Nature as Identity: An Environmental History of Bristol’s Civic Improvement Societies


When the ash had settled at the end of the second world war, Bristol emerged from it quite the different city to how it had entered at the beginning. Bombing had destroyed many buildings such as the Jacobean St Peter’s Hospital and St Peter’s church as well as over 80,000 houses and the question was now raised over what would fill that vacant space. An opportunity for significant development had been created. Over the coming years, and particularly from the mid-1960s onward, the shape of the new Bristol began to form, and as structures populated the empty lots many Bristolians found themselves taking issue with the environment they now found themselves living in. What resulted was an explosion in the creation of what might be called “civic improvement societies”, concerned citizens forming themselves into groups that sought to improve, in their own view, the environment of Bristol. In wider society too was a growing environmentalist movement with a global perspective that was influencing how people conceptualised their relationship with nature and the environment. The central questions being asked in this essay is: to what extent were the reasons behind the creation of Bristol’s civic improvement groups based in their understandings of nature and the environment? And what were those understandings?

This essay will examine four of the most prominent of these societies at their inception, the ‘Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society’, the ‘Bristol Visual and Environmental Group’, the ‘Bristol Life-Style Movement’, and ‘Bristol Friends of the Earth’. Each of these, whilst being similar in many of their aspects, held distinct ethos’ and approaches to their action and had unique understandings of and relations to nature and the environment. Some attention will also be given to two other important developments during this period, those of Windmill Hill city farm and the proposal for the Avon Gorge hotel, which demonstrate in further multitude of approaches towards the environment in Bristol during this period. Broadly this essay finds that the societies fall into two categories, those with a globalist perspective versus those with a localist, but within these categories there is still much variation. Ultimately it finds that each of these groups conceptualised of nature and the environment in different ways and, with the exception of Bristol Friends of the Earth, not in a manner that would be familiar to contemporary environmentalist movements. The drive behind their creation was more greatly influenced instead by other factors that were tied closely to the rationale of environmentalism; a desire for aesthetics in town planning, an internationalist philosophy and an individualist rejection of modernity. Overall however the most influential factor that sustained these environmental groups was a fear over the loss of community and identity within Bristol, and the natural world acted as a catalyst around which such sentiments could form.  

Methodology and Historiography

The primary source base for this essay are the records of these organisations that are kept at Bristol Archives, their constitutions, the minutes of their meetings, their newsletters, correspondences, leaflets, and posters. These sources have been especially useful in giving a view of both the public and private sides of these organisations which allows for an examination of how much ideas around nature were used as promotion to the public as compared to their prevalence within the organisations themselves. As the sources are only either intended for the public or for official use they do lack personal material on the opinions and understandings of the individuals who made up these societies themselves, the picture given instead being one of the organisations’ approaches in a totality. An oral history would be useful in this area as an avenue for further exploration. Therefore, these sources are being used to examine the philosophies and approaches of these groups as collectives in regards to how they understood nature and its place within their goals for “improvement” as well as in how they utilised concepts of the environment and nature to achieve their goals.

The historiography in this very specific area has been light, the only works of note provided being incidental histories provided by the societies themselves, those that still exist today. These autobiographies were intended for general interest as supposed to academic and cannot be called impartial, nor are they attempting to be. On a national level several academic works have considered the origins of modern environmentalist movements such as David Pepper’s The Roots of Modern Environmentalism that charts the influence of romanticism, Darwinism, and socialism in the 19th and 20th centuries in forming environmentalist philosophy. Nick Crowson et al.’s NGOs in Contemporary Britain: Non-state Actors in Society and Politics Since 1945 explores this in a more modern context, explaining how the rise in environmental science bolstered and altered the arguments of these organisations during the mid to late 20th century. Donald Worster’s The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination lay much of the foundation for works such as these in 1993 where he explicitly tied the practice of environmental history to environmentalism in the present day. However, where these texts are have focussed on the emergence of environmentalism nationally and internationally, this essay will examine the phenomenon at a local level, within the context of one city.


