This question was the focal point of the evening’s conversations at the Dark Horse. Considering a response begs further questioning. Perhaps most fundamentally, who is the city centre for? Answering from observation and evidence, Belfast, it seems, is for consumers. The city was so starved of investment that any development was considered good development. As such, retail and commerce became the de facto form of city regeneration. The limited housing that exists, is being built or has been approved is aimed at students and young professionals. Family life is noteably absent. As are the elderly. Our panelists pointed to the non-existence of schools or health-care centres in the city centre. In a bid to inject some hope, our chair asked: what about how things could be?
All of the panelists seemed to touch on the notion of ‘potential’ and that Belfast has lots of it. I found myself agreeing although I was a little perturbed at one suggestion that Belfast is a ‘blank canvas’. There is potential in this city. But that potential can go in numerous directions, or go nowhere at all. Faceless investors see potential in our city too. This is most clearly demonstrated by Castlebrooke Investments’ acquisition of swathes of land in the Cathedral Quarter with plans to create yet more space for retail and commerce. For potential to be realised in a fair and just way, we have to question whether this kind of regeneration will work in the future? We need look no further than Victoria Square’s anchor, House of Fraser, as an indication of what’s ahead. For potential to be realised, we ought to pay attention to the public outpouring of grief for Bank Buildings following the dreadful blaze that engulfed it. There’s a latent appreciation for our built environment that was briefly awakened. How can we make the most of that?
Another key theme many panelists discussed was that of risk. Forty years of conflict enshrined bureaucracy into our governance. As such, there’s a deep-seated unwillingness to take risks in the built environment. And not even risks with what we do or don’t build. There seems to be a strong aversion to debate. In the present political climate we have lost the ability to be able to disagree well without resorting to name-calling. Dissent, one panelist claimed, is what we need. A willingness to break from the status quo; a shift from trying to catch up with the rest of the world. For too long we’ve rebuilt and marketed our city from a place of insecurity. “Look, we’re just like everyone else now!” The potential is evident, but it will require some creative risks. One panelist suggested an example: collaboration. The problem is our current planning process doesn’t make room for it. We’re consulted, sure. But we’re not participating. The status quo of a developer bringing proposals the council and fend off objectors has to be challenged before true creativity can be unleashed.
A final thought: change is slow. Frustratingly so. Remember Belfast on the Move? It was one of the biggest shifts in city centre traffic organisation in memory. It caused a lot of grief at the time but it’s resulted in a 30 per cent reduction in traffic. The Glider has shown some early promise while the Streets Ahead programme for upgrading public realm has made the city more pleasant too. To rephrase Winston Churchill, we shape our cities and thereafter our cities shape us. If we want to be shaped for good, it will require all of us to take part in the conversation of how, or for whom, it is shaped.
Thomas McConaghie is a PhD research at QUB’s School of Natural and Built Environment. His research is investigating power and discourse in the politics of planning in Belfast.