Good for kids?

As Covid-19 rearranges our world, outdoor spaces have been altered by the habits of new users. The Landscape Institute asked six landscape professionals to watch their local space and report on changes that have taken place. LDA Design’s Rihards Sobols reflected on the changes to Queen Square in Bristol.

Queen Square is a staple of my life in Bristol. For three years it has been my local park, my route to work and a place to relax. It has always felt safe, friendly and familiar, and that felt more important than during the upheaval and uncertainty of lockdown. Then as the weeks went by, I noticed other people beginning to use the space for the first time.

Queen Square is a splendid Georgian space, surrounded by tall terraces of offices and big trees. It is usually buzzing with people during the summer, never more than after 5pm on a sunny day when masses of young professionals like me spill out onto the spacious lawns. Picnics, cider, volleyball and laughter; the quintessential Bristol summer vibe. Queen Square works hard in other ways too, hosting festivals, boules, arts, runs and protests. After lockdown, it emptied but that turned out to be a moment of change.

A stone’s throw from Queen Square is South Redcliffe, a high-density Council estate. Its community includes large families, many of whom have a BAME background. South Redcliffe lacks good open green space – as does that whole part of central Bristol. But even in the warmest weather, I had never noticed any of those families in Queen Square before.

The vacuum left by office workers started to be filled. Every afternoon, I would join a slow stream of people from Redcliffe on their way to Queen Square, to stroll, mill about, kickabout and assemble for picnics. The square came alive again with the sound of laughter. As we emerged from lockdown, the reopening of shops and restaurants started to bring the usual crowds back to Queen Square. It is a big space, but still it looked like a pendulum had started to swing and the families melted away. For weeks on end, Queen Square showed its potential to fulfil a real local need and it is no longer doing that.

What needs to change in order for everyone to find Queen Square safe, friendly and familiar? Did the families just need more time to feel proper and lasting ownership of their new local park? Does the raucousness of a packed square put families off? Are there any subtle, even subconscious hints that this space is not for them? Or is the problem with the locality? Between the estate and the square are heavily trafficked roads, and perhaps it was the return of vehicles as lockdown lifted, the speed, noise and pollution, which made the short walk feel too dangerous for families to take.

There is one lasting marker from the time, though, albeit a virtual one. It can be found on Google Maps, where now a line under Queen Square, for the first time, says ‘Good for kids.’ I like to think that with spaces in and near the square designed and managed differently, it would be possible for all Bristolians to share the space fairly.

This article first appeared in the Landscape Institute Journal

Rihards Sobols is a masterplanner and urbanist based in LDA Design’s Bristol studio. 

Image: Bristol Together was an initiative by businesses and leaders to help ensure the city reopened safely after the first lockdown. Hundreds of white hearts were painted onto the lawns of parks, including Queen Square, to aid physical distancing. Lloyd/ Alamy . This image is a public domain image.

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