The Localists

The Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society (CHIS) was founded in 1967 by a group of residents who wanted to, in their own words ‘keep Clifton’s character and charm intact’ in an age of ‘industry, transport, and new housing’. Reading some of their more recent literature may give the impression that concern for nature and the environment was a primary factor in the society’s foundation, but this is somewhat of a misrepresentation. In their leaflet from 2008 40 Years of CHIS they wrote that ‘the natural world is not merely an add-on to human activity, but an essential core of it’ and in regards to their history they imply the group was founded on similarly strong principles. Therein they wrote that they ‘like to see’ the people who campaigned against constructing housing over the Leigh Woods area in the early 20th century as ‘the precursors’ of their organisation, but it was George Wills who was responsible for donating Leigh Woods to the national trust, not the CHIS.  Whatever the society has become today, at its inception the CHIS was not very interested in environmental action, though that is not to say they didn’t take any interest in the natural world. Rather, the group was more invested in the aesthetic of nature, an aesthetic with which to complement the historic Georgian and Victorian architecture of the area and with which to combat modern constructions.

In their original constitution of 1967, they state their intended aim as to ‘encourage high standards in architecture and town planning’ with no allusion towards conservation or ecological concerns. As compared to the other civic improvement societies examined in this essay the CHIS took the most conservative approach in this area, with their primary interest in environmental management being as a tool towards making the place they lived in feel civilised and friendly. Their key purpose was the conservation and preservation of the existing urban townscape. Nature and the environment did hold a place in this vision however, as green spaces were intrinsic to the Georgian and Victorian architecture of the area, as such the CHIS demonstrated in their meetings and correspondences a good deal of concern over the state of residents’ gardens which they resented being turned into spaces for car-parking, calling these ‘bald front gardens’ a ‘scar’ on the area. They sent many letters congratulating or criticizing businesses and individuals on the state of the gardens such as to the South West Electricity Board complementing them on some ‘well identified planting’ around their new sub-station. However, they were happy to see greenery removed if it improved the aesthetic of an area, writing to city engineer J B Bennett that some members had been ‘distressed’ by the idea of removing trees along Buckingham Place but felt it was ‘overall good for the frontage’.

In terms of civic space they were also keen to preserve communal green spaces, having them declared as town greens to prevent them being built upon. However, the minutes of their meetings convey that their principal purpose for this was to halt the ‘threat [of] new housing’ that would not match the aesthetic of the area as supposed to valuing the land as green space in and of itself. However, the practice that was perhaps the most emblematic of their approach towards nature was what they called ‘putting an order’ on a tree, singling out individual trees to be preserved because of their pleasing positioning and appearance, such as when writing to Mrs Wilton in 1975 to ask her not to cut down the tree on her front lawn. This demonstrates the specificity of the CHIS’s environmental considerations, the focus on the minutiae. They were not contemplating nature as an ecological system in need of the same level of conservation as the buildings of the area, more as a useful array of decorations that could be tactfully applied to improve the character of Clifton and Hotwells.

The philosophy of the CHIS very much spawned from the local environment of the area, but from the urban environment as supposed to the natural. As the society developed it did begin to consider nature in a different light, seeing it not just as having aesthetic benefit, but also a recreational one, their 1977 constitution altering their aims to also include the ‘provision of facilities for recreation and other leisure time occupations… in the interest of social welfare’. Still here however, the CHIS was interested in what the local ecology could do for them rather than what they could do for it.

Bristol Visual and Environmental Group

The Bristol Visual and Environmental Group (BVEG), founded in 1967 (one year before the CHIS), took a far more radical approach as compared to the CHIS. Their remit took in the whole city as supposed to a single area and they paid particular attention to public transport as an alternative to the car. They argued that the development of large modern blocks and high-density road networks was damaging the character of the city as a whole and was impacting the environment in the sense of that for the humans who lived there. One of their most common calls was to keep the city at a ‘human scale’, writing to the council in 1970 berating ‘the old city losing all its atmosphere of a medieval walled town, the prevalence of ugly car-parks and offices, [and] the vanishing interest in gabled or curved roof lines’. They were also concerned with tall buildings breaking up the terraced nature of the city as it sat on the hill, meaning they argued that buildings higher up the hill should be able overlook those beneath them. One thing that set the BVEG apart from the CHIS was its level of political engagement, frequently writing to and criticising the city council as well as putting out argumentative leaflets and newsletters and even forming a policy in 1971 to ‘name and shame’ urban planners who damaged the integrity of the city as they saw it.

