Organic and Incremental

Transforming the Bearpit: An alternative approach to Urban Re-design

Henry Shaftoe with Alan Morris



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 Stokes Croft, the bus station, Broadmead shopping centre and the city centre. A city centre user study carried out by a Master's Planning student 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. An example of this was the removal of communal seating and replacement by single seats, to discourage socialising. Surfaces were coated with anti-graffiti paint and a CCTV camera was installed centrally, so that activity in the open space (but not the subways) could be monitored from a distance. The CCTV camera had a loudspeaker attached, so that a Council employee in the City's central CCTV control room (located about 800 metres from the site) could “speak” to anybody visible by the rotate and zoom camera.

The lack of co-ordination between various Council Departments was one of the principal strategic problems for the Bearpit: although technically the responsibility of the Highways department, numerous other sections of the Council had partial responsibility for various aspects of the site. This meant that no-one had an overall vision for the destiny of the Bearpit and often led to officers operating at cross purposes.

How the improvement initiative started

Four converging factors made up the incentive to attempt improvements at the Bearpit:

  1. As module leader for “Public Space” on the Urban Design Course at the University of the West of England (UWE), I would choose a case study site each year. In 2009, I chose the Bearpit, as it seemed to offer an interesting range of urban design challenges.
  2. At about the same time, I was invited to give a talk to police and planners in Bristol on the topic of safety and public space. I rounded up the presentation with an illustration of the Bearpit as an example of everything that had gone wrong with 1960s planning policy. After the presentation, a Bristol planner approached me and explained the “Paralysis” resulting from the fact that nobody had an overarching responsibility for the site, despite most people being in agreement that it was a priority for improvement.
  3. I was supervising a Masters Dissertation student (Karen van den Berg, Planning M.A.) who was researching fear of crime in central Bristol. As a result of a user survey, she found that the Bearpit was the most feared place in the city centre.
  4. Bristol based architect Andrew Docherty (now moved on) heard about my interest in the Bearpit and sent me his idea for improving safety on the site – essentially by constructing a walkway around part of the rim, so that pedestrians could cross the Bearpit without having to go through the subways:
Plan view of the Bearpit

Given that the site was clearly a priority for improvement and that students and practitioners had come up with some interesting design, management and “animation” ideas, all that was needed was for someone to get the ball rolling….

A call to action – the early stages

By the winter of 2010/11, as a result of an exhibition mounted in Stokes Croft (at the Showroom of the “People's Republic of Stokes Croft” – PRSC), and other contacts I had made in response to the above 4 “triggers”, there seemed to be enough interest and motivation to call an open meeting. Thus came together a small disparate group of people, whose only communality was an interest in making the site “better”. Our first meeting, in November 2010, was a chilly one, down in the Bearpit, but as a result, the seeds of the Bearpit Improvement Group were sown. The first indication that something might be happening on the site was a poster we designed and put up on the subway walls, asserting optimistically that “the Bearpit is about to get better”:

Poster designed to advertise the Bearpit improvement plans

Early meetings, resistances and interventions

As the text in the above poster above attests, the early membership of the Bearpit Improvement Group (BIG) was an interestingly varied, if somewhat ad-hoc group of people. The idea was to overcome the aforementioned “paralysis” about the site and actually start doing something, however modest, to show that somebody cared about the place. The first ideas that could easily be implemented (or so we thought) were to put up some murals in the subways and replant some of the neglected flowerbeds. We therefore approached the Council's Highways Department (responsible for the subway structures) and Parks Department (responsible for the flowerbeds). We quickly discovered that even if Council officers were sympathetic (Parks dept), there seemed to be all kinds of liability, health-and-safety and permission procedures that made it impossible for the BIG to do anything directly to the site. For example, we were told that we could not put up art and notice boards in the subways because drilling holes for the screw fixings could compromise the structural safety of the subway walls and planting fruit trees on the site could be a danger to the passing public…

It was in response to these “teething problems” that the BIG chose a two-pronged approached: 1> going to the top; 2> some direct action.

