The Belfast Agenda & Local Development Plan – a few thoughts

Belfast will be a globally successful, dynamic, smart 21st century regional city that is environmentally resilient with a vibrant economic heart, bustling with sustainable mixed-use businesses that attracts investment, talent and visitors; and is surrounded by thriving well-connected neighbourhoods where people love to live.

A strong local economy will support progressive, healthy, safe and vibrant communities and provides a gateway to opportunities locally, nationally and worldwide.

This is not an adequate vision for an historic, creative, cultural and political capital, renowned as a centre of excellence in learning, industry and creativity.

Global ambition. In a recent survey of millennials around the world compiled by furnished housing aggregator Nestpick, the Irish cities of Dublin and Cork ranked 33rd and 61st among 100 worldwide locations best suited for a millennial to live and visit.  Amsterdam scored a total of 108.8 out of out of a possible 160 with Berlin in second place on 103.9 and Munich on 102.7. The Irish scores were 90.15  for Dublin just behind Hamburg and head of Montpellier and 78.45 for Cork behind LA and Copenhagen and just ahead at Kuala Lumpur.  Needless to say Belfast did not figure in the top 100 cities. Scores were compiled against 16 criteria deemed most relevant to the demographic in choosing where to live or visit combined into four main categories

  1. Business ecosystem
    The business ecosystem score was based on employment prospects, the vibrancy or otherwise of the start-up scene and the cities tourism appeal, the rationale being that travelling to city is one of the first step to relocating there.
  2. The essentials
    The essentials considered housing transport, healthcare, Internet speed and even an Apple score representing access to technical support and calculated on the basis of the number of Apple Stores per capita.
  3. Openness
    Openness scores were based on the cities immigration tolerance, LGBT friendliness, gender equality and access to contraception.
  4. Recreation
    The recreation criteria included the price of beer, the number of nightclubs, their opening times and the number of annual festivals in and around the city.

Whether or not you accept these rather narrow criteria as offering a benchmark to assess great cities across the planet, it provides a profile of what in the eyes of many constitutes a great city and if Belfast is to become globally successful it has to recognise some of these criteria to support some 300,000 current citizens in making Belfast as good as it can be.

However Belfast doesn’t seem to be competing on a lot of these areas and in fact in many instances is a city still in turmoil and crisis; divided from itself through “Peace Walls” and a doughnut of transportation routes that separates the central business district from inner-city suburbs. The increasing suburbanisation segregates itself further out through housing costs and resulting in some of the most egregious health and life-expectancy anomalies of any city.  Whilst this shape of a city is not unusual in itself, the sectarian fault-lines and stark economic barriers contained in Belfast’s unique geography have to be contended with at a local and communitarian level. Therefore a lot more work has to be put into this area of any local development plan or indeed a Belfast Conversation or Agenda.

Against this backdrop Belfast could be considered to be in somewhat of a crisis with the commercial offering not quite measuring up and indeed with increasing rates of vacancy in our most high-profile commercial spaces.  Added to this we have a crisis in housing that is not being alleviated in our city centre core because of the dearth of living spaces that currently exist or that are envisaged in this LDP.

Imaginative cities, in dialogue with their citizens and learning from the mistakes of others, should be more radical in their ambition for embracing diverse, socially and environmentally sustainable; vibrant, mixed economy city cores and thereby offering a more sustainable heartbeat for the rest of the city to move to.

The alleviation of a housing crisis, of low educational attainment, of poverty and inadequate living conditions, of limited access to healthcare, of crushingly diverse life expectancy rates from one ward to another – all this needs to be brought to the forefront of any plan for our city.  This is not just a challenge for the Belfast Community Plan, it is a spatial and land use challenge as well. The need to embrace diversity of population and indeed places, necessitates that the importance and significance of architecture, heritage and culture be brought to bear on planning decisions.

City centre core

For decades the relentless suburbanisation of Belfast has reduced inner-city populations, with seldom hope of renewal.  Schemes like Royal Exchange offer only limited new living spaces while at the same time reducing the opportunity for others to continue living in the city core.  By not supporting living in the city’s core, many of the most attractive aspects of city life may not be realised. Having a significant diverse population living in a city centre core, not just students or indeed so-called millennials, will allow for a vibrant night-time economy, changing the nature of the public spaces, supporting the development of diverse scales of economy through street markets, small shops, food outlets, grocery outlets and centres of education and cultural amenities for a range of age groups.  If Belfast is to truly compete on a global scale, that character needs to be realised quickly and established in the next few years in order to seize the opportunities that it brings.

An integrated Local Development Plan needs to radically place the public, the citizen, in the centre of the development of the city for the next two decades. A city that so easily gridlocks through one or two road accidents within a 10 mile radius and where rush-hour commute times are amongst the longest in the UK, is failing the citizen.  Our schools and places of learning are placed on main routes which carry huge volumes of diesel-driven traffic.  In the interests of well-being, given that our main routes already struggle with air quality, this must be addressed. The well-being of the city’s inhabitants cannot be served solely by the development of leisure centres.  Physical well-being is only one aspect in the ecology of supporting well-being.  Citizens and visitors alike require the fullest range of recreational, artistic, entertaining and creative cultural and heritage offerings in a city that is truly accessible and navigable.

Living, not just shopping

On the day, Thursday 20th April, the second largest department store chain in the UK has announced massive closures, the reality is that need for the gargantuan shopping centre schemes of the late 20th  and early 21st centuries is over.  Debenhams may well be closing its store in Belfast even. The recognition that the shopping experience has completely changed in the last 10 years would offer any city planner the impetus to look at different models scales and uses in the commercial redevelopment of cities core. Whilst the various planning protections and laudable ambitions for conservation areas, the retention of old buildings and those that offer a particular vernacular of design, is stated in the LDP, it has not been enough to stave off some of the worst commercial schemes of recent times. Furthermore, taking erstwhile public city streets and making them private shopping thoroughfares is not in the interests of city dwellers. Cities need to balance the interests of corporations with those of its citizens. The LDP as offer in the POP would seem to shift that equilibrium too far toward the interests of corporations and away from the very vulnerable interests of domestic ratepayers and citizens.

Belfast’s transport infrastructure

At the turn of the 21st century, Belfast’s range of transport infrastructure is more sparse and dependent on one form of travel than it was 100 years earlier. 19th century Belfast citizens enjoyed trams, suburban trains, buses, motorcars, bicycles and of course horse-drawn carriages. Whilst Belfast has made strides around offering cyclists safer and more convenient opportunity, the same cannot be said for others to access trains and trams, with only the proliferation of buses offering citizens who can’t afford cars, an opportunity to travel.  The much-vaunted Belfast Rapid Transit System, still offering only one route that traverses the city may not be the model best suited to accommodate the city’s need and aspirations.  Also the resolute directing of all transport into the city centre’s new transport hub, instead of alleviating congestion, only concentrates the highest potential volumes of people and vehicles in one place, at the very centre of the already overly congested commercial and business district. Logically, this will not improve that congested situation.

Belfast is a great city

Belfast was the first industrialised city on this island.  Belfast is an ancient city, built on a narrow fording point and reclaiming mud-flats as it expanded and developed.  It is known the world over not just through the infamy of the Titanic disaster or through the recent Troubles but both these historic periods do sit in the imagination of many visitors to the city as they scour the city centre looking for authenticity and artefacts, constantly taking photos  and enjoying the fine urban grand that just about survives.  In any LDP, it is necessary to retain the authentic, architecturally significant, ancient, publicly-accessible, historically significant buildings and spaces. Belfast’s future is not wedded to any particular narrative, but comes from that unique past. The first industrialised city in Ireland deserves to be re-made into its foremost post-industrial city. This means looking at key componentry of highly evolved, citizen-focused cities likes Ghent, Stockholm, Copenhagen and indeed Dublin, Cork, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Sheffield etc

Shared city

In so doing, the retention of the shared urban narrative allows all communities to enjoy a unique history.  Such a shared city, not just in terms of its anti-sectarian aspiration but in managing the often conflicting interests of communities of place, of occupation, of wealth and of ambition, offers citizens, ratepayers, visitors and investors the greatest surety and security as a platform to thrive.