In its language the BVEG demonstrated a desire to tie itself to environmental discussion and spoke out strongly on green issues. In their public newsletters during the early 1970s they wrote that the council should ‘think hard before they develop more housing on GREEN OPEN SPACE’, recognising the inherent value of natural spaces. They were also very concerned with the environmental impact of the car on human health and the health of the city, writing that the council should instead ‘encourage the use of GREEN TRANSPORT using WATER AND RAIL’. Ultimately however the group proved more interested in the ‘visual’ portion of their name as supposed to the ‘environmental’. Their use of “green language” was more an attempt to capture the zeitgeist than to follow it. They called for the creation of conservation areas, but only across urban spaces as supposed to natural. They thought the council shouldn’t build on green spaces, but because ‘there is so much derelict land available in the city centre’ as supposed to a wish to preserve the spaces themselves. In a newsletter in 1972 they wrote that the group’s aim was ‘to preserve the historic and unique character of Bristol… these aims being consistent with conservation and the prudent use of natural resources’. The order and wording of these objectives is important as they demonstrate that the group was primarily concerned, similarly to the CHIS, with the architectural character of the area, however they recognised that these goals could be ‘consistent’ with environmentalist causes.

Where the CHIS was interested in the aesthetic of nature and the environment, the BVEG was interested in the language of environmentalism, utilising it to further the appeal of their arguments to the public. In actuality the BVEG and the CHIS had very similar agendas, but the more political approach that the BVEG took on those issues led it to be more attentive to, and able to capitalise upon, political trends. The group’s central message had always been that ‘Georgian Bristol [was] under threat’; what they recognised was that the things that threatened it: roads, cars, and tower blocks, were the same things that environmentalists were concerned with as well.

These two societies were localists, in that they were drawing influence from, and looking for change to, local causes. Their concern lay with the identity of Bristol as a city in the post-war context. In the present day this image is often tied to nature, the environment, and environmentalism however at the conception of these groups in the sixties and early seventies the natural world was not prevalent in their philosophies for civic renewal.  For them the “local environment” for which they sought change was predominantly an urban one and the task at hand was one of town planning and the encouragement of architectural rigour. The natural world held a place in that schematic, but an ancillary one; it was not a driving factor for their activism. From the localist standpoint, it was the buildings of Bristol that had been destroyed in the war, and it was the building in Bristol that was destroying the city after it. Thus, they did not conceive of the environment as other societies with more international agendas might. Bristol was not a piece of the puzzle, it was the puzzle, and the natural world simply did not fit in as a key concern, indeed, the city generally is a place where it is of the least concern.


Bristol Life-Style Movement

What of organisations that held more internationalist attitudes? As alluded to at the close of the first chapter, this essay finds that the globalists incorporated concerns over ecology and nature more deeply into their core philosophy. However, this did not necessarily translate to stronger advocacy for environmental causes, as is the case with the Bristol Life-Style Movement (BLSM). The philosophy of the BLSM is perhaps the most interesting of those explored in this essay as it was simultaneously global and individualistic, radical and conservative. The group was a Christian organisation that stood against much of what the “modern world” had brought them in the sixties and seventies. They wrote to their members of ‘the myth of progress’, advocated for ‘freedom from the consumerist rat-race’, and were fond of quoting Gandhi: ‘there is enough in the world for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed’. They were disillusioned with capitalism and saw the environment as key casualty of it, they wanted a return to a simpler life, a life that was closer to God.

The BLSM saw their action as part of a wider struggle for ‘global justice’. They supported increases in foreign aid, the boycotting of South African goods over apartheid, and the attendance of the ‘fight world poverty mass rally’ in 1985. They framed these as environmental issues, saying in their promotional material that ‘peace means sharing of resources’ and that ‘conservation is survival’. This was a fusion of environmentalism with traditional Christian causes; destruction of the environment was a large scale issue that, they argued, required a coming together to address. In other words, the environmental threat was a single, global, unifying factor that underlay many other causes the group cared about and acted as a new reason to spread their charity and faith. The environment of Bristol was inextricably linked to that of China or Lesotho and people in the west needed to be made aware of ‘the environmental destruction on which their standard of living depends’. In these ways the group was more radical than the CHIS or the BVEG, as betrayed in them calling themselves a Life-Style ‘movement’ rather than a group or society.

