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Belfast must show greater ambition in plan for future



Chaos: the city planners need to improve the traffic systemvelopment

Chaos: the city planners need to improve the traffic systemvelopment

Mandatory Credit Darren Kidd/Pre

Chaos: the city planners need to improve the traffic systemvelopment

The policy experts, thinking ahead for the area within the boundaries of Belfast city, have published early draft plans about how the city might look by 2035. These proposals will have even longer-term repercussions.

The planners have made a good technical start. However, their ambition is, unhelpfully, too modest. The citizens of Belfast will want to live in a city that recovers its place as one of the best places to live in western Europe. The ambition should be to regenerate a city that delivers a successful 21st century environment.

Belfast has modern university facilities, as well as being a regional centre for many businesses in the emerging knowledge economy. However, the city is struggling to escape the legacy of decades the Troubles and an even longer period as a city where living standards lagged behind comparable west European cities.

The geography of Belfast city, constrained by tight boundaries, means that it must have ambitious development plans.

The city has a Victorian layout and a built environment that risks being maintained in historic style without the desirable characteristics of the 21st century, such as coping with the demands for higher living standards in housing, increased amenities and scope for leisure activities, as well as the increased personal mobility expected by a more affluent population.

The Local Development Plan for Belfast must show how to plan and influence a renewed city, functioning as a sustainable regional centre linked to the wider provincial setting. This has implications that have not all been built into the early proposals.

A successful development plan for Belfast must ask how an improved city should integrate with the rest of Northern Ireland.

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With good urban planning, Northern Ireland has plenty of scope for an increasing population, increased employment and sustainable industries.

That readiness to plan for a larger regional population (and all that that implies) raises major questions about successfully modernising Belfast.

Belfast is not an overcrowded place to live by the industrial standards of the 19th century. By the standards of this century, however, it is too crowded.

If living standards and public amenities are to improve, Belfast city (within its present constraining boundaries) would be better-served if plans to improve the quality of the urban environment were based on a population that increases only modestly as other parts of Northern Ireland plan to accommodate larger increases. The present draft of the Local Development Plan aims to see the population increase by 66,000 people by 2035. That scale of change in Belfast would mean more than 2,000 new housing units or apartments each year within the city boundaries. A growing apartment-based lifestyle is implicit.

There is surely an alternative social and economic model which would decentralise the role of Belfast. Is it sensible to envisage a growing Belfast population living with less living space per family, an increasing number of daily commuters and a continuing concentration of new employment opportunities in the city? Should the Belfast planners, and those in the 10 other local authorities, be expected to take an all-Northern Ireland perspective which, in a rebalancing use of living space, gives Belfast a better chance to regenerate and provide for higher living standards?

Are the city planners ready to take a more ambitious approach to:

• Avoid planning for more people to live in smaller housing units?

• Anticipate the spatial implications of a 10-plus% rise in average living standards?

• Seek housing plans to allow at least one off-road parking space for each new house?

• Ensure 50% of housing units provide access for electricity charging for a car?

• Plan for more employment space in areas away from the city centre?

• Build an improved traffic management system and more off-road parking?

• Add a planning policy for significant major areas of urban regeneration?

Can the city ensure that this opportunity to plan a more successful Belfast will be grasped?