Hated by some, tolerated by many and loved by few, Bristol’s infamous Bearpit has a somewhat chequered past. But over recent years, much has been done to improve this unloved corner of the city centre. Sara Venn discusses how nature could help give the site a new, more acceptable, identity.

Incredible Edible Bristol has been working with the Bearpit Improvement Group (BIG) for two years to bring about a garden in the Bearpit, that oft discussed, sunken roundabout space right in the centre of Bristol.

It is a space that all of us who work in the heart of Bristol have to negotiate if we are to pass from the city centre to Stokes Croft and, whilst huge amounts of work have been undertaken to improve the space, it’s geography makes it a space that is complicated, busy, exciting, occasionally challenging and always fascinating.

With the introduction of the food businesses and the Wednesday food market, more and more people are using the space as a destination rather than for transit and so it is slowly starting to be what BIG has always aimed for: inclusive, safe, diverse and welcoming. No one is yet pretending it is perfect, but with traditional media prepared often only to see the negative aspects of the space, the BIG team, the businesses and ourselves are busy telling the story of a more positive picture of the space. The gardens are very much a part of this.

The garden is a space in the centre of the city that will be green, productive and beautiful with an edible edge. Already, all the different people who use the space have engaged with it, sitting, contemplating, sometimes sleeping, using the seats and the watching the incoming wildlife appear. The space was designed to be cool and calm, to be an oasis in the city centre for people to interact with. A garden in the most unusual place that will create food for everyone whilst inviting people in to it, to sit in it and to relax.

Across the country we see urban spaces being changed from transit points to destinations, and always, in the most successful spaces, this means using planting and innovative planting techniques to change a space and create harmony. Be it swathes of pollinator rich planting on motorway verges, SuDs helping to counteract the threat of flooding, or greening creating calmer spaces in areas known to be challenging, well-designed green spaces are starting to challenge our expectations of how city spaces look.

The garden is completely volunteer made and led, with a keen and varied crew coming along to help at every session. We have listened to people’s thoughts and ideas and have taken everything we are told on board. We are planting for people, for wildlife, for biodiversity but most of all we are planting for a future that we are working towards with Incredible Edible. A future where kindness is at the centre of everything we do.

Words: Sarah Venn

Sarah Venn is a professional horticulturist, food activist and writer.