Belfast's architectural renaissance marred by motorway madness
The new Northern Ireland Part III:In Belfast, they call it the “Shatterzone”. The resonant term sums up the immense damage done to the fabric of tight urban neighbourhoods by motorways and feeder routes hacked through by roads engineers as they refashioned the city to cater for a motorised society.
An old map on a billboard on Castle Street, leading towards the Falls Road area, shows just how seamless this part of Belfast was in the pre-second World War period – a dense network of streets lined with Coronation Street-style back-to-back housing, public buildings and a tramway connecting the Falls with the city centre.
The Falls, just like the Shankill, is now cut off from the heart of Belfast by the Westlink Shatterzone – a no-man’s land bisected by the motorway cutting and the sliproads serving it, with big wide roads leading out from the city centre. It’s not a place for the faint-hearted, particularly cyclists and pedestrians.
In fact, it’s not a “place” at all. Few buildings front on to the big wide roads, and those that do are usually blank at ground-floor level, with no shops or anything else that would bring a bit of life to the area. Obviously designed solely with motorists in mind, these through-routes are dispiriting for anyone on foot.
There was, of course, a British military imperative to separate west Belfast from the city centre. As architect Mark Hackett observed, the core could then be “regenerated in a nice way, with the middle classes free to roam via the bubble of their cars whilst the poorer neighbourhoods are ‘confined to barracks’.” When the Westlink was driven through the area in 1981, shorn-off terraced housing was still visible on either side of it. All of this direct evidence of urban carnage has since been cleared away and mostly replaced by suburban-style housing with front and back gardens and driveways or lay-bys for parking.
There are lots of vacant sites – “spaces left over after planning”, in textbook terms – and, inevitably, many of these have become venues for antisocial behaviour, including bonfires. The pedestrian overbridge that crosses the Westlink from the Lower Falls area is caged to prevent bricks being dropped on passing cars.
Three years ago the Forum for Alternative Belfast (Fab) produced a revealing Missing City map showing swathes of vacant land, much of it on the edges of the brutal road system. Why was so much space sitting empty even after a building boom, and why was there no coherent plan to rebuild the city, it asked.