  1. Going to the “top”. After approaching the elected representatives (local councillors) whose Wards covered the site, we asked if we could meet the acting Chief Executive of the Council. To our pleasant surprise, a meeting was arranged with the Chief Executive and a sympathetic councillor. After a frosty start, the meeting proved to be very positive. It was obvious that the Bearpit was a “headache” for Councillors and officers alike (numerous complaints from the public about the physical condition and safety of the site), so they were delighted that a community group was offering to try and improve things there. We were subsequently given the name of a key contact in the Highways department who could be our first “port-of-call” for anything to do with the site. We were also told that if we had any problems with officers further down the Council hierarchy, we could go straight to the Chief Executive for resolution! However, it was also suggested that we make a presentation to all the Council officers involved in the site (plus police), explaining our vision and how we hoped, with their co-operation, that we could make the Bearpit better. The subsequent presentation proved to be very fruitful and transformed the attitudes of many council staff who attended. In particular our key contact in the Highways Department proved to be a staunch ally who went way beyond the call of duty to provide us with support and resources.
  2. Direct action. Despite nervousness amongst certain members of the BIG, others (notably the PRSC) had experience of “just doing it”, if they thought something would make life better. Thus it was, that one morning, users of the subways discovered the subway walls decorated with a number of freshly painted murals on boards installed overnight! Also, in each subway, a pinboard had been installed for community notices and posters, in an attempt to overcome the amount of fly-posting that was blighting the site.

Manifesto, vision and strategy

It was clear from the early stages that this was not going to be a standard urban regeneration project, involving a masterplan, upfront financial allocation and private commercial investment. This was partly ideological ( a desire to test a different “incremental and organic” approach to urban micro-regeneration). It was also pragmatic – the project was launched at a time of recession when public finances were being cut back. And none of the businesses overlooking the site, who stood to benefit from improvements: Debenhams, Whitbread (owners of the Premier Inn) and Holiday Inn, showed any real interest in supporting the project materially, despite initial approaches from members and supporters of the BIG.

However, despite the unconventional approach, there needed to be some agreed sense of direction, so that we could all work together to make the Bearpit better. Although it was not precisely articulated at the start, there was a set of over-arching values within the group that framed any discussion about how to improve the site. These “values” were loosely: that ultimately, the Bearpit should feel welcoming at any time of the day or night; that it should not exclude any sector of the population (as long as they were acting legally!), that it would be diverse in its offers and activities and that it would feel safe for everyone. Later this was articulated in the vision of: “Welcoming, Safe, Diverse and Inclusive”.

In addition, a grid was drawn up to identify what could be done in the short, medium and long-term, in terms of a range of themes or “workstreams”:

A schedule of possibilities for the Bearpit

These themes were developed and expanded in a “manifesto” which could be used to gain political and resource support.

Resourcing – financial, personnel

The Bearpit initiative started with only “person” resources, but in fact these have proved to be the most valuable resources of all. A group of volunteers in the BIG have spent hundreds of hours, unpaid and unrecognised, developing and implementing plans and programmes for the site. The group has changed over the six years of BIG's existence, as people come and go. There has always been a mix of opinions and approaches, some emphasising anarchic direct action and others cultivating a working relationship with the council.

With the help of the Council (elected members and officers) financial and physical resources have been found, often with some considerable difficulty. An example of this is “Section 106” money, sometimes known as “planning gain”. In theory this money should have been available for improvements to the Bearpit, as it is money contributed by developers for environmental improvements, as a condition of them getting planning permission for nearby building constructions. The money was there, in the Council coffers, but the Council had decided that before any of this money should be disbursed, there should be a consultation about its use at “Neighbourhood Partnership” meetings. Neighbourhood Partnerships are a laudable attempt by the Council to introduce more democracy into local decision-making. Unfortunately they can also turn into internecine disputes between various amenity groups in the so-called “neighbourhood”. This was the case when it came to trying to get support for section 106 funding for the Bearpit. The site is right on the edge of one of the “Neighbourhood Partnership” areas, which also includes Clifton – one of the wealthiest parts of the city of Bristol. Representatives of amenity groups from these better-off parts did not want money spent on the Bearpit, as they had their own favoured projects in the heart of their “neighbourhoods”. The other Neighbourhood Partnership with a “border” at the Bearpit, was equally hostile, given that it had “its own” problematic roundabout (Lawrence Hill) at the core of its area. It was only as a result of the courage of some of the local councillors (who made the ultimate decisions on funding) that the Bearpit did indeed get some section 106 money, against the wishes of many sitting on the Neighbourhood Partnerships.

Money was also raised from the Arts Council, various Foundations and even by direct fundraising. The biggest chunk of money came directly from the Council (through a central government loan for transport and infrastructure improvements) for implementation of surface-level crossings and a circumference walkway. This grant decision came unexpectedly from a meeting of the Council's Cabinet, to which the author had been invited to explain the Bearpit improvement strategy. We were not expecting such substantial funding at a relatively early stage in the BIG process and this apparently good news caused a lot of debate and agonising within the group where some members regarded a 1 million grant as “too much, too soon”.

The key challenge, as with many voluntary organisations, is to become self-supporting. Revenue funding is needed to recruit someone to manage and expand the activities in the site. Generating sufficient funds from trading has not yet been achieved.

The group's status

It should be pointed out that the site still legally belongs to the Council, as it is classed as a public highway. (Although one can argue that it actually belongs to the people of Bristol for whom the Council acts as a “steward”). This has led to the complication of the legal and contractual relationship between the Bearpit Improvement Group and the Council. Even if the ground belongs to the City, what about the “kit” that the BIG has installed (containers, bus-cafe, tables, chairs etc)? This has been a headache in the relationship which the Council's legal department has struggled with. One of the attempts to circumvent this and other contractual and permission complications was the agreement to designate the Bearpit a “Community Action Zone”. This has absolutely no legal status, but has encouraged council officers to be a bit more flexible and “enabling” in their relationship with the BIG and its proposals for the site. On the whole this has helped although there are still entrenched attitudes within a few corners of the Council labyrinth.

The BIG has also established itself as a “Community Interest Company”. And BIG has agreed with the Council a license for various uses and activities.

The Council demonstrated its support for BIG by providing a single point of contact, to help cut across council departments. This has been invaluable, and the support has been above and beyond just 'doing the job'. The link persons (3 so far) have come from the Highways department, which has been particularly useful during the physical re-design. As the focus turned to social issues, this has been supplemented by support from a Neighbourhoods officer, who now convenes a group bringing together all local stakeholders, including nearby hotels, the police, and substance abuse and homeless support agencies. And recently the social regeneration benefit of creating activity in the Bearpit has been recognised through the support of the Inner City 'Health Integration Team', part of Public Health. The support from the top of the Council has had to be renewed twice, as the council has re-structured and new senior managers have been appointed.

The Bearpit Improvement Group has attempted to make itself more representative and democratic over the years, conducting consultations from time to time. This is not easy, as there is no obvious single “community” that the Bearpit serves (in contrast say, to a neighbourhood association in a residential area). Anyone can become a member of the BIG, attend meetings and there is an annual election of directors.

Progress on the five “themes”

1: Public Art

This was one of the first “workstreams” to become manifest, with the aforementioned installation of mural boards on the subway walls. The boards displayed the creations of various artists, some of which proved to be controversial for such a public site. One of the boards offered a showcase for Bristol photographers. All the boards and other wall surfaces suffered to varying degrees from “tagging” and other forms of “overlay” – almost inevitable given their 24 hour accessibility to the public. This has been partially managed by ongoing “refreshment” and replacement of the artworks. In addition to the paintings on the boards, there have been some “sculptures”, most notably the enormous plywood “bear”, standing on the roof of one of the toilets, which has become the icon for the Bearpit.

Much of the artwork on the site has been given freely by the artists concerned, but the BIG did manage to secure an Arts Council grant to help with all this. There has been an ongoing debate, both within the BIG and elsewhere, about what is acceptable “art” in a public location and whether some of the works have been too “political”. It could be argued that this has been a healthy response and a challenging alternative to the ubiquity of commercial poster hoardings and other visual media in this city centre location.

There have been a number of innovative art interventions. For instance, a one-off picnic amongst strangers, 'Lunch with a Feeling', exploring how inclusivity is negotiated in reality. And a geometric-shaped 'Pavilion' structure as an experimental gathering space. More recently, a container has been craned into the Bearpit, to be used as a performance space.

2: Play

Play can be enabled on a site by the installation of facilitating equipment or by putting on “playful” events. Both these have been implemented at the Bearpit. It should also be pointed out that “play” is something that all ages can engage in. In fact the Bearpit is not particularly a “children's” area – there is very little family accommodation nearby, although one of the local primary schools was involved in preparing a mural about the history of the Bearpit.

