Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Atmospheres of Stillness in Bristol's Bearpit

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Atmospheres of Stillness in Bristol's Bearpit

Article excerpt


This paper studies atmospheres of stillness in a contested urban public space known as the 'Bearpit'. The purpose is to provide a nuanced account of stillness and its relationship to atmosphere. Drawing on an ethnographic examination of the Bearpit, the paper finds that the positive and beneficial aspects of stillness can be found in unexpected and unconventional places. However, there is no single, unifying experience of stillness, but rather a plurality of 'stillings'. The paper highlights three forms of stillness distilled from study of the site--calmness, control and withdrawnness--and demonstrates how these modalities emerge from and contribute to the construction of atmospheres in the Bearpit. Moreover, these atmospheres have direct political consequences for those who take part in city life. The paper's contribution is found in the advancement of non-anthropocentric understandings of atmosphere and the development of stillness as a way of understanding city life.


Atmosphere, ambiance, stillness, public space, non-representational theory, Stokes Croft


"I'm in the Bearpit, in a shipping container, there's only so much ambience I can create" (Mandy, (1) trader)

This paper is about atmosphere and stillness in the St James Barton Roundabout, a small public space in the city of Bristol (UK) known as 'the Bearpit'. Constructed in the 1960s, the Bearpit is representative of urban transport designs of the time which sought to improve roadway efficiency, mobility and safety by separating pedestrians from cars. In addition to the creation of a large roundabout, crossings were removed and pedestrians were diverted underneath the roadway via four interlinked tunnels which open onto a large, sunken open space area at the centre (Evening Post, 1967a, 1967b, 1968). In the years following construction, this interior area of the roundabout became known as a site of illicit activities such as street drinking, drug trading and violence (Bristol Post, 2010a, 2010b, 2015). By the 1990s, the Bearpit was largely considered a derelict public space and received defensive treatments such as the installation of CCTV cameras, anti-graffiti paint and street furniture to inhibit rough sleeping. (2) In recent years a local community group has worked to improve the space and counteract decades of neglect. While the Bearpit maintains an edgy urban feel, the site has become more vibrant and convivial and is well used. Perhaps unexpectedly, the site has also developed into an important space for some to experience the positive and beneficial aspects of stillness such as peace and calmness (amongst other modalities of stillness).

The paper calls upon a multi-year ethnographic research programme seeking to examine shifts in atmosphere in public space over time. The project was guided by an interest in investigating the social and material contributions to the emergence of collective affects and to question the apparent stability or durability of ascribed place meanings. Atmospheres of stillness were identified and examined only after an extensive period of observation and engagement in the Bearpit. This included analysis of interview and photographic data as well as collaboration with a media artist and the production of a video collage. Further, while the affective atmospheres discussed here represent only a fragment of experience in the space, this narrowed interest is used to facilitate a deeper engagement with the concept of stillness and how it can be expressed via different modalities (Bissell and Fuller, 2011). In this paper, I call on affective atmospheres (Anderson, 2009) as a framing device to examine how modalities and registers of stillness emerge and shape experience in urban public space. As Anderson and Ash (2015: 34) point out, 'the concept of affective atmosphere has been a way to think about the diffuse, collective nature of affective life', expressing and exemplifying an important, yet often unrecognised condition of urban experience. …

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