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.

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.

Traffic issues

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

Ciarán de Burca, director of transport projects with the Department for Regional Development and a former Dublin City Council roads engineer, is in charge of plans for a bus-based Belfast Rapid Transit system. But he said more road-building was needed to get through-traffic out of town, notably the proposed York Street flyover.

The “new” Belfast

University of Ulster’s plan to relocate from suburban Jordanstown to the north inner city has been welcomed as a positive move, as it will bring 14,000 to 15,000 students into the area. But no provision has been made for student housing and there are fears this ad-hoc approach could be as troublesome as the student-packed “Holy Land” near Queen’s.

Other beacons of the “new Belfast” include the splendid Waterfront Hall, the new MAC arts centre in the city’s Cathedral Quarter – an award-winning scheme by Hackett Hall McKnight Architects – and the Victoria Square shopping centre. There’s also the Lyric Theatre which was designed by Dublin-based architects O’Donnell + Tuomey and shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, and the shimmering shards of Titanic Belfast, now the North’s biggest tourist attraction.

According to Ken Sterrett, one of the largely unspoken reasons for not encouraging the development of housing in Belfast is that its “becoming more Catholic” – as the detailed 2012 census results are likely to confirm. As a result, Protestants fear that more inner city housing would only reinforce a trend they see as disturbing.

Such fears are both irrational and unfounded. According to Sterrett, a survey carried out by Queen’s University some time ago discovered that most of the residents of new apartments in and around the city centre were not from Northern Ireland, but rather from Britain, the Republic, continental Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

Forum for Alternative Belfast’s Missing City map featured in the British Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, with an open invitation to architects to take part in a Berlin-style international building exhibition to rebuild the inner city. It’s very apt, as Berlin’s last exhibition in 1987 had as its mission to “rescue the shattered city”.




ROSITA BOLANDreports from the Border towns of Pettigoe, Belleek, Blacklion, Belcoo and Caledon


KATHRYN TORNEYon the North’s segregated school system

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