Welcome to the Let’s Explore series where we look deeply into a notable place and see how its layout and urban design influences the experience of being there.
The island of Guernsey is a tiny gem nestled in the English Channel, closer to France than to England. Charm is sprinkled liberally across the island: Cobbled town streets, narrow country lanes, small bays with steep cliffs and a shimmering sea, old parish churches, and cows munching lazily in the fields.
For today’s Let’s Explore, we’re going to walk around Guernsey’s beautiful capital town of St Peter Port, which features an extensive pedestrian area with twists, turns, and hidden paths. This area can teach us many lessons about creating beautiful places.
Guernsey is particularly special to me: It’s where I was born and raised. So you’re in good hands for today’s adventure.
1. Start of pedestrian area
1. Start of the pedestrian area
Imagine having the air conditioning on your whole life. Then one day someone switches it off. You got so used to the sound that you forgot it was there. But how wonderful it feels when it’s switched off.
That’s what it’s like walking from a vehicular street into a pedestrian-only area. The unpleasantness of vehicular streets becomes obvious. You enter the pedestrian zone and it feels like home.
Approached from the north, St Peter Port’s pedestrian area starts un-momentously. Only a small round sign on the left indicates that vehicles may proceed. The street curves to the left, beckoning us to proceed and see what unfolds. Flags criss-crossing overhead provide a hint of a roof, creating an outdoor room effect and enhancing the sense of intimacy.
2. The Pollet
We walk for half a minute and the street narrows. There’s that classic 15 foot street width, seen in traditional towns and cities across the world. Even when walking down the middle of the street, window displays are easily visible on both sides. The windows are large, the shop frontages are narrow, you pass a door every couple of seconds. This adds up to an engaging environment; lots to see, constant opportunities to enter buildings, variety all the time.
3. Start of the High Street
Walking another 30 seconds, we’ve come down the street on the right, arriving in front of the bank building’s large door in the center. The bank is an eye-catching structure and acts as a visual marker for people walking up the High Street. Markers help break up journeys into smaller segments, making them more interesting. Notice too how the bank’s position communicates its importance.
From this height we see that apart from a small number of special buildings, such as the bank, most of the buildings are similar but different. This gives the environment a pleasant harmony. What a contrast to many modern buildings which all try to stand out and in the process create a disjointed jarring landscape.
We could continue straight down the High Street or turn to go up Smith Street on the right…
However, Smith Street is much wider than the Pollet. It feels less intimate and takes more people to make it feel lively. There’s also fewer entrances and longer storefronts so there’s less reason to be on that street and thus fewer people there.
We turn to our left and face the top of the High Street…
Now the people density is high. Two men talk on the side. On a pedestrian street you can stop to talk just about anywhere. It’s the supreme social environment. In all these photos, notice the higher number of smiles and wider range of ages compared to your average vehicular street. Older people are often used as a reason not to pedestrianize streets but in fact they tend to be seen more on such streets, compared to vehicular streets.
Here’s what’s down that entryway on the far left…
This is something I love about this part of Guernsey. You can head down the main street or you can escape from the hustle and turn down a quieter, narrow alley leading to the waterfront. This part of town has many small alleys branching off the High Street, presenting plenty of options for walking routes. People love environments with lots of options. It feels liberating.
4. The High Street
Look, more smiles!
This is the heart of town. As a child, I could barely walk for a minute down this street without encountering a familiar face. And because the area is vehicle-free I didn’t need an adult with me.
The street’s a little wider than earlier but it’s still intimate. We still have those narrow, detailed shop frontages, criss-crossing flags overhead, and a curvy street.
Looking back up the High Street, see how the bank building at the top “caps” our view, providing something visual to head toward.
Like the bank building as we looked uphill, the Town Church caps our view in the other direction.
5. The Commercial Arcade
Walking down the High Street, we turn right and enter the Arcade, a small network of narrow streets which feels like its own self-contained area. Again, we have a sense of entering another zone, breaking up the journey into another small segment.
Unlike the Pollet and High Street, the Arcade’s streets are straight, which adds variety. But the street lengths are still short, thus avoiding the monotony of long straight streets.
6. Market Square
Market Square is surrounded by anchor destinations: Cafes, restaurants, grocery stories, the library, and so on. These varied destinations keep people passing through at all hours. The square isn’t too large, though, which means that only a modest number of people are required to keep it lively.
The square feels open, in contrast with the narrow streets. Narrowness is enjoyable but too much of it can feel oppressive. Market Square comes at the right moment. This is the first place we’ve encountered that feels like a focal point, a destination.
This destination effect is largely produced by the square’s high number of seats, which most of the High Street area lacks; one of its biggest drawbacks. Outdoor seating increases “people presence” on the street. One person sitting outside for an hour generates as much presence as 60 people spending a minute walking by.
There’s plenty more to explore but we’ll end here. Here are the factors that have contributed to our walk’s pleasantness:
- The entire area is prioritized for pedestrians
- Most streets are narrow (under 20 feet wide), some are very narrow
- Most streets are curvy, which lets the environment unfold itself to us gradually
- Shop frontages are narrow with large windows and plenty of detail
- Buildings are similar but all different, leading to a harmonious environment
- Buildings are used to “cap” the High Street, providing visual destinations to head toward
- Market Square provides an open contrast with the narrow streets and a place to sit and rest
Thanks for coming along for a walk around my hometown!
Note: Guernsey locals will point out correctly that, although people here speak English, use the pound as currency, and are British in many other ways, Guernsey is not technically part of the United Kingdom. It’s a crown dependency – ie. it’s independent but is considered a property of the English crown. In this article, I refer to Guernsey as part of the UK merely for convenience sake.