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How we can transform Belfast

By Angela McGowan

In an article about Belfast in last month's Financial Times, the opening paragraph read: "Northern Ireland is trying to reinvent itself. Nowhere is that more visible than in Belfast, which is gradually shifting from bomb-scarred backwater after the Troubles to a hub for the knowledge economy". The "bomb-scarred backwater" might have seemed a bit harsh given that we have had a peace process running for two decades, but nonetheless it is true that Belfast is transforming into a new and exciting place to both live and work.

Interestingly, what is happening in Belfast is also happening across many cities in advanced economies. The dynamics of city centre life have been changing. Right up to the mid-2000s Belfast's city centre had traditionally been a place for shopping or working only. But that old model is disappearing. The Great Recession killed off the traditional 'downtown' region in many cities that were dominated by shops. Some high streets, including our own, have been left with vacant stores and run-down districts with no vibrancy. But the good news is that recovery is definitely in progress. There is an evolving solution being applied to our city centre - a 'new geography of innovation' that will bring more people into the city and help it to thrive.

Just last month I attended a lecture in Queen's University in Belfast by Julie Wagner, visiting senior research fellow from the Brookings Institute in Washington DC. This lecture highlighted the emergence of a new urban model for cities which Wagner and her colleagues at Brookings refer to as 'innovation districts'. These are often located 'downtown' in previously run-down parts of old industrial cities, and they have gradually morphed into vibrant areas where entrepreneurs cluster together and young millennials want to work and - importantly - live.

What was interesting about Ms Wagner's talk was her observations and her advice on what made these innovation districts successful. For example, proximity was crucial for success. Young millennials in particular are keen to be in a work and living space that is walkable, bike-able and apparently 'hyper-caffeinated'. Long commutes and rush hour traffic are being rejected in favour of convenience and connectivity.

It is not just young people craving this type of location. Unlike 20 years ago, when firms chose remote sites and guarded their ideas, the most creative firms today want to be in a collaborative space where they can work with other entrepreneurial businesses, universities and research laboratories.

This brings us to a third piece of advice from Ms Wagner on creating innovation districts. Essentially, these districts tend to grow up around 'anchor institutions'. So, for example, in the US they have developed around science parks and universities. Traditionally, science parks were located outside of expensive cities but now (just like in Belfast) they are emerging in or closer to the city. Indeed, even those science parks built 20 or 30 years ago in isolated areas are now scrambling to get more physically connected to urban settings. Walkways are being built to connect science parks to the city centre or the local university. Even urban spaces between science parks and the city centres are being developed to provide recreation spaces, living spaces, schools and easy transport.

For Belfast city centre the journey has already begun. We now have two vibrant universities located in the city and a successful science park. Downtown living is taking off with apartments at Victoria Square and the newly planned provision of student accommodation in the city are set to bring more people to the centre.

Although some of the development of innovation districts has grown up organically from mega trends and new preferences, the researchers at Brookings are keen to point out that the most successful districts require good planning and collaboration from key players: local councils, major real estate developers and landowners, planners, managers of research campuses, anchor companies, advanced research institutions, incubators, accelerators and other economic cultivators, social networking programmers and philanthropic investors.

Quite simply, there is a ready-made recipe that can be applied to Belfast city if we want to truly transform it. There is no reason why Belfast could not develop multiple innovation districts.

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