However, the official documents of the BLSM reveal that practical action they advocated be took was not nearly so radical as their language and ideology in their promotional material. They stood against global ecological devastation, but they did not ask for societal or systemic change in order to combat it, instead they focussed on changes in individual lifestyle choices. Their slogan, was ‘live simply that all may simply live’ and they asked of their members that they ‘commit themselves to a moderate lifestyle as a personal contribution to the conservation of our planet’. Whilst they did conceive of nature as a transnational entity, their means of conserving it was very much local, even more so than the CHIS or the BVEG, who focussed on city-wide change as supposed to individual. They encouraged cycling and buying organic, discouraged driving and buying ‘wasteful packaging’. It was in this sense that the BLSM was globalist yet individualist, their message was that change for the planet was tied to change within yourself. The lifestyle the BLSM was encouraging, the principals of simplicity, self-sufficiency, and community held nature at their core. The natural world was God’s creation, and the ideal was to live in harmony with it as much as possible. The world of office blocks, plastic bags, and the newly built M4 motorway was the antithesis of this.

Indeed, the ecological philosophy of the group also incorporated a wider rejection of authority and intellectualism. In their 1981 newsletter, they wrote that ‘the great technological age is making us more clever, but perhaps less wise’ and that ‘we are allowing the “experts” to organise too much of our lives’. In essence they framed “getting back to nature” as an escape from modernity, both its damaging physical attributes and its societal ones, writing in 1974 that the actuality of ‘cheap fuel’ was inseparable from the ‘gluttony’ of the society surrounding it. They saw themselves as alternative thinkers who were not given space by “the powers that be”, complaining in a newsletter in 1981 that they were being ‘written off as… left-wingers or even worse, Christians!’. For the BLSM, the allure of the natural world was its freedom as well as its simplicity. The localist societies wanted to see the environment of Bristol change, but they still wanted to live in it as a modern city. The globalist anti-authority perspective of the BLSM on the other hand led the want to escape the city entirely, whilst ultimately never physically leaving it. The method to achieve this escape therefore was to make your life more “natural”, more alternative, more out of step with everyone else’s, to detach yourself from what the BLSM saw as a morally vacuous normality within a global community of people also doing so.

Bristol Friends of the Earth

Bristol Friends of The Earth (BFOTE) was different from the other societies discussed because it was a wing of the much bigger national organisation. Their agenda was very focussed on international issues just like the BLSM, but it went further in really advocating for internationalism as a philosophy. After their formation in 1972 they set up a ‘World Studies Centre’, stating that they wanted to encourage British society to be more ‘outward facing’. In their language and their actions they far more closely resembled the environmental organisations of today than the other societies thus far discussed and their goals overall were more focussed around an understanding of the natural world as something to be protected for its own sake. The CHIS, BVEG, and BLSM did all care to greater and lesser degrees about the state of the natural world, but in the context of how it could then help them with their own human existences. The health of ecosystems as a whole was not necessarily paramount if what existed was sufficient to achieve their desired ends. This is not to say that BFOTE were not concerned with themselves, it is that they saw themselves and nature to be one and the same, writing in a 1981 bulletin that ‘we cannot afford to trade off the integrity of the planet’s life support systems against short-term economic gains’. They conceptualised of the ecosystem as a whole, of which all parts were needed for the machine to operate, including humanity. Nature was not something you could choose to incorporate into your lifestyle or neighbourhood as a means of improving your quality of life, it was something you needed to conserve in order to protect all life¸ including your own.

It was on these grounds that BFOTE participated in numerous campaigns during their early years against excessive packaging, the Bristol ring road, the Severn barrage, nuclear power, whaling, non-returnable bottles, the Dartmoor tungsten mine, heavy-lorries, and the use of lead in petrol. The variety of these campaigns, on both local, national, and international matters demonstrates that the group saw the protection of the natural world as an issue that spanned all of these spheres; they were all tied to each other and to humanity. As they wrote in a 1982 bulletin, the ‘issues of environment and development are inextricably linked’. BFOTE saw the environment and nature as integral to their internationalist agenda. For them, nature was a force that transgressed national boundaries both in the sense that non-human life pays little respect to the borders of countries, but also in the international cooperation that they saw as required in order to tackle issues of environmental destruction. 

