A place with meaning: Bristol

You get a strong sense of what a place is really like when you are living it 24/7. LDA Design associate Clare Wilks gives us a glimpse of life in Bristol during Covid-19 lockdown.

The last few weeks of lockdown have been an extraordinary, sobering, and at times painful exercise in reduction as we collectively retrain our focus on life’s essentials. I’ve used my daily rationed exercise to look around at the streets of my home city, Bristol, and been struck by how resilient, resourceful and adaptable we all are. Learning from how people are coping will help us to make the right decisions about retrofitting existing places or designing new ones.

Not every popular open space has retained its appeal. In the city centre, the splendid Georgian Queen Square is usually busy every weekday and thronged for summer weekend events. With its terraces of offices emptied out, it now feels purposeless, and its closely grouped seating makes distancing difficult. By contrast, the broad loop around Bristol’s harbourside still accommodates a regular stream of people taking exercise, helped by great pedestrian and cycle connections in all directions. It is a route that delights with a changing environment at every turn, right down to the different music you can hear drifting up from the moored boats.

In my neighbourhood, which is 40 minutes’ walk from the city centre, the streets are quiet enough for people to stride down the middle – so they do, with relish. My local Redland Green is livelier than ever with a busy cycle route, a choice of areas to relax in and close contact with nature. There are trees to climb and practice tightrope walking between, and slopes to serve as cycle tracks.

By contrast, the only green space for a neighbourhood in south Bristol with high levels of deprivation, Knowle West, is an unmanaged stretch of land, sprawling and steep, that separates it from the city. Resourceful residents have set up gardening and allotment groups, but they need far more accessible public realm as well.

Bristol has always been at the forefront of supporting local traders, so it’s not surprising that many butchers, bakers and greengrocers are being kept busy with food box deliveries, and restaurants closed for lockdown are supplying themed boxes. In Knowle West, local organisations are serving cheap hot meals daily, and operating a Helpline on food banks and finance.

The weekly NHS applause is giving neighbours everywhere a chance to catch up on the pavement. I have found the two-metre chats in a food shop queue a real contrast with pre-lockdown times, when neighbours would whizz past each other in a noisy street with a brief “Hi” before jumping in their car.

All of this gives clues to the new norms that we will want to hold on to post lockdown: strong networks of safe green streets, playful and cared-for open space, thriving independents and a real sense of belonging.  

Image: Redland Green in Bristol by Clare Wilks. A full-length version of Clare’s article was featured as part of the Global Dashboard’s Local Week series, a collection of articles focusing on the challenges facing communities as they confront the fallout of COVID-19

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