Urban spaces are hard fought with gardens and horticulture seemingly quite understandably coming low down on the list of priorities, in comparison to land needed for housing, our ever increasing needs for roads and transport links along with all the infrastructure our cities need as they expand. But as our cities grow so, obviously, does the number of people in those cities, all using that infrastructure, as well as schools, doctors, hospitals and the huge quantity of other services we take for granted in our towns and cities. But what else we take for granted is the corporate bodies that live within our cities, that we are often nervous of and who often have their own agendas that might not support the community of the city in the way they claim they do. Well known coffee shops opening in areas of independent businesses, big restaurant chains buying up tiny city wide chains and being completely silent about it, and large organisations buying pieces of land to build offices on, are all instances here in Bristol of quiet corporate take over. Bear with me here by the way. This isn't about corporate bashing but about the human choice we have as communities to demand change in our own environments.
So what about community space. What does that look like? Who is responsible for it and how does that work is an oft asked questions and one that has a million, approximately, answers. Community asset transfers when the community takes control of the whole space, whatever that might look like, is one example and The Old Library in Bristol's Eastville area is a great example of how that has worked. But land leasing is often common, where a council will lease an area to a community group for a set length of time for set activities is another way and there are, of course, a myriad more.
What has this got to do with community horticulture I hear you ask? Well these community spaces are often leased to community groups for growing or gardening, and at Incredible Edible Bristol we support 43 such spaces, but the one I want to focus on today is the Bearpit. Those of you who have followed me from Physic Blogger days will remember previous blogs about this space, as will anyone who follows me on social media, but for new readers, the Bearpit is a sunken roundabout in the centre of Bristol, next to the bus station and directly on the route into the city centre from the M32. It is a space where community has tried, and had some success, albeit that tentative and hard one, in creating a community hub, based around independent food businesses, urban community horticulture and urban art. The space is a difficult one, filled with anti social issues due in part to it's closeness to Bristol's shelters and drug and alcohol addiction centres, but also one with a mixed and confused set of messaging appearing.
There is a belief that the Bearpit's issues are down to homelessness but that is rarely the case. There may be people sleeping there occasionally, but the violence and anti social behaviour we see down there when we are working, the drug deals, the fights and the erratic behaviour, are not a result of homelessness, but a result of addiction, mental health issues and abuse. They are issues which for a city centre space are unacceptable. Watching as an 8 or 9 year old lad looks on as his father sticks a hypodermic filled with heroin into his arm is not, and never will be acceptable. Watching girls being pimped for drugs is never acceptable. Sexual predators and aggressive beggars should not be allowed in any space where the public is expected to be. Violence, of any kind, has no place in our cities and yet again and again we not only witness this behaviour, but we are also dumbfounded when we hear people doubting that it is happening. Accusing people of "ethnic cleansing" in the space. Of eradicating a community where that community is more of a hierarchy of abuse and human destruction. No one is being cleansed from the space. Everyone is welcome but surely within a city centre space, a space that should be accessible for the 455,000 people who call Bristol their home, it's not unfair to expect this behaviour to be challenged and stopped?
And yet in this space we have made a garden. Filled with herbs, fruit, edible flowers and shrubs, it is a riot of colour and well managed wildness in the centre of the city. It's a place of calm where anyone can come and sit, relax and unwind, with no judgment. After a difficult few months in the space, with Bristol city Council having taken control of the space again, we are about to reappear properly in the space, and the work on the garden will continue as we see the businesses reopen and we all work towards a better place. A place that the city can be proud of. A green entrance to our city, filled with independent businesses, innovation, jobs and learning, all based around food and growing. If you'd like to see more about this project you'll find it at https://www.thecirclebristol.org
But more importantly shall we look at an alternative which no one seems to be discussing. A city centre space, next to a bus station, and at the entrance to the city itself is surely a space being watched by the large corporate organisations that have taken over on our high streets, pushed retail into out of town retail parks and who are changing the face of shopping country wide. Even here in Bristol with our independent shops and cafes, the retail giants are taking over, demanding city centre space and jostling for trade. The regular coffee chains, restaurants and clothing stores are everywhere and the Bearpit is overlooked by them. The fact that this space is difficult wouldn't bother them-they would find a solution in some way, and revel in the knowledge that 20,000 people walk through that space somedays on transit through the city. Isn't it time we understood that if we want a space to be independent, to be part of the independent city we all want to see, that accusing small, independent businesses of being greedy, of being corporate, of "social cleansing" is just a divide and conquer strategy that is set to continue to do harm to the space, rather than allowing it to move on in support of the cities One City Plan?
People will disagree with me. Recently there was a piece written by politicians from a party I once supported, saying the fight for the Bearpit is like the fight for the Commons. Whilst in some cases I would agree with that, inclusivity and safety have to be a part of any Commons conversation and they seem to refuse to engage that. And by safety and inclusivity again we go back to the concept of a space where 455,000 Bristolians would feel welcome and by welcome we have to address safety surely?
Am I rambling? I suspect so. But there is so much to write and so many nuances. In reality, we will just continue to ensure we make a garden in the Bearpit that is inclusive, calm, and safe for the whole city to enjoy, whether a human, an insect or part of our rich flora. An where everyone is welcome.........