Bristol Legible City initiative

We’re all familiar with brands – companies, charities, universities and other large organisations invest substantial amounts of money in branding.But what about cities? Should a city consider itself a brand?

For some in Bristol the answer is yes. As part of the Creative Bristol campaign (the city’s bid to be Capital of Culture 2007), the organisers of a conference on Building Legible Cities state: ‘Issues of the image of the city, its identity to residents and visitors, and the brand that it offers are critical factors in urban development. And yet branding of places is in its infancy.’

The Bristol Legible City initiative is a pioneering project in this country which attempts to address these issues.

Bristol Legible City sign

The programme was developed in the late 1990s as the city was embarking on a series of major regeneration projects in the centre.

One of the major problems facing the city was communicating these changes to the public. This was made worse by the confusing layout of Bristol city centre, in turn exacerbated by poor signage and low levels of useful public information.

The Legible City concept was developed by a team working in Bristol City Council’s planning department, working in conjunction with a range of partners including the Chamber of Commerce and South West Regional Development Agency.

The Council defines the initiative as ‘an integrated programme of identity, transportation, information and arts projects designed to improve people’s understanding, experience and enjoyment of the city’. It aims ‘to make better sense of the city for both residents and visitors, helping to connect areas and amenities together and enhance the city’s identity’. In practice, it consists of a series of information and sign making projects which aim to guide visitors and residents around the city.

The pedestrian signage system

The first phase, which began in 2001 and is now complete, focused on providing a pedestrian information system. The Legible City design team created direction signs, street information panels with city and area maps, printed walking maps and heritage plaques. These elements were bound together by a consistent design language, hierarchy of naming and a specially developed mapping system.

The design of the maps is based around significant routes through the city linking the three core activity areas of business, retail and tourism. The Brunel Mile starts in the Broadmead retail area and runs along one side of the triangle, ending at the SS Great Britain in the centre of visitor attraction area.

The map below shows the Connecting People and Places Programme, linking the tourism, business and retail areas of the city (the zone in the top left is the university). Over 150 new signs are located on the ‘blue route’ below, where 90 per cent of attractions and amenities are within 100 metres of the route. The sections outlined in red have been completed.

Under the Legible City initiative, extraneous ‘street clutter’ such as signs have been removed along these routes.

The pedestrian signage system has been funded through an agreement with Adshel, who have paid for the manufacture and installation of the maps and signs.

‘Heads up’ mapping

One interesting aspect of the pedestrian signage is the 'heads up' mapping approach. Research by the council showed that the city centre of Bristol has a notoriously poor ‘mental picture’ – so the design of usable maps was adopted very early on in route-finding concepts. The majority of the population does not have the specialist dimensional skill of a map-reader, an architect or an orienteer – who can view a north-south map and calculate direction.

So the ‘Heads-up’ maps have been used on panels in the street which are oriented according to where people are standing and the direction they are looking in, and not north-south. What you see on the map is right in front of you. Each panel has therefore to be designed individually.

‘Welcome to Bristol' walking map

Another key aspect of Legible City is the production of A3 sized folded paper maps. The look, feel and information relate directly to the pedestrian signing system. The maps are given out free, and include details of railway and bus terminals, waterways and ferries, taxi locations, car parks, hospitals and neighbourhoods.

In addition, on the reverse, the central area is extended to include Clifton, and there is written information about travelling by foot, bike or ferry, as well as by bus, train or car. Useful numbers, tourist information advice are also included. The map is created using all of the elements of the Bristol Legible City graphic identity.

Public art

Bristol Legible City also commissions public art to complement its programme. Artists work alongside other professinals to on artworks that seek to reinforce place and neighbourhood identity, and assist orientation and way finding. Sean Griffiths, from Fashion, Architecture and Taste (FAT) is the lead artist for Legible City.

One completed commission is High Life, in which artworks were installed within the trees of Queen Square, one of the city’s most important public spaces.

Queen Square

This linked in to a major refurbishment of the square which was completed in 2005. An ugly dual carriageway crossing it was removed, turning the 1720 square into an attractive pedestrian friendly open space.

Future phases

Future phases of the initiative aim to focus on the creation of identity in Bristol’s neighbourhoods - in 1992, the city was divided into nine neighbourhoods including Harbourside, currently undergoing major regeneration. Proposals include the creation of new green spaces, local centres and inner city gateways.

Further information and resources

Alastair Brook

City Centre Projects and Urban Design Team

Email: [email protected]


Building Legible Cities by Andrew Kelly

Published by Bristol Cultural Development Partnership

Bristol Legible City: from here to there by Mark Luck, Geoff Wood, Sally Shaw and Mike Rawlinson

Published by Bristol City Council