Day two of Xchange Summer School – walking & talking about the shape & nature of the city #xss16

Daniel Jewesbury leading walking tour at Xchange Summer School xss16On day two of the Xchange Summer School, Daniel Jewesbury led a walking tour around buildings in Belfast, following the trail of sculpted heads on buildings with a connection to the Fitzpatrick Brothers. A story of political shenanigans, dodgy tendering, beautiful buildings … and a bank with a lot of steps up into it that proved fatal for one of its directors.

After two hours trekking from the City Hall to the Malmaison, the delegates reconvened in the beer garden of the Sunflower Pub. A panel discussed Belfast, the city of 7 quarters. [You can also review the first day of the summer school.]

David Gavaghan, Rita Harkin, Mark Hackett, Daniel Jewesbury, Orla McCann and Dermot O’Kane shared their insights into how Belfast got into the shape it is in, and how things might be improved. The Troubles affected the landscape (though insurance rebuilt most commercial buildings that were damaged) but the planning rot started doing damage long before the conflict started.

Rita Harking speaking at Xchange Summer School xss16David Gavaghan reckons a rapid injection of 30,000 extra people living into the city centre would transform it. Rita Harkin value “the extraordinary within the ordinary” over signature projects that favour shiny facades and concrete pours. Mark Hackett recognised that Belfast lost belief in itself during the 1950s. emphasised the need for quarters to be properly connected rather than left as isolated hubs or ghettos, a particular problem for Belfast whose main division is class rather than religion.

“A city doesn’t need to be hung, drawn or quartered!”

Orla McCann talking at Xchange Summer School xss16David Jewesbury was fearful that the rush to build new student accommodation was the new speculative property bubble. Orla McCann questioned the accessibility of buildings, and highlighted that physical access was not the only issue. Working for Disability Action she recognised that the sector can be perceived as always saying no. She pointed to the trend towards shared surfaces (footpaths running level with roads) and asked the delegates to imagine how confusing and dangerous that could be. She also noted that it run against the common road safety taught to children: stop at the kerb. Orla finished by saying that Belfast was “designing in the bland” only using a “limited palette of colours”. Dermot O’Kane was the last panellist to speak. He saw the local development plan as a way for us to leave our legacy for future generations.

Mick Fealty asking question at Xchange Summer School xss16Mick Fealty asked the panel to explain what the smallest change that could be made to policy that would make a difference? Answers included matching empty homes with housing need, ensuring planners and developers engaged with end users, introducing a height limit for new development (long term policies in Paris and Berlin), working with newcomers to the city, having an elected Mayor of Belfast and appoint a town planner.

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  • ted hagan

    Very interesting. I know it’s crying over spilt milk, and many people won’t remember Smithfield, but it was destroyed by the Provos and all the insurance money in the world couldn’t restore what was part of the soul of the city centre and was a quarter before there were quarters. Also the York Road area which was a thriving neighbourhood was vandalised by the planners.

  • Sharpie

    Put a roof on the westlink and join up the city again.

  • Teddybear

    More naval gazing from Belfast. Of course it’s the only human settlement in NI so why not

    There is something uniquely pointed and aggressive in Belfast working class people. Yes I’m sure the ‘how dare you generalize’ brigade will get on their usual high horses but I maintain that the troubles would have not have lasted more than a year if it wasn’t for Belfast.

    Glasgow and Liverpool are similar places to Belfast. I suspect dockwork and heavy industry are responsible for brutalizing its people and the generations legacy.

    Walk through St George’s Market and observe the logos and slogans on tourist souvineer tee shirts and ornaments and posters

    Shut yer bake
    Wise the bap
    Wind yet neck in
    Aye right

    And others

    Does this strike anyone when compared to other citie just how aggressive and horrible and grim this comes across? An American friend of mine found it all ‘barbed’in her words and I agreed with her.

    It’s a nasty little city and its people brought their troubles on themselves. Literally

  • Gopher

    “though insurance rebuilt most commercial buildings that were damaged”

    I think you will find compensation from HMG rebuilt buildings and had insurance losses underwritten.