The retention and increase of public space, green space, and creative space must be central to the ambition of this local development plan.  Whilst it is laudable that the city wishes to develop “an attractive natural setting reinforcing uniqueness and accessibility to all who live work and enjoy the city” such an ambition for green and natural space will run contrary to the other stated commercial ambitions.

In the centre of most great cities, apart from enjoying boulevards and thoroughfares that are friendly to the pedestrian and cyclist alike, there is normally an abundance of often green, public space and within it, a recognition that children must play. The lack of provision of playgrounds and innovation in how we promote the well-being of our younger citizens, points to a less than integrated ambition for the local development plan.

A greater mix of uses to create a vibrant, attractive, dynamic city must be brought to the forefront of this plan, guarding against the corporate placemaking that hollows out an organic, characterful and unique urban landscape and then reducing it to the  bland homogeneity of early 21st design and commercial ethics, destroying the unique local vernacular of design and material forever.

Such obliteration of character runs completely contrary to any historic city, because once destroyed, it cannot be remade.

A strengthened Belfast as the regional economic driver

Currently Belfast plays host to thousands of creative professionals with yet more due to graduate from our city universities in the coming years. Belfast also supports some 80% concentration of arts and cultural production within Northern Ireland, making it, without peer, a centre of excellence for the arts and cultural industries. It is therefore inexplicable that no mention is made of the role of the arts within the formation of an ambition for the city for the next 20 years.

The UK’s creative industry is one of our fastest-growing sectors, employing over two million people and it contributed nearly £90 billion to the economy in 2015.

The Creative Industries Federation, a national body for the UK’s arts, creative industries and cultural education sectors, has called on the Government to “overhaul” its approach to business.

Business Secretary Greg Clark has stated:

“The UK’s creative industry is one of our fastest-growing sectors, employing over two million people and it contributed nearly £90 billion to the economy in 2015.

“Through our Industrial Strategy I want to ensure we build on this sector’s strengths, which is why we have committed to an early sector deal for the industry in our green paper.

“Sir Peter Bazalgette is leading this work with an independent review into how the UK’s creative sector, including our world-class music and video games industries, can help drive prosperity across the country by developing new technologies, capitalising on intellectual property rights and encouraging creativity from people of all ages and backgrounds”

Surely Belfast, with its incredible tradition and ability in the arts and creative industries, wants to exploit that local and national pre-eminence. Imaginative land use that supports community plans can only enhance the profile, ambition and achievement of a creative Belfast.

A smart connected and resilient place

“Belfast has the highest density of fibre network in Europe and nearly 100% of households have access to optical fibre
 broadband”.

The same cannot be said for many sections in our city core including the Cathedral Quarter however where there is currently no fibre optic availability at all.

Whilst connectivity here focuses on our ability to access digital services,  a connected city means more to its citizens than that.  Communications within the city, around the city, across the island and indeed across Europe and the world, are key to any city with global ambition.  For a city with a hinterland supporting a population of 1 ½ million people within a one hour drive, communications,  transport routes and efficient transport systems are utterly crucial.  On any given day the population of Belfast swells by some 50% due to the influx of workers mostly in cars. If the population increase aimed for reflected an increase by the same rate throughout Northern Ireland, the impact on road use would lead to an utter sclerosis of commuter routes. The retention of old models of traffic flow management and the insistence in concentrating flows towards the city’s core will not adequately manage the increasing road demands of the future.

If the city were to reimagine multiple hubs in circular radials around the city, and find ways to manage traffic flows across Belfast Lough at points further away from the city, then that increased concentration of traffic would be relieved.

Belfast today and tomorrow, must retain its character, support its current population and make preparation for greater global demands and environmental challenge. It must realise that its history, its built heritage and its diverse population and their diversity of interests and abilities, are the city’s true resources. Citizens and rate-payers must see themselves reflected in the city development. It is for the city planners to make adjustments for the citizen, not to the citizen.

Reposted with permission from the CAPtain’s Blog here 03/05/17

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