One of the first interventions on the site, after the initial subway murals, was the installation of a concrete table-tennis table. This was a good example of local involvement, as nearly all the funding for this was raised by a local business – BBC Publications.

Subsequently large playcubes have been introduced on the site, initially as part of a university research experiment to facilitate conversations, and have proved to be remarkable resilient.

There have been various playful events in the Bearpit over the last 5 years, ranging from open air mini-festivals, to evening cine-projections and contemporary dance.

3: Greening

The Bearpit has a few mature trees and some hexagonal planters which were in various states of neglect at the time of the BIG intervention. A soil analysis on the site found that, despite the decades of vehicles circulating round the edge of the Bearpit, the ground was relatively unpolluted and suitable for various types of planting. So a range of community groups were approached to see if they would like to “adopt” a planter. This met with varying degrees of success; the problem being to sustain the maintenance involved in growing plants and vegetables.

There has been a subsequent inclusion of “greening” in the physical re-working of the site (see later section), including a forest garden, with four canopies: trees, shrubs, perennials, ground cover, with an emphasis on edible planting. Although this is a low maintenance method, a managed bank of volunteers to provide regular maintemance is planned. The greening work is led by a professional horticulturalist on a voluntary basis.

4: Trade

Apart from the physical changes (discussed subsequently), trading initiatives have had the most noticeable impact on the site. The Bearpit is adjacent to the Bristol city centre shopping district, which is dominated by national and multi-national chain-stores, restaurants and hotels, some of which directly overlook the site.

It was agreed early on by the BIG, that the Bearpit should offer an alternative experience to this, focussing on local traders, artisans, artists and caterers. This started with a very basic weekend “flea” market. As containers (and eventually a vintage double-decker bus!) were lowered onto the site, it became possible to store kit (such as outdoor chairs) and open more substantial facilities including cafes and a fruit and vegetable outlet. More recently, this has been complemented by a weekly food market, run by a local street traders' co-operative.

The trading activities are much more than just “commerce” – they animate the space and provide informal surveillance of the site. Many people have commented on how the feel of the space has been transformed by this. Several of the traders have become the staunchest participants in the Bearpit Improvement Group and have become involved in all aspects of the project. Their dedication has given them resilience through difficult times and all weathers.

5: Physical/re-design

Normally in place regeneration projects the physical redesign of the site takes centre stage, with everything following on (in theory) from that. There are many examples of public spaces which might look impressive (particularly on the drawing board) but are sterile and under-used. In the case of the Bearpit we decided to take an approach where, although re-design was going to be a significant factor, the other four elements should carry equal, if not greater weight. We prioritised “people” solutions over engineering solutions. In fact there was a big debate within the BIG about whether we needed much physical remodelling at all.

BIG did not expect the Council to make physical improvements a priority, but money was allocated quite early in BIG's existence. This has resulted in some significant physical re-modelling, including new surfacing and lighting, with BIG's activities in-between and in parallel. The result, so far, is a location that may not be the most beautiful from an urban design aesthetic, but the changes have enhanced the feel and attractiveness of the space. Alongside the activities, this encourages people to see the Bearpit as a place rather than just a through route. This is critical to establishing its long-term viability.

One of the major problems on the site stemmed from the original design which prioritised motor vehicle circulation over pedestrian movement (the vogue in the 1960s). Thus large numbers of people (several thousand daily) were forced to use the subways to pass through the site, to get to (for example) the central shopping area from the bus station. Even in the daytime the subways were unpleasant to use and at night the “blind” exits were positively fearful for most citizens. This was compounded by the fact that, as a virtually abandoned central space, the Bearpit functioned as a haven for people who were not welcome anywhere else (the homeless, drug addicts, alcoholics etc). It was therefore considered important to make the Bearpit more physically welcoming for everyone and to give people the option to access and traverse the site without having to use the subways (particularly at night). Numerous designs were produced by the hardworking volunteer architects in the BIG. The most promising seemed to involve a walkway at street level round the rim of part of the site, with surface-level pedestrian bicycle crossings and generous steps leading down to the lower level.

