Transforming Belfast’s Linen Quarter: Challenges and Opportunities…

Chris McCracken, Managing Director, Linen Quarter BID

Linen Quarter BID are delighted to sponsor the Belfast Summit, taking place at Ulster University on 15 February, and to warmly welcome keynote speaker Carlos Moreno to Belfast for the first time. Carlos, who is ranked as one of the top 100 urbanists worldwide, is best known for creating the 15-minute city concept. This has been rolled out to widespread acclaim in Paris and numerous other cities across the globe.

Key components of the 15-minute city include diversity, density, proximity, and digitalisation, but the overall aim is to deliver an accessible, sustainable city with a high quality of life.

These four components are concepts that LQ BID has been keen to encourage across our district. When we first formed in 2018 there was a trend towards mono-cultural office development with little animation on the street. We have sought to mitigate this by celebrating and encouraging the diversity and vibrancy of the district, sponsoring festivals & events, promoting food & drink, and encouraging social interaction between businesses. Working with the Council and NI Executive we have delivered significant streetscape enhancements, including FLAXX (a 40m outdoor deck), 3-parklets, refurbishment of Bankmore Sq, outdoor games, murals, vinyls, and planting. We have also welcomed public and private investment in the Grand Opera House, Trademarket, new cafes and restaurants, and a proposed visitor attraction south of City Hall.

A notable area of focus has been Dublin Road and Southern Great Victoria Street, where we have installed twelve streetscape interventions to start the process of reversing 20 years of dereliction and decline. This has encouraged and supported new capital investment, with planning applications for the Kainos HQ and several student accommodation schemes on the Dublin Road. Concepts have been produced for residential housing and further student accommodation on Great Victoria St, whilst a key site on Shaftesbury Square has recently trading for the purpose of constructing a new hotel. These developments complement and expand the urban density that is a notable feature of the Quarter. However, we need to ensure that appropriate services – health clinics, food shops and schools – are also integrated into the area to meet the needs of an expanding urban population.

The proximity of the Linen Quarter will be significantly improved when the Grand Central Station opens at the end of the year, increasing services west and creating a direct link with Dublin. Overall passenger movements are expected to increase from 8m to 20m per year. However, there is still work to do to enhance accessibility within the Linen Quarter. City Deal projects, like the North-South Glider and Gasworks bridge, have stalled, whilst our cycling infrastructure remains woeful. The £30m public realm enhancement promised by Streets Ahead V is yet to materialise. It is hoped that the restoration of the Executive will get these projects moving again.

Finally, the Linen Quarter has embraced the digital future, with hybrid working amongst most professional companies now the norm. This does not need to be a threat to city centres, but we do need to work harder to ensure workers make the most of the urban environment. That’s why LQ BID run health clubs and sporting competitions to make the office fun. We have a suite of projects, from employer’s cycling accreditation to JAM card and living wage to make the district inclusive and sustainable. We invest heavily to keep the area safe and clean. That said, the focus on urban living needs to accelerate to replace lost office footfall and to ensure the vibrancy and diversity of the city centre continues to grow.

While Belfast continues to evolve in positive ways, we are still some distance behind the global exemplars of the 15-minute city. We look forward to the Belfast Summit as both a learning opportunity and an inspiration.

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