Belfast's architectural renaissance marred by motorway madness
Missing City came out of Fab’s first summer school in 2009. Subsequent schools focused on inner north and south Belfast, publishing the Six Links and Streets not Roads manifestos. The 2012 summer school, held in Belfast City Hall, had “Re-Stitching the City” as its theme, with the focus on east and west.
Belfast city’s population has fallen from 470,000 in 1950 to just 270,000 in this year’s census, while commuter towns and suburban areas outside its boundaries have seen corresponding growth – with most of their inhabitants driving into town on the motorways.
Public transport caters for only a fraction of Belfast’s commuters. On Queen’s Bridge, one of the principal entries from the east, private cars account for 72 per cent of morning peak-time traffic, while on the Grosvenor Road corridor, in the west, it’s as high as 90 per cent. And many commuters have free parking in the centre.
Ken Sterrett, senior lecturer in planning and urban design at Queens University and co-founder of Fab, said the real problem was that Belfast’s inner city was “nobody’s project”. That’s why it was spotlighting areas “fractured by roads” and disconnected from the city centre, and showing how they could be redeveloped.
Mark Hackett recalled that community activist Ron Wiener had first highlighted what was happening in his 1975 book, The Rape and Plunder of the Shankill. But the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Roads Service had blithely continued clearing inner-city areas for “comprehensive redevelopment” and major roads.
The real irony, as Hackett pointed out, is that car ownership in the inner city is as low as 25 per cent. “Everyone in the city has the right to walk or cycle,” he said. To make this possible, Fab wants the big wide roads to be “tamed” by lining them with new mixed-use buildings, including affordable apartments.
It has drawn up a framework plan for major development on Divis Street, at the edge of Westlink, with significant support from local community, tourism and business groups. Everything has been designed and costed; all they’re waiting for is approval from the authorities for £100,000 to get it through planning.
Angus Kerr, director of planning policy at the North’s Department of Environment, said it was working with Fab and other groups such as Place on urban design ideas, on the basis that “collaboration is the key to successful cities”. He also noted that planning powers would be devolved to Belfast City Council in 2015.
Maurice Kinkead, chief executive of the East Belfast Partnership Board, said one of the most frustrating things was “waiting for strategy to be put in place”, although he admitted that it was possible to get things done even in the absence of such a strategy. The opening up of George Best’s boyhood home to paying guests was an example