This post contains some of my observations of public spaces in Bristol on a trip there in July 2018. The feature image shows a view from the canal edge to the pedestrian bridge that leads to Millennium Square with colourful balloons and flags (for Pride!) on sale at a cart in the foreground.
This is the place to be on a warm sunny weekend, and on a warm sunny weekday for that matter. (I wonder how this space works on a cool and drizzly day?)
Café patios spill out of historic buildings onto the cobbled streets that line the canal, and everyone and their dog is hanging out by the side of the canal, many legs dangling off the edge towards the water.
Spotted another heavy duty outdoor ping pong table by the canal provided by Ping! – “on a mission to bring ping pong to the people”. I wonder where one can borrow paddles and a ball from?
Millennium Square feels like it has been recently redeveloped. It is bordered to the east by a newly renovated (or purpose-built?) building filled with hip restaurants with patios, to the south by an above-ground structure that leads to an underground car park, to the west by a casino, and to the north by the Bristol science centre, compellingly named ‘we the curious’.
Our trip to Bristol coincided with Pride, the ‘official’ version of which in Bristol consists of a parade followed by a kind of private event / outdoor party with live performances held in a large fenced-off section of Millennium Square.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of the space during Pride as we mostly gazed around wide-eyed while we passed through. Needless to say it was busy with people lining up to get into the event, plenty more milling about outside, and still others drinking on nearby patios.
(Rather than pay the fee to go into the performance area, we went to Castle Park where lots of folks were having a more relaxed and free celebration on the grass in the shade. The number of young people walking around in big queer gaggles wearing 6-colour rainbow pride flags as well as bi and trans and asexual pride flags just made my heart swell. I digress.)
I did catch Millennium Square after the Pride celebrations were over and the fenced-off event was gone, on a quiet Sunday evening with the weekend coming to a close.
Bristol Shopping Quarter
When I see high streets like Broadmead in Bristol’s central ‘shopping quarter’, I immediately wonder how we can bring this to Vancouver (e.g. Robson Street.) Here, two broad pedestrian streets with tons of shoppers milling about, tables and chairs, benches, and trees cross and converge at a circular plaza. Bollards and bike racks at the entrance to the street tell us: this space is not for cars, and here’s a place to put your bike so you can stroll down the street on foot.
Places to sit and rest and people watch, spots to grab some shade, and some interesting art make this is a lovely space that is about more than simply shopping.
Not only is this a handy landmark for walking and bus rides around Bristol, but also an interesting public space. Sunk in the centre of a large traffic circle with stair and ramp access at a few points around the edges, the Bearpit is a unique plaza-like space. I observed people walking or cycling through*, skateboarding, folks who were likely street involved or homeless sitting under the trees at one side to keep cool, and a handful of businesses on the south side all closed and boarded up. It feels like a space that could be well-loved by all but isn’t.
*The Bearpit is where Jake’s Bikes is located, where I rented a bike for my cycle along the Bristol Bath Railway Path.
There is a group of vendors that ran businesses on the south side of the Bearpit until early in 2018 when they abandoned the site due to safety issues. They have put forward a £3.5 million plan to redevelop the site and rename it ‘The Circle‘, envisioning a food hub and community space.
As much as I can read and learn more about the background of the site, I know I can’t access the personal feelings I would have and community knowledge I would gain if this space were in my neighbourhood, but it is not difficult to get a sense that there is tension here.
From a jurisdictional standpoint, the Bearpit is part of three different city wards and it is not a park but is public highway. Although I am not sure of all of the implications of this in a Bristol context, no doubt it means that there are a lot of different stakeholders here. Significant stakeholders include the Bearpit vendors, who are concerned about people using drugs in the space and want to see greater police enforcement.
They also want to “[m]ake the space politically-neutral, and remove political slogans from the Cube“. Meanwhile, the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft note the importance of the Cube for political expression: “Where public space is continually eroded, the relative freedom of the Bearpit, which is hard-won, offers hope.” (The PRSC offer a brief visual history of the kind of messaging the Cube has displayed.) I tend to side with the PRSC here: public space serves a crucial political function and I’m sceptical that removing political murals from the Cube is the answer here. (Not to mention that there can be no such thing as a ‘politically neutral’ space; space *is* political and removing political slogans from the Cube is a political act in itself.)
Public toilet-related aside: The Bearpit vendors also want washrooms provided for staff, but I say why limit that to only staff?! When will we agree that washrooms access is a right and public washrooms essential to healthy public spaces?