Charting the Copenhagen effect in Bristol

Last week I wrote about a recent visit to Nice, in France, and what the city is doing there to make people welcome and to accommodate their growing rate of cyclists.

I've also been fortunate enough this year to pay a visit to Bristol in the south west of England - the city where I grew up - and was really encouraged by the changes I observed taking place to make it a more people-friendly city.


Bristol is of course the home of Sustrans which started life as "Cyclebag"; a hearty group of volunteers who kick-started the UK National Cycle Network by building the Bristol to Bath cycle path by hand on a disused railway.  Despite their head offices being located half way up Park Street - possibly the steepest street in Bristol - there were plenty of people slogging their way up and whizzing their way back down again by bike.

And in the broad flat city centre (Bristol is built on a flat plain - like Rome - between 7 hills) where motor cars used to dominate to the detriment of all other city users, some really enormous changes have taken place in the past 12 years.  The centre of the city, running down to the harbour (imaginatively referred to by locals as "The Centre"), used to consist of a multi-lane traffic gyratory surrounding some neat but almost inaccessible flower beds (not unlike Parliament Square, in London today)  The gyratory fed in to historic Queen's Square which was cut in two diagonally by a loud, fast main road.

Photos from Flickr via Brizzle born and bred

Those roads are gone now.  The centre gyratory has been replaced with a much tamer traffic environment with one half dedicated only to buses serving public transport routes, which effectively allows pedestrians to traverse from Park Street to St Nicholas - literally from one half of the city to the other.  Where the neat but inaccessible flower beds once stood there are now fountains (somewhat controversially described on installation in 2000 by the then Lord Mayor as "like 20 old men pissing in a pond"), raised flower beds and seats.  Queen's Square - one of Britain's finest Georgian spaces - has been turned back in to a square and re-landscaped so that the centre acts as a public park again.

Historic Queen's Square - traffic free and all the better for it!

Sure enough, like a good cake being the consequence a solid recipe well followed, people have returned to the Centre.  During the warm spring weekend that I visited in February people were crowding the dockside to sit by the water and take in the sun.  In the Centre itself people were taking in the view, being entertained by stunt cyclists, or just being still beside the fountains and losing themselves in the sound of bubbling water for a moment.


The obvious delight in which passers by stopped to watch the stunt cyclists echoed my experience in Nice where a street dance crew drew a huge crowd of  people keen to be entertained for a while, to participate in an authentic experience and to be part of a crowd.  Jan Gehl says that the key to successful city spaces is one where something happens, because something happens, because something happens.  Here we see the reality of that theory, worked out with people.  Conditions have to be just right for this kind of seemingly spontaneous act to flourish; there must be space enough for the crowd to gather without interruption or threat from other traffic.  The space must be audibly quiet enough for the crowd to be able to hear, but busy enough for a crowd to assemble quickly in the first place.  (See my previous post; Successful City Spaces - a place for play


But what struck me most as a visitor from London was the abundance of places for people to sit in Bristol!  This seemingly simple act of resting awhile must be key to creating a place in which people are comfortable to spend some time, meet with friends, take a rest from their shopping or their bike ride or just to sit and watch.  And yet an entire industry has grown up around creating ever more elaborate and sometimes positively medieval devices designed to discourage people from sitting in public places.  London suffers from a veritable drought of sitting spaces - it is afflicted with the sad reality that the majority of its useful public spaces (ie those not held over solely as the domain as visitors, like the South Bank by the London Eye) are spaces through which people traverse to get from A to B, as oppose to places which people will stop and spend some time.  Away from its parks and gardens, London suffers from a chronic lack of places to sit.  This was made all the more apparent to me by my visit to Bristol where all those people just chilling out, passing some time and seemingly not doing very much at all actually looked like they were having a bloody good time.


Bristol is not perfect.  It's public transport veritably creeks, is expensive and suffers from chronic indecision at investment level (hello Avon Tram Scheme, sitting on the drawing boards some ten years longer than I've been alive!)  Subsequently, and with little other choice, the majority of visitors drive to the city and indeed are whisked there through the poorer neighbourhoods along the M32 and St Philips Causeway elevated roadways.  However, no city is perfect and what my time in this determined regional capital showed me is that we do not necessarily need to go to Copenhagen or Amsterdam to see good street design in situ.  Nobody could wish for a return to the old Centre of Bristol with its choking traffic fumes and roaring noise, and only the most arch-motorist would put the convenience of their journey over the peace and beauty of the restored Queen Square.  And on the Centre, and along St Augustine's Reach where the city connects with its expansive docks, the proof of the success of this public space design is in the people - people walking, people talking, people riding bikes, people meeting friends, people merely getting from A to B without having to scurry to dodge speeding traffic nor having to raise their voice in order to have themselves heard.  This is the "Copenhagen effect" in practise, right here in the UK.  For every debate I've ever been involved in about how to improve the space between buildings in the UK - especially in respect of accommodating the needs of cyclists - people have told me that "we" just aren't capable; that British designers, Councillors and planners are not able to design the sort of space more commonly found on the continent.  Bristol shows that this clearly isn't true.  The truth is we are running out of excuses not to start making the change.

Share |


Jon Usher said...

It's good that progress is recognised. However, the 'Centre' is a beautifully urban designed space isn't particularly well thought through from a transport perspective. The fountains at in the middle push all foot & cycle traffic to the narrow outer walkways. As a shared space, it doesn't work because the spaces aren't big enough to share. Despite all that, it has become a vibrant heart of the city. Let's see where the next 10-15 years take us...

ibikelondon said...

I disagree Dan, I think the spaces are wide enough so long as you cycle slowly and considerately there, which you should in a pedestrian priority area anyway of course. What's undeniable is how much better the area is compared to the previous lay out - it makes me wonder what all the controversy was about in the first place!

Anonymous said...

It might all change again:

Mat said...

hey, thanks for this. I've lived in Brisle (or there abouts) since around 2000 and never knew Queens square once had a road through the middle. My god, what an improvement.

In fact I now live near Weston and have been working elsewhere for a few years and am now back working in Bristol. I'm really encouraged by the improvements in street design I've seen ince returning. Only small things but the make a difference.