    People moved out of Belfast especially people with money because of “The Troubles”, the only way to get them back is through long term stability. Sure you can “conscript” people to Belfast through social housing but all your creating is a 21st century Craigavon. Nope you want Belfast back you have to deliver stability. The Lisburn Road is the model for Belfast, disposal income living in walking distance to retail and service.

  • mickfealty

    Architecture is not culture, but it may have had a hand in making us what we are. Mark Hackett made the fascinating point that Belfast (along with many other cities across the UK and Ireland) lost faith with itself in the 1950s.

    As an example he notes how long the City fathers took to decide whether or not to build a second main bridge across the river around whether it was worth it or not. The city’s self belief was fading long before the troubles hit.

    He also points out that the architectural decisions made in the Troubles era (out of security concerns have left a troubling inheritance. He points out that the Westlink was unapologetically constructed to cut North and West Belfast off from the city centre.

    The title of the talk was ‘a city of seven quarters’, which Mark suggested was not as risible as it sounded, only that quarters only work if you can pass seamlessly from one to the other.

    He wasn’t just talking about Peace Walls either. There’s a certain kind of blight where the edge of the CBD is taken up with car parks and unoccupied land, forced up against the nowhere land of the Westlink.

  • Gopher

    I’m not buying into that “lost faith”, the architects in the sixties, products of the university system decided to put people in flats. Flats were to be the modern utopia. This happened across the UK to the eternal detriment of every city. It was the architects themselves that caused the biggest planning disaster of modern times.

    Where would he put the West Link? Through South Belfast? If it was not there we would put it in the same place tomorrow. Lets be realistic, private housing is not going to appear anywhere near the West Link because house buyers can live in areas were they are more comfortable with their investment. If someone said we are going to build the Odyssey beside the West Link you would look at them as if they were insane. If you suggested putting the Lyric there, one hundred “Liberals” would pass out. With the University of Ulster one can get away with it only because it involves public money .

    The biggest problem Belfast has is stability, until that is sorted out in Belfast and in Northern Ireland you have the City that dies when the workers with disposable income go home. You can put the best connections between all the quarters but unless you get private money living in them they are hollow shells.

    I’m guessing this was not addressed

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    I don’t know how you can say that this was an exercise in navel gazing when the problems of Belfast stem from a mentality akin to navel gazing e.g. preoccupations with tribal preservation, short termism, forced insularity/ghettoisation i.e. Westlink, creating permananent physical barriers as an almost knee jerk response to the immediate exigencies of the conflict. This lack of vision resulted in a disjointed, fragmented city that alienates rather than unites its inhabitants. In some cases we even slavishly followed planning trends belatedly that had emerged elsewhere whether successful or not. It appears that at the time no-one knew how or no-one had the will to apply effective, long term town planning to help to overcome our societal problems. It could be reasonably said that the problems were seen as being here to stay so by isolating the troublesome districts who cares if we marginalise all the residents in the Wild West that only the very brave dared enter. That low level exclusion still persists and it’s a multi-way exclusion that is class based as well as based on sectarian division: it’ll be along time before the Crumlin Rd becomes an ‘up and coming area’ despite former mills being converted to yuppy flats, not that we should want that property bubble led regeneration taking place.

    In reference to the Westlink I also understand that in addition to creating a cordon sanitaire, it also served to rapidly get troops in and out of conflict zones. It also benefitted car owning middles classes to travel in from and out to the suburbs or trouble free satellite towns. At the time what wasn’t there to like? Well it all depends on who you listened to.

    If Germany can achieve high speed road links in and out of their cities’ central zones without creating atomised urban areas and depopulated inner cities then why couldn’t anyone? I don’t think it’s navel gazing to identify a problem and seek measures that will overcome the built mistakes of the past. What I heard on the audio was problem solving.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    And put roofs over pavements and/or more arcading. It would help ‘re-pedestrianise’ our rain sodden city and encourage a more walker friendly street scape. Here’s one fine example: