“It's a very friendly space and healing space”: the rise, fall and rise of Bristol’s waterways

Bristol Harbour. Image: Rod Ward/Wikimedia Commons.

Bristol is a city that’s rightly very proud of its history. Look around and you’ll find larger-than-life statues of Bristol’s very own Wallace and Gromit, original Banksy artworks scattered around, and the SS Great Britain towering over the water.

It’s that very water that makes up a critical part of its history. Nestled neatly on the Avon, Bristol is a city that has been defined by trade and ship-building. 

To the modern eye, however, Bristol’s harbour is largely divorced from the heritage of trade that Bristol was built upon. 

“Students who come to my university now come down to Bristol for the first time, look at the floating harbour and think it’s the river,” says Steve Poole, historian at the University of the West of England. “Which of course it isn’t.”

Alright, a brief history lesson. In 1809, the part of the river Avon that runs through the heart of the city was cut off from the river itself, to become what’s known as a floating harbour – or as Steve Poole jokingly refers to it, “a septic tank” – in which the level of the water remains constant, regardless of the level in the river. The idea was that this would help the ships who came into port, so that they wouldn’t buffeted by the tides when they docked. 

Central Bristol. The floating harbour is to the north of the River Avon. Image: Google Maps.

And it worked. Bristol enjoyed well over a century of good trade on the floating harbour as it sought to battle the northern powerhouse of Liverpool for dock supremacy.

But by the 1970s, trade in Bristol was winding down, facing the same death of industry as much of the country in that period. The floating harbour was set to be basically shuttered, leading to an existential crisis for the city and its waterways.  Alternative propositions went as far as to even propose a new road system in place of the harbour. 

But Bristolians fought back, preventing any such plans from coming to fruition.

Confuse them for nimbys at your peril. Their very civil form of protest was designed to demonstrate that keeping the harbour open was not only valid, but actually an essential part of Bristol’s culture.

A group of volunteers, motivated by this desire to protect what they saw as a core part of the spirit of Bristol, established the first Bristol Water Festival in 1971. It was essentially a showcase of leisureboats down the harbour, and was a roaring success. About 90 boats participated. Think Dunkirk, but with fewer explosions.

These festivals continued annually until 1978 when it became the council-run Bristol Regatta. By that time the point was already long proven to those in power. The harbour was indispensable.

By 1978, the SS Great Britain was in situ, mid-restoration, and the harbour was protected. As we see it now is how it was during its 1800s heyday.

This new status quo led to a new opportunity for trade on the water: the tourism trade. 

A private company, set up in 1977, provided a waterboat service around the harbour, becoming a beloved part of the harbour atmosphere. When that company went into liquidation in 2012, Bristolians were on hand once more to save the day, this time raising the funds to buy the boats and the remaining assets. They divided it into shares and sold it to the community. 

Now Bristol Community Ferry Boats is a proud not-for-profit co-op, set up by the people for the people. They’re not the only ferry provider on the water, but they’re the only co-op, and the only company with ties to that miniature revolution of the ‘70s.


When I first speak to Roisin Tobin, the company’s managing director, she calmly and cheerfully tells me that a window has just come out of one of the boats. We hastily reschedule.

When we finally speak properly a few days later, she tells me that those sorts of emergencies have been part and parcel of the business since she’s been managing director. They are, however, part of the joy of the job. “It's hard not to get on a boat and get excited about it,” she says.

“It's a very friendly space and healing space, the water,” she goes on. “You'd be amazed at how you sit on a bus and no-one's talking to each other, but you get on a ferry everybody wants to wave and have a chat.”

Part of that dialogue is about the lineage of the docks, embracing the industrial history of the floating harbour.

"Because it was just the heritage docks weekend,” Tobin tells me, “we just did a public show which is for adults really but it was done in part with Aardman Animations and there's a lot of resources around the harbour between the likes of M-Shed [a Bristol museum] in capturing the voices and the stories of dockers back then. 

That history creates a unique atmosphere on the water in Bristol, Tobin believes. “It’s exciting to see how much people love the ferries and love the history of them and the symbolism of what they stand for the city. That is really palpable.

“People are really passionate about working on the harbour. There's a lot of love and devotion here, that's for sure.”

As with any community, there is a plurality of voices that have different views on the harbour.

Steve Poole from UWE mourns the loss of the tides of the Avon, and feels that, in losing its ties to the river, it has lost a lot of its unique waterborne history. Bristol’s legacy, he argues, pre-dates, not begins with, the Victorians. But he agrees that it’s become a core part of the city. 

“Since it’s become just a place for leisurely activity, of course it’s nice,” he says. “I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t. You walk around the floating harbour – the central part of it – that area on a summer evening where there’s hundreds of people sitting outside having a quiet drink just lapping up the atmosphere, it’s fantastic.

“I think in some ways the rejuvenation of the harbour was done pretty successfully because it hasn’t created a dead zone. Industry left it – traditional port commerce left it – and it could have become just a dead zone of old warehouses, but there are places for people to live down there, there are places to eat and drink. It’s a very lively hub.”

Since the revamp, the comparison to Liverpool has faded, to instead be replaced by another northern city. “Sometimes in the evenings it’s very lively in a way that Salford Quays is not,” Poole says. “Salford Quays is bloody dead after 5 o’clock.”

However, he feels that rejuvenation has come with a cost. 

“I do think it’s been successful,” he says, “but I do think it’s hard for people to get a sense of what dock life was like in the city for hundreds of years because the floating harbour has skewed that.

“They didn’t actually stop using it commercially until 1974. There was still tonnage coming in and out.”

That said, he points to the markers of history that are still alive and kicking on the harbour.

“There’s still some boat building going on in the harbour,” he explains, “and if you walk to the Cumberland Basin end it does still have the sense of being a working shipyard down there. It’s not just become a leisure resort, it’s much more than that.”

This year, Bristol City Council is starting a wide-ranging Harbour consultation which will assess the life and role of the floating harbour and how that will adapt and evolve in the future. Its first phase was completed in September, but the process as a whole will continue until next year. 

That could strike fear into the hearts of those who love the harbour – and it’s already attracted a bit of negative feedback.

But then, change is nothing new for the harbourside. It’s come through worse.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.