Out of the ivory tower, into the city: with their project “Hands on Bristol”, British architecture students help residents to shape their own environment.

It all began with a locked gate – Bristol’s Ebenezer Gate. Although framed by a picturesque archway, the alley behind it was drowning in garbage. For more than two decades, this forgotten corner of Bristol counted among the most neglected, grubby parts of the city’s Bedminster district.

To the architecture students at the University of the West of England, the locked gate constituted a clear red flag. And an opportunity: They wanted to give the people who passed this desolate spot every day a new view and perspective.

“Our project takes us out of the university and into public space,” states professor Rachel Sara, the person in charge of Hands on Bristol. “We started by simply stringing some fairy lights across the Ebenezer Gate to attract the local residents’ attention. We then talked to locals and passers-by, asking them what kind of future they might envisage for the area. Then, we turned the 100+ reactions into small pennants and hung up above the gate for all to see.”

Residents of the neighboring retirement home, especially, were hoping for a peaceful place where they would feel safe. This, in turn, sparked the idea of turning Ebenezer Gate into a place of storytelling – a place for people to stop and tell each other about their lives.

Orange notes at the Ebenezer Gate in Bristol
Ideas from the community are displayed on orange pennants, for all to see.
Photo: Hands on Bristol

Powered by cake

The students encouraged strong resident involvement by announding a community clean-up via flyers and posters, coffee and cake included. Soon after, they celebrated the official opening with music, poetry, performances – and even more cake.

Now, the Hands on Bristol plan is bearing fruit: In its newly cleaned, waste-free, and accessible guise, the Ebenezer Gate is unrecognizable. An ensemble of winding wooden benches invites citizens to stop for a quick break or chat – truly a tiny urban oasis. The former waste heap has become the “Pocket Park Ebenezer Gate.”

A hands-on approach

Ebenezer Gate is a great, real-life example of the Hands of Bristol approach. The collaborative urban planning project encourages frequent collaborations between the University of the West of England school of architecture and residents from different districts to determine and realize non-profit design in space.

“Back when I was studying architecture myself, we would work on projects that had nothing to do with the actual client or final user,” explains Rachel Sara. “I found it incredibly frustrating that my studies were so far removed from the real world.”

Sara considers the campaign a positive counter development. “On the one hand, Hands on Bristol allows our students to do some practical work as part of their educational process – work of real value to the local population. At the same time, it empowers the residents of a district to play an active part in shaping their immediate surroundings.”

People designing posters in Bristol
Plans for the space are being workshopped.
Photo: Hands on Bristol


Urban planning as a community project

This social, collaborative design approach is starting to make headway in urban planning. Insights won via user surveys are paving the way for future planning, allowing architects, planners, and designers to have a direct impact and support the process with their expertise.

Ever since UK legislation passed comprehensive competencies to districts and municipalities in 2011, e. g. regarding public grant applications, such know-how has become indispensable.

So, the students involved in Hands on Bristol not only conducted lengthy negotiations with the owner of Ebenezer Gate, but also managed to snare a £8,000 government grant to commission a carpenter to create the wooden benches.

People gathering at the Ebenezer Gate
From grungy corner to gathering spot.
Photo: Hands on Bristol

Local solutions give cities their identity back

“Across the UK, cities are getting increasingly similar – more often than not, you’re dealing with so-called clone towns with identical shops and cafés on every high street,” adds Sara. “Local solutions that are perfectly tailored to their surroundings can give these cities their own faces back.”

Another distinguishing Hands on Bristol factor is their desire to bring architecture to life through performances and events. Think collective clean-ups, discussions, baking sessions, or gardening: Measures that deliberately turn architecture into a hub of social exchange.

Since 2012, Hands on Bristol has tackled an impressive variety of projects – the tally is 30 and counting: From the Totterdown Steps, a formerly neglected pedestrian crossing, to the Make Lewes Festival, which transformed an abandoned Turkish bath into the setting of a one-week arts festival.

“It’s always been our goal to encourage people to take part and join in. A lot of the time, people don’t even know that they can get involved themselves,” says Sara. “Now, our next step is to approach neighborhoods that lack a sense of community and organization. Meanwhile, our students benefit from speaking directly to actual users.” This practice-heavy approach is ideal for preparing future architects to excel at user-oriented work, the professor underscores. “Nothing inspires architects more than knowing that they have made a difference.