gathering a group of ‘allies’ with whom we can work to influence how the voices of communities at the margins can be included more centrally in decisions made by the board. 

In addition, Lucie and I were asked to sit on the Advisory Board for the Citizens Assemblies which Bristol City Council are running in January and February 2021, in collaboration with ‘Involve’. The first weekend has already taken place. The focus of the assembly draws on a survey which asked about the city’s recovery for all in Bristol. The assembly members will hear about and discuss how COVID-19 has affected Bristol, and then make recommendations on what should happen and how things should change. Three areas were selected, based on the survey, to discuss in more depth. These ‘matters of concern’ are broadly: climate change, health inequalities and transport. Particular issues focus on a) retro-fitting homes to decrease emissions b) health inequalities c) transport with a focus on neighbourhoods. 60 randomly selected people from across Bristol are taking part in three weekend activities – selections were done by the Sortition society and provide a good representation of all communities across Bristol with a slight bias towards participation of those who are experiencing the greatest inequalities. Advisory group members were asked to feed in related to questions of inclusion and participation in the events, suggested speakers and particular issues that might arise. We were also invited along to the Citizens Assemblies. I have been in conversation with the organisers of the event and am hoping to do some research around the findings from their evaluation and based on the notes I am taking in the assembly events I have been able to observe. This data will be fascinating insight into a process of deliberative democracy with a focus on questions of inequality and inclusion. Questions of digital inclusion have been particularly interesting as the events are happening fully online. 

Taken together I feel that these activities are enabling the fellows to ask critical questions of the methods of consultation and approaches to hearing the voices of communities at the margins and enabling us to make suggestions about how this might be otherwise. This is a long term project and together the fellows have discussed our ‘fellowships’ with the city as going beyond the time of the initial funding – we hope to continue to engage with the city to encourage a move from ‘consultation’ which often involves completing online surveys to a focus on ‘participation’ and ‘engagement’ in city decision making for those who have previously felt their voices have not been heard. We know this is not something that will change overnight as histories of participation matter here and relations of trust with and in the council in some communities need rebuilding. 

The Civic University 

Throughout the fellowship questions concerning current governance structures and consultation culture have arisen. We have come to believe that a longer term project is also needed to explore the principles, processes and practices that are needed to increase the collaboration between anchor community organisations in the city, the council, the University of Bristol and the City Office to enable them to share stories, data and experiences from the communities that they serve. Targeting community anchor organsiations and working alongside Locality and the Social Justice Project (SJP) (both umbrella organizations who work with community orgs across the city) could increase the impact of this work. Morag Mcdermont and I recently successfully applied for a small amount of funding to develop this work alongside Locality and the SJP. “Many Neighbourhoods, One City: Co-creating Collaborative decision making” broadly aims to: 

  • Develop principles, processes and practices that can provide a roadmap for future city decision making based on the experiences and knowledge of co-production and co-creation identified across practice and research 
  • Provide a framework for a comprehensive UoB research programme that can support this roadmap that is collaboratively co-produced with communities in the city 


The City Fellows programme is also a chance to think differently about how the University of Bristol can work with the city. We are continuing the work alongside university colleagues who are working on newly emerging agendas concerning what the university is for – particularly in relation to the idea of ‘the civic university’. We have held an event with key partners to share and discuss our findings and subsequently completed a report which we sent out to partners. The above project ‘Many neighbourhoods, One City’ comes out of that work. 

Digital Inequalities  

I am also working alongside Susan Halford and Bristol Digital Futures Institute in exploring digital inequalities with Knowle West Media Centre and in relation to the Knowle West area. Back in 2020 800 people in Knowle West completed a survey around questions of digital inclusion – exploring questions of access but also confidence and literacies. We have completed a first analysis of the data with three researchers working with us to explore the survey responses which are both qualitative and quantitative. We are also analysing some qualitative interviews that took place last year with members of Knowle West Alliance around COVID and inequalities more generally and will be looking at how social, economic and political inequalities intersect with questions of digital inequality in this work. We are also likely to be expanding the work to other communities across Bristol. 

Next steps 

Creative City Fellow 

Since the beginning of the City Fellows programme we have been working to secure funding for a Creative City Fellow to work alongside us on the programme. Despite set backs with funding we managed to secure some funding for this activity and have now recruited a Creative City Fellow to the programme – Angie Bual who runs TriggerStuff. I am looking forward to working alongside Angie on creative methods and approaches that we might include in our working methods and approaches to thinking about participation in city decision making. 

Many Neighbourhoods One City 

I look forward to working with colleagues in Locality and the SJP to consider and develop a role for community anchor organisations in city decision making. This will enable a focus on place based community approaches that can explore infrastructures of care and how they work in the city and look at systemic change in how the voices of communities at the margins are heard in the city 

I will also continue to work with colleagues across the University of Bristol on our role as a civic university. 

