Monday, 4 April 2011

My PLACE: James Hennessey

Recently PLACE and the Landscape Institute NI organised two successful events discussing the role of Green Infrastructure in our built environment. To provide some background to Green Infrastructure in Northern Ireland and to explore how it is being developed we invited local Urban Designer and Landscape Architect James Hennessey of The Paul Hogarth Company to share his thoughts and experiences. 

We asked James about the significance of Green Infrastructure and how he has helped develop the concept in Northern Ireland...

While the term may sound somewhat jargonistic, Green Infrastructure (GI) is really about common sense. By formalising links between open spaces, be they parks, gardens or woodlands, we can provide a sustainable, structural element to our urban landscape, whilst protecting wildlife habitat and securing access to public space.

In Northern Ireland, for once, there are some good examples of this common sense in action. As far back as 1967 the decision to designate the Lagan Valley Regional Park was inspired, resulting one of Europe’s largest urban parks, enjoyed by thousands of people to this day. More recently, the Comber Greenway has become much cherished piece of green infrastructure and the ambitious 9km Connswater Community Greenway stands to become a truly pioneering project of direct benefit to the 40,000 people living along its length.

Connswater Community Greenway

There are signs too that Green Infrastructure is central to a number of important future projects here in Northern Ireland. From my own professional experience the landscape forms the unifying component to some very significant projects. For example, The Greater Shankill Community Greenway will formalise the relationship of this part of Belfast with the adjacent hills. As a result, a structural spine is provided around which comprehensive urban regeneration can be progressed. In Newry the city has a wonderful river and canal that uniquely run in parallel through its centre. In the forthcoming Newry City Centre Masterplan, the existing network of paths and cycleways will be extended as an alternative to the car, while riverside car parks will turn into parks, creating a world-class waterfront in the heart of the city. And it’s not just happening at the city scale. The village masterplan for Doagh is also structured by its landscape, with a green network providing much needed public space and a context for the conservation of its forgotten heritage assets.

Newry City Masterplan by The Paul Hogarth Company

Common sense aside, in Northern Ireland challenges still lie ahead. Such an approach is by no means mainstream and Green Infrastructure has much further to go before it’s integrated with national and local planning policy. Key to this will be recognition of the multiple benefits of such work. Not only does GI bring aesthetic and environmental benefits, it also comes with demonstrable economic, educational, health, transport and community advantages to name but a few.

So what about the future? Well in Belfast, the work must go on. Existing Green Infrastructure must be developed and proactively managed to maximise its benefit. For example, the City must continue where Laganside left off in transforming its waterfront. New development is needed to carefully activate the riverbanks and bring a buzz to the Lagan’s reaches. The magnificent Belfast Hills are pregnant with opportunity. Why shouldn’t the city have a cable car system, taking visitors to the top of Divis Mountain, where a discreetly positioned hilltop café would become an essential destination? And what about Belfast’s other rivers? How many of us realise that the River Farset, to which the city owes it name, actually flows beneath many of the city’s most troubled hotspots, even following the infamous Peace Wall along Cupar Way. With scope, in time, to reopen this watercourse as part of an integrated urban park, could Green Infrastructure in fact have a role to play in tackling some of Northern Ireland’s most deep-rooted challenges?

What do you think about Green Infrastructure? We would love to hear your ideas and see examples that you think work well ... or maybe you have a question you would like to pose.... 

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