Transforming the Bearpit organically and incrementally

Henry Shaftoe (Former Chair of the Bearpit Improvement Group) explains the alternative approach to urban re-design which has been adopted in the regeneration of the Bearpit.

The “Bearpit” (officially known as the St James Barton Roundabout) is a sunken pedestrian space surrounded by a 1960’s road network, in the centre of Bristol, U.K. It has a high footfall because of its position as a hub for many pedestrian routes between the bus station, surrounding neighbourhoods and the city centre. A 2009 survey of citizens found that the “Bearpit” was the most feared space in central Bristol.

For many years a location favoured by street drinkers and homeless people, the fear factor was exacerbated at night, when the only way to cross the site (for example to get to the main bus station) was via two subways with “blind” exits.

The site management approach taken by Bristol City Council (who legally own the site as part of its highway system) was, for many years, principally one of “target hardening” and dissuasion of use.
“Doing something about the Bearpit”, was a priority for citizens, politicians and officers alike, but there was a kind of communal “paralysis”, as nobody had overall responsibility for the site and its problems seemed intractable. In response to this deadlock, in 2010 a disparate bunch of citizens, volunteer professionals and community activists came together to form the Bearpit Improvement Group, with the aim of changing for the better this unloved and feared space. Six years on, as a result of close collaboration between the Bearpit Improvement Group and the City Council (politicians and officers), the Bearpit is now described in some quarters as “Bristol’s favourite roundabout”.

Unusually, for an urban regeneration project there was no fixed plan for improvements. Instead, the Bearpit Improvement Group had broad intentions to make the site welcoming, safe, diverse and inclusive. Through an organic approach of trial and error, the Bearpit has been changed incrementally over the last six years.

Using these unconventional, but people-centred regeneration techniques, the Bearpit now has a very different feel, as a result of progressing five themes: public art, play, greening, trade and physical redesign.

1:Public art

One of the first tangible changes in the Bearpit was the installation of wooden panels in the subways.
These were used for street art, photography and community notices. Subsequently there have been bigger murals and installations, including ones created by a local primary school and a disability group. As a vulnerable public location, the site has always been a target for “tagging”, with the result that the panels need to be refreshed regularly.

2: Play

This has been interpreted in the broadest sense; in particular “play” has been interpreted as something that adults, as well as children, engage in. A table-tennis table was installed in the early years and has proved popular ever since. Play cubes have proved to be remarkably resilient and there have been numerous musical and cultural events (including dance and outdoor cinema screenings) over the last few years.

3: Greening

This theme proved a difficult one to progress and sustain, but has flourished in the last year. After various temporary interventions, there is now a large area of new planting which should bear fruit (literally) over the coming years.

4: Trade

From the start this theme was regarded as crucial, not only for income generating reasons, but as a means of attracting and retaining a general public on the site. Starting with “flea markets” and temporary stalls, various trading units have now been installed, including an iconic “Bristol” double-decker vintage bus which has been converted into a restaurant and takeaway.

5: Physical Re-design.

Most regeneration projects start with this “theme” but at the Bearpit this came much later as part of our “organic and incremental” approach. In particular we focussed on how physical changes could make the site feel safer and more welcoming. This involved the introduction of new access arrangements (broad steps in and out of the Bearpit, as an alternative to the subways) and a walkway/cycle route around the edge of the site. The whole area has been re-surfaced and partially remodelled to improve the general feel and accessibility of the place.
With its cafes, stalls, playful structures, edible garden and regular activities, the Bearpit is now more likely to be a destination than a place to be avoided. It is perhaps not the most beautiful of locations, aesthetically, but it was never the intention to merely prettify (and sanitise) the site. The homeless and street drinkers are still there (there was a deliberate policy not to displace them, to become somewhere else’s problem), but the majority of people now in the Bearpit are there to enjoy the transformation of this space, which offers a refreshing alternative to the adjacent city centre shopping area, dominated by chain stores and familiar restaurant franchises.

The full story of the Bearpit can be found at www.bearpitimprovementgroup.co.uk or contact henry.m.shaftoe@gmail.com for a 13 page Word document, plus plans and photos

Associated information also at: www.convivialspaces.org