Another Belfast is imagined

 

A group of Belfast architects want to rebuild urban confidence in a city that they say is ‘riddled with holes’, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH

‘A CITY BUILT upon mud; a culture built upon profit” – that’s how Louis MacNeice described Belfast in the 1960s. Today’s city is still in thrall to commerce, studded with grandiose towers, lavish retail temples and ambitious, half-built apartment blocks. But according to the Forum for Alternative Belfast – an independent group of architects, academics and planners, set up by two local architects, Declan Hill and Mark Hackett – Belfast has become a dysfunctional, disconnected place, suffering from a legacy of neglect, and desperately in need of dramatic intervention. Belfast has become a city without a heart: a place where people go to work, shop or play but then return home again, leaving the centre cheerless, sinister and deserted at night, they say.

Hackett and Hill offer a stark analysis of the city’s current predicament. They argue that Belfast has been disjointed by piecemeal, ad-hoc development, which preferred profit to quality, and by an ill-judged roads infrastructure that sliced through and broke up once-flourishing communities.

“In a sense, we un-built the city by building roads that were not needed,” says Hackett. “People coming here from Dublin say to us, thank God we didn’t have money in the 1960s and 1970s to build roads like that. Dublin, by comparison, is relatively intact,” adds Hill.

The two architects say Belfast has become a car-dependent city, choked up every morning by parents taking children to schools they could once have walked to. As the exodus of city-dwellers continued – the population has decreased by 35 per cent in 35 years – many inner city primary schools, shops, libraries and churches have closed, compounding the problem.

And then there’s the fact that the city centre itself is riddled with holes – vast chunks of empty spaces and waste ground that tell their own story of decline and neglect.

Earlier this year, at Belfast City Hall, the Forum launched a detailed map entitled The Missing City, marking out these sites in red ink, explaining that “this emptiness represents the impact of the loss of 130,000 people from the city and its impact on schools, shops, parks, dance halls and city vibrancy”. The red parts of the map add up to more than two square kilometres of wasted land – an area the size of 500 football pitches – which could be used to provide housing for more than 20,000 people.

But the Forum doesn’t want to simply point out what’s wrong with Belfast. Their real role, as they see it, is to help put it right. “One of the challenges facing Belfast is not just the repair of neglect,” says Mark Hackett. “It’s about stitching the city together again, a fundamental restructuring and a rebuilding of urban confidence. We need the ambition to seek a better, a more coherent, city that people will want to live in; a regenerated city that is open, connected and vibrant. We need to raise our standards and set our sights higher. The idea of the map is to say – here’s your job, that’s your baseline. This is not a five-year plan. It’s a 20-, 30-year plan.”

Belfast’s Lord Mayor, Naomi Long, is a convert to the Forum’s agenda, and the group’s bold, imaginative approach and persuasive powers mean that its views are taken increasingly seriously by decision-makers. Hackett and Hill insist that there must be an active process of city management: “cities don’t manage themselves. We, who live in Belfast, must create the city we want. What if we actually connected the planning and design of our city with its regeneration and management?”

It isn’t surprising that so many people are responding to the Forum’s call – its vision for a new Belfast is a beguiling one. They envisage a safe, friendly, “filled-up” city where today’s bleak, litter-strewn spaces are filled instead with family homes and busy street life, neighbourhood shops and schools.

This is a “walkable” city, with tree-lined streets and animated ground-floor buildings. And it’s a city without barriers – not just between the traditional communities, but between the “gated” rich and “adjacent” poor.

Hackett and Hill believe that Belfast can learn from other cities’ mistakes. “In Dublin, for instance, huge numbers of small two-bedroom flats were built, completely unsuitable for family accommodation,” says Hill.

“Now Dublin City Council has brought out new space standards, with minimum sizes for living rooms. If we’re to plan for a sustainable central city community, we need space for families. People will only live in the city if we deliver quality spaces for them to live in.”

The Forum’s vision is not simply aspirational. Currently, they are lobbying to turn Bank Square – a bleak, neglected and functionless area just behind a Tesco store on Belfast’s Royal Avenue – into the best urban space in the city.

“All the ingredients are there for an amazing square,” says Hill. “Already, you’ve got Belfast’s first Roman Catholic church, built as a gift by Belfast Presbyterians; you’ve got Belfast’s oldest pub, and you’ve got an award-winning restaurant.”

Hackett and Hill want nearby Berry Street – an ancient street, crudely walled-off when the large Castle Court shopping complex was built in the 1980s – to be re-opened as an active thoroughfare, full of shops and cafes, that would lead into the transformed square. The Department of Social Development has been resistant to re-opening the street, in case it caused “pedestrian leakage” on the “retail circuit” between Castle Court and Belfast’s newest retail temple, Victoria Square. But the Forum saw it as a way of opening up the city centre to its inhabitants once more, removing barriers and re-establishing the ancient link – “the umbilical cord of the city”, as Hill puts it – between the docks and Smithfield market.

It’s clear that Hackett and Hall have a deep feeling for Belfast, flawed as the city is. But although they are committed to healing Belfast, their approach is pragmatic, not romantic. “I’ve travelled to other European cities, like Helsinki, Rotterdam and Barcelona,” says Declan Hill. “I’ve seen how they work. And I just think – why can’t Belfast have a bit of that?”

ALL THE FUN OF THE FORUM

IT’S NOT all policy and planning at the Forum for Alternative Belfast. The Forum organises an annual sandcastle competition, this year held in an abandoned warehouse on Donegall Street.

Locals DJs provide the soundtrack as families and groups compete to create the most extraordinary structures from builders’ sand. After several hours of messy effort, Mark Hackett and Declan Hill, properly kitted out in hard hats, decide the winning entries. The idea is to encourage families and children to have fun in the inner city.

And last year, as part of Belfast’s first Culture Night, the Forum formed a barbershop quintet and performed their own songs with great brio at the Tivoli barbers on Lower Garfield Street. Open since 1936, the building is now dilapidated, with rain coming in and buddleia sprouting from the roof.

The event drew attention to the fate of Belfast’s rare and neglected buildings and streets.

As the Forum points out, “The Tivoli pleasure gardens in Copenhagen offer the exotic style of an imaginary orient. In Belfast we let trees grow out of the roofs of our historic buildings.”