How Racism is Built into our Cities

The Black Lives Matter protests around the world in the last month has brought to attention the racism that in ingrained in many different countries around the world, not only in the USA where the murder of George Floyd by police was the catalyst for the latest in a long-line of race-related process. In the UK similar protests were formed with peaceful intent, with the most high-profile concerning the toppling of a statue in Bristol that commemorated a slave trader from the city. Here, we look at how racism is naturally built into the architecture of our cities and how we can move forward in the future with new architecture plans and urban design that reflects modern society.

The debate intensified during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol. Over the last decade and more there has been fierce debate in the city about the role of Edward Colston in the slave trade. His bronze memorial was situated on Colston Avenue in the heart of the city centre, whilst one of the largest live music venues in the country, Colston Hall, also bears his name. There had been debate for many years over the renaming of the venue and different parts of the city that have links to the slave trade. 300 years after his death, the statue of Colston was brought down by protesters and thrown into the harbour as a symbolic act against the slave trade.

Colston was a trader in woollen textiles and wine, becoming a member of the Royal Africa Company in 1680, whilst other members of the Colston family also had strong links to the slave trade. The debate was so strong in Bristol that Colston Hall announced in 2017 that it would re-brand and move away from the name, and Colston Primary School also renamed in 2019.

Now, the debate has moved to other parts of the country, with many cities linked to the past of the slave trade. Take Liverpool as another example. Many of the examples of grand architecture in the city were financed and named after slave traders. International trade shaped the Liverpool streets for centuries, and even a famous name such as Penny Lane (which is now much more famous for its links to The Beatles and their famous song about the street) has links to slave traders.

It will be very interesting to see how far the changes demanded by the majority of the protesters in recent times will come about. The toppling of statues that are known to be of slave-traders is one thing that many people can agree on. Whether or not there should be wholesale changes to street names and buildings across the country or an approach where plaques and educational tools are used to highlight the funding of the slave trade towards specific architecture and sections of towns and cities is another question. There is definitely the requirement for this discussion to be had and how the UK is complicit in ingrained racism due to the links of the slave trade that are seen on so many of our popular streets throughout the country.