Helen Manchester: Update September 2020

Portrait of Helen Manchester: a smiling lady in her 40's with short grey hair. She wears a black raincoat and is in front of a landscape..City Decision Making

My focus and interest in the fellowship is particularly around the methods, practices and approaches we might adopt in order to enable communities at the margins to contribute to city decision making. I see my role as working alongside the City Office and the other fellows to embed new methods, practices and approaches into their ongoing collaborative governance work in the city. I am particularly interested in bringing creative methods and approaches to this process, and would welcome working alongside partners in the cultural sector to achieve this. I am interested in thinking about how we might all draw on the knowledge and the expertise of communities at the margins to understand better how we might build a more inclusive, sustainable city. For instance, in talking with Natasha Broad (add link to her 2 pager) we have looked at how the LGBTQ+ community have lived through the AIDS/HIV pandemic and will therefore have important experiences and understandings for the current COVID situation. Or in talking with Lucie Martin-Jones (add link) have realized how much we can learn from disabled people about staying strong and sane whilst living isolated lives.

Our work with the City Office was delayed as they were pulled into the Council’s response to the COVID pandemic however we have now established a way of working alongside the City Boards to support them to engage with communities at the margins as they work to refresh the City Plan.

The Civic University

The City Fellows programme is also a chance to think differently about how the University of Bristol can work with the city. We are therefore working closely with university colleagues who are working on newly emerging agendas concerning what the university is for – particularly in relation to the idea of ‘the civic university’. This has involved attending board meetings of the city engagement board to feed in learnings from the city fellows work with the City Office. We have also worked with colleagues in Research Enterprise and Development to design and run a piece of research around our partnerships in the city (Learning from our Partners) to explore  how the University of Bristol might respond to, or collaborate with our partners, around some of their key concerns. This is now becoming a bigger piece around what being a civic university means in Bristol and how this might work in the current resource limited environment. We are going to be analysing this data and then running an event with these partners to work on specific actions that we might be able to take over the next 12 months in order to test out some of our ideas.

City Futures: building a city of care

I am interested in how the City Fellows programme can support the city to reconsider it’s future and see the pandemic as an opportunity for this. Mayor Rees and others have also been working on this agenda, named the ‘Rebuilding Bristol’ initiative #buildbackbetter. Through the City Office we all got invitations to the ‘Rebuilding the City’ seminar and I was invited to speak at that. The provocation for that seminar was this:

‘Bristol, along with cities all over the globe, is facing an unprecedented health, economic and social crisis. This brings both a challenge and an opportunity to rebuild our city. If we do it well, Bristol will be more inclusive, more sustainable and more resilient in the face of future shocks. If we do it without thinking, falling into old assumptions (ie. badly), the opposite is true. How should we rebuild our city?’

As a result of that I posted a blog post entitled ‘Rebuilding Bristol as a city of care’– the main thrust of the blogpost being around how the pandemic has  helped to make visible, to more people, where people and communities are falling through the cracks in our cities and illustrated more widely that a return to business as usual is not an attractive option for those of us interested in social, economic and environmental justice. I believe that if we want to tackle issues of social, economic and environmental justice we need to focus on the role of care in the city. I draw on the feminist scholar Jean Tronto’s definition of care as ‘everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair ‘our’ world so that we can live in it as well as possible.’ (Tronto, 1993, p.103) Feminist approaches to care foreground our interdependencies, and encourage us to take notice of peoples’ lived experiences, their existing knowledges and expertise and the stories they tell about them.

As inequalities and the cracks in our city have become ever more visible to more people we should see this as an opportunity to open up discussion about how we can work as a city to tackle these enduring inequalities, alongside communities themselves. I think we have seen that there is a lot of existing excellent work in the city, organisations that are battling and working on these concerns with little resource and we need to re-value what’s important.

This brings me back to my own interests in the methods and approaches, and principles and values we might adopt in ensuring that Rebuilding Bristol is a collaboration that might not always involve consensus – that it is likely that we will all disagree about what is important and what isn’t but that doing ‘consultations’ in the usual way is not going to be the best way forwards.

Next steps

I will be working with the fellows to understand their methodological approaches and to work with them to develop and trial different methods and approaches to the inclusion of the communities they work with in city decision making processes. This will be achieved through continuing to work with the City Office and the City Boards in order to convene conversations across difference and methods of participation that might disrupt current practices of consultation in the city. This might involve working out ways of making visible stories of inequalities, and to surface ‘matters of concern’ in order to collaboratively work out how we can challenge them.

Working to rebuild a city of care could revolve around place based community approaches, for instance exploring how informal infrastructures of care that have emerged during the pandemic might survive. Questions here arise around how we might collaboratively build infrastructures of care and community resilience in hyper local, place based communities. However, recognition that this would also require support for the community and voluntary sector and systemic change is also vital.

I will also continue to work with colleagues across the University of Bristol on our role as a civic university.