Why it’s time to breathe new life into a soulless capital city
Belfast has always been a city of many contradictory faces: devout and profane, prosperous and impoverished, self-vaunting and self-loathing, brutal and kind.
Many of us who live in Belfast have an equally complicated relationship with this perverse place: a combination of frustration, pride, pity and love.
In fact, sometimes it seems like Belfast is two cities: the self-consciously aspirational city of up-market shopping centres and glass-fronted apartment blocks and that other, darker city, characterised by what writer Ciaran Carson called “no-go zones and tattered flags, the blackened side-streets, cul-de-sacs and bits of wasteland stitched together by dividing walls and fences.”
But how often do we really take a long, hard look at the city we inhabit? Do we ever allow ourselves to imagine a transformed Belfast, not as some fantastical, post-conflict dream, but as a coherent, imaginative, well-planned reality?
Do we ever imagine living in a place that we can truly be proud of? What would that look like?
That's what the Forum for Alternative Belfast, a not-for-profit group that aims to make Belfast more connected and a better place to live, wants us to do.
The forum, which is holding its annual summer school at Queen's University this week, says that Belfast has become a dysfunctional place: disjointed by piecemeal development, which privileged profit over quality, and by ill-judged roads infrastructure which sliced through and broke up once flourishing communities.
It's true that Belfast has become a city without a heart: a place where thousands of people go to work or shop, but then return home again, leaving the centre cheerless, sinister and deserted at night.
All those glossy adverts for retail developments and ‘apartment living' show a false confidence: after all, how could Belfast really ‘boom' in the past 15 years, when its population had emptied out in the decades before, dropping by 35% in 35 years?
The closure of inner-city primary schools — the lifeblood of local communities — as well as numerous shops, libraries and churches has only compounded the problem.
After the Troubles, there |was never any plan of action to survey the damage to the physical environment and to restore and rebuild Belfast.
In the absence of a well-thought-out way forward, developers swarmed in and filled the gap. But that's the wrong way round: developers should be building the city that the citizens want, not the one that they want. Simply letting the market select sites without thinking of the necessary infrastructure was an act of civic irresponsibility in a city already characterised by socio-political dysfunction.
Buildings — many of which are now lying empty — were thrown up as speculation and as pension funds, not as buildings that we needed, or that were good for the city.
So Belfast not only lacks a heart, it also lacks vision. It's ‘nobody's project': the city council does not have planning or regeneration powers and those Government departments that do have no co-ordinated interest in saving our declining city. But if we want to remedy that history of neglect, the time to act is now.
When it comes to economic recovery, it's clear that Northern Ireland will lag behind the rest of the UK: the property boom was more pronounced here, followed by dramatic drops in value.
So this enforced hiatus is exactly the right time to build a clear plan and strategy. Simply allowing the city to drift, as it has been doing, to develop itself without any clear objectives or set of values, is no answer.
The battle for Belfast to live again won't be an easy one. There needs to be strong incentives to pull people back to the city once more.
A decent transport system and more inner-city schools, proactively placed to support a new city population and to bolster the current one, would be a good start in any city renewal plan.
Sharing space — not allowing affluent new inhabitants to simply gate themselves off from the real city streets — and encouraging old neighbourhoods to be involved in rebuilding and retaining their distinctive character is vital, too.
Right now, Belfast isn't going anywhere. If that's to change, it must happen through ideas and vision, not the private development market that has proven to be a failure.
We need to take charge of our city, own it, inhabit it and point it towards the future.
We need to re-imagine an alternative Belfast — an intact city, not a fractured one — a Belfast that we can all be proud to call home.