The group also ran a number of campaigns to encourage cycling and advocate for the insulation of homes for the elderly. They involved local schools in ‘pollution studies classes’ where they taught both children, teachers, and parents primarily about the dangers of leaded fuel but also ‘the need for energy conservation’. They were consulted with in the building of Wick Primary School on the outskirts of Bristol, which was built to be energy efficient and utilise renewable energy. One of their largest campaigns was titled ‘spot the blot!” and asked people to ‘take notes on gross examples of air pollution, filthy rivers and beaches, noisy factories or road junctions, despoiled countryside etc.’ and report them both to their local council and BFOTE. These programs were a way of joining care for the natural world with the bringing of local communities together. This is a theme that all the groups studied in this essay adhere to. Indeed, if there is one factor that binds the ideologies and philosophies of all these groups together during this short period it is that of community and a sense of place. All of these societies, including those that didn’t conceptualise of the natural world as central to their goals as an organisation, felt that in the creation of modern Bristol something was being lost that nature could help to regain.

Windmill Hill City Farm and the Avon Gorge Hotel

Two projects during this period best exemplify this trend, the creation of the Windmill Hill city farm, and the campaign against the creation of the Avon Gorge hotel, two projects that all these societies supported. The Avon Gorge hotel was a proposed extension to the existing hotel that would be both larger than the original and would sit just beneath it in the valley. Its proposed design followed the brutalist aesthetic that was popular at the time, however it was not with the members of the CHIS, BVEG, BLSM, and BFOTE. They described it as a ‘monster hotel project’ that would ‘generate even more traffic’ and declared it would ‘destroy the existing balance between natural environment and townscape’ in an open letter they all signed in 1971 from ‘the citizens of Bristol and residents of Clifton’. The scale of the proposal was enough to bring everyone together against both its aesthetics and environmental consequences. That natural space mattered to the identity of the city.

For the founders of Windmill Hill city farm, known as “the dustbin group”, community and identity were central to their project, indeed they were the reason behind it. The project began in 1976 and was created out of an area of land that had previously been housing but had been heavily bombed during the war and had lain derelict since. In the first public document the dustbin group produced they were very clear as to the reasons behind their project:

‘local government structure plans of the 50s and 60s took little into account of the needs of inner-city communities – land was rezoned, urban motorways planned, industries relocated, houses and shops demolished, land left derelict and thus communities destroyed’

They felt left behind and overlooked, and what characterised that abandonment was rubble and motorways and crumbling buildings: urban decay. What a farm could achieve then, with trees and sheep and vegetables, was a departure from that. Nature was both a representation of, and a means of, urban renewal and the building of community and identity. The dustbin group’s main argument in favour of the farm was that it would bring jobs to the area through ‘community industry, project staff, and work experience’. It would repurpose derelict land, create jobs and a community hub, and prevent the construction of a lorry park that had been proposed to be built there. The conservation of nature or the health of their lifestyles was not on their minds, these things were simply tangential benefits of the project.


Why did all these societies, projects, and campaigns emerge at the same time in Bristol during the late sixties and early seventies? Threats to the environment and earth’s ecosystems were not new. Deforestation, species extinctions, poor air quality, and urban sprawl had existed for decades. What had changed was the character of Bristol itself in the wake of post-war redevelopment and the rise of the car. These changes highlighted to many people the importance of the natural world to their lives, but not in the same way for every person, hence the variety of societies created. For some it made them recognise its importance in town planning and architecture, for others in their lifestyles, and for others in the wider picture of global ecosystems and environmental forces. The natural world was and is many things to many people, and these societies, with their divergent philosophies around the relationship between human and environment, demonstrated that. The common strand that ran between them all at this time however, and the spark that ignited the explosion in the creation of these sorts of groups, was a fear that the communities and identity of Bristol were being damaged and a belief that nature could act as a force to heal them.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

Date of Publication: 28th of May 2020

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