CGI image of the new Bearpit design

This would give people a range of options to access and traverse the site – the subways and associated ramps would remain open. In the end an ingenious solution was found by the seconded officer from the Highways Department – to reclaim one of the three lanes of the traffic roundabout and turn it into a foot/cycle path. This was implemented in 2015. Initial worries that this would adversely affect footfall to the trading areas on the site have not been substantiated.


There are two ongoing issues that need to be addressed – the public toilets and the needs of the homeless/addicted.

Located in the Bearpit is one of the few sets of public toilets left in the centre of Bristol. They have been badly neglected. Until a few years ago they were fully staffed by the Council and this provided a bit of informal surveillance on the site. Latterly they have been run by a private company who have cut the staffing presence. The men's and women's toilets are in separate blocks which are arguably larger than needed just for toileting. Thus there is potential for one of them to be used for other purposes. There has been ongoing discussion within the BIG as to how these toilet blocks could be best used and managed.

One suggestion was to provide a service hub for the many people with addictions and other personal needs who frequent the site for want of anywhere better to go, but it is now thought that this is better provided elsewhere. These people have hung around the Bearpit for many years and there was a positive decision from the start of the BIG intervention, not to attempt to displace them elsewhere. This would have only push the problem on to someone else. By encouraging other people to spend more time in the Bearpit (using the trade stalls and cafes, for example) it has been hoped that a better balance of users could be found, rather than domination of the site by the intoxicated and homeless.

On the whole this has worked, although from time to time anti-social and violent incidents crop up. The provision of activities to encourage a better balance of users is very much a work in progress. Recent pilot community event days have demonstrated the potential. It will not be possible to provide a presence 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but at least it can be done at times when people are most likely to want to be there.

There is a continuing need to balance the needs of different users of the space. Fear of crime and antisocial behaviour is consistently raised as the biggest concern for members of the public in and around the space, and is a threat to the long-term viability of the space. BIG has supported police action taken to tackle anti-social and violent behaviour.

The “conclusion” is that there is no conclusion to somewhere as “living” and multi-dimensional as the Bearpit. Major changes have already been implemented, but there will be more initiatives and modifications as time passes, some of which will flourish and some of which will fail…


The improvements to the Bearpit would not have been possible without the input of a large number of people, most of whom gave their time freely (as volunteers). Below are listed some of these generous people; apologies to anybody whose name is not on the list:

Mark Wright, Jon Rogers, Gus Hoyt, Andrew Docherty, Graham Sims, Andrew Whitehead, Adam Crowther, Janine McCretton, Liz Crew, Mike Thorne, Miriam Delogu, Tina Hart, Robin Halpenny, Chris Chalkley, Chris Carley, Brian Thomas, Kat Hegarty, Richard Jones, Sue Kilroe, Sue Miller, Kaz van den Berg, Emma Dyer, Sara Venn, the staff at BBC Publishing, staff and students at the University of the West of England, including Michael Buser….and numerous others who have given their time and commitment to making the Bearpit a better place.

Henry Shaftoe with Alan Morris (Former Chairs of the Bearpit Improvement Group) December 2016


Bearpit Improvement Group – key guiding theory, principles and references, underpinning the organic, incremental approach.

Christopher Alexander – “Morphogenesis” -“Growing” the built environment, using gowth, mutation and evolution in nature as a guiding model for architecture and urban design. See: The Nature of Order (2003/4). A Pattern Language (1977).

Yves Chalas – “Weak Thought Planning” (La Pensee Faible en Urbanisme). Dans: L'invention de la Ville (2000) Editions Anthropos/Economica. Chalas argues that “strong planning” (ie: Masterplanning of the modernist technical variety) is out-of-date in a fast changing world where we now know about the interaction of systems in urban dynamics. “Weak Thought” planning posits a more fluid and less deterministic approach which can adapt as (sometimes unexpected) contemporary demands morph and mutate.

Richard Sennett – “The Uses of Disorder” (Faber 1996) – the problems associated with “Masterplanning” whereby the city is conceived as a machine with many interacting parts, dependent on each other to function effectively. If one part of the machine “breaks”, the whole structure becomes dysfunctional.

Henry Shaftoe – “Convivial Urban Spaces: Creating effective public places” (Earthscan 2008) The constituents of conviviality. See:

Jan Gehl – “Life between buildings” (2006). The classic account of how to produce successful public spaces.

Project for Public Space (New York): “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” initiative. ( See )

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