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In the Community

The project included a series of discussions and events in the neighbourhood of Stokes Croft (Bristol) where we spoke about the role of art and creativity in social and urban change. In September we organised a cultural activist field tour where we brought scholars to the area in order to speak with activists involved in using creative practice to challenge commonly-accepted notions regarding place, regeneration, authority and autonomy, conviviality and art.  Later in the year, in Making place through play, we installed temporary seating in the form of ‘play blocks’ to challenge assumptions about a so-called ‘derelict’ site in the area called the Bearpit.

These and other community activities were imagined as a process of crossing or even dissolving boundaries between academic and activist practices.  While this is of course ongoing, the efforts forged new relationships and contributed significantly to the project’s theoretical and practice-orientated understandings.

Stokes Croft Field Tour

Following our workshop in September 2012, we brought several of our invited speakers into the neighbourhood of Stokes Croft to see how art had been used in the area and to speak with activists involved in recent change. On our way from the city centre, we met Ruth Essex and stopped at the Nelson Street outdoor gallery – a city-sponsored street art project that Ruth helped organise which has transformed a somewhat unremarkable 1950s landscape into a public art gallery.

After speaking with two of the artists running ‘the island’ a multi-use arts facility in a former police station on Nelson Street, we moved on to the Bearpit where we heard Henry Shaftoe discuss his long-term commitment to improvement of the site. Next, we met with Chris Chalkley of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft who gave us an animated tour of many of the buildings and artworks in Stokes Croft.

Chris also gave us an account of E.W. Godwin, a 19th century architect-designer and the unofficial ‘patron saint’ of Stokes Croft who is prominently displayed on the Carriageworks building. Finally, we had lunch at Hamilton House a cultural hub and canteen in the centre of the neighbourhood. Overall, the field tour enabled us to hear three diverse and fascinating perspectives (perhaps best described as state, voluntary and insurgent) on the role of art and creativity in the production of urban space.

Making Place Through Play

The Bearpit public space intervention

In this part of the programme we explored ways to support people-centred place-making and creativity. Looking to engage people in Stokes Croft directly in our work, we set out twelve ‘play blocks’ for their use, comfort and enjoyment while visiting the Bearpit, a public space/roundabout at the edge of the neighbourhood.

The blocks were designed and built by local artist Will Datson and were at the site for a couple of weeks in December (2012) and again in February (2013).

We encouraged people to use the blocks in any way they felt appropriate and to speak to us about their experiences in the Bearpit. We also set up a Facebook page for pictures and comments. The intervention allowed us – as researchers and designers – to experience and encounter life in the Bearpit while having informal discussions about art, participation and politics in a complex and changing urban environment.

John, local resident

A short discussion with John, a local resident who brought his children Luke and Ella to the Bearpit to play with the blocks after shopping in the city centre.

Keri, local resident:

Keri reflects on changes in the Bearpit and the positive influence from activists and energies in Stokes Croft as her son Sammy plays on the blocks.

Project Background

The St. James Barton Roundabout – known colloquially as the Bearpit – is a ‘sunken’ roundabout at the edge of Stokes Croft bordering the main city centre shopping district. Pedestrians and cyclists looking to access the shopping area from the north generally must pass through the roundabout via ramps and tunnels which take them below grade to the interior portion of the roundabout. For some, the Bearpit has a reputation as an unpleasant area and is a site to avoid.

Countering these perceptions, the Bearpit Improvement Group has actively promoted the site as an important public space and has brought about significant change and improvements including outdoor artwork displays, an active trading scene, festivals and events, opportunities for play (e.g. table tennis) and new plantings and landscaping.

Additionally, their persistence has won the support of Bristol City Council now in the planning stages of additional redevelopment work (expected in 2013 and beyond). Our small dissemination and intervention project was designed to bring additional colour and play into the Bearpit (as well as convivial and movable seating), challenge common perceptions of the space as derelict and bring attention to the changes happening in Stokes Croft.