Thursday, 5 May 2011

Better Public Spaces?

By Michael Hegarty
Director, PLACE

In Northern Ireland there are a wide variety of Government Departments, public agencies, private companies and NGO╩╝s that have roles in creating our environment. We have a fragmented government. Until recently agencies acted in isolation to deliver only their own component of cities: housing (NI Housing Executive); roads (Department for Regional Development); urban regeneration (Department for Social Development); and planning (Department of Environment).  Over the last few decades of conflict a very direct relationship between local communities and their elected representatives has developed. Communities drive issues such as places for play, neighbourhood regeneration and so on. Northern Ireland politicians have now taken back control of decision-making from London and by and large these politicians recognise the problems of disconnection.

Portaloos block the access to Custom House Square. Photo by Michael Hegarty.
Northern Ireland has some very good buildings for education, leisure, art and drama, but many aspects of our cities do not perform well under scrutiny and they impact on our general health and well-being as citizens.  Post conflict Northern Ireland society has changed; complexity has replaced simplicity.   It is time once again to repair and renew our cities.  The lesson of the past is that this should not be a grand gesture. What is needed is a series of small acts of intuitive appropriate design. Every act of building should be an act of repair, a part of the much larger process, in which several acts together regenerate the whole city.

Temporary steel panels at Custom House Square. Photo by Michael Hegarty,
Since 2001 DSD and Belfast City Council have developed a number of cultural quarters. The Cathedral Quarter has taken on the mantle of the city's key cultural locality.  It is somewhat disconnected from the recently resurfaced Custom House Square and the river Lagan by 4-lane roads.   Custom House Square should be the main event space for Cathedral Quarter however the basic infrastructure for events such as toilets and event management barriers were not designed into the scheme.

Today on the square public access is blocked by rows of temporary chemical toilets (portaloos) and galvanised steel panel hoardings inserted on rubber feet.  This is evidence of a lack of understanding of the nature of a public space by those who commissioned the recent work.  Public spaces host public events, these are events are for people, people need toilets, safe access and other services. Many of the events require power or on-site catering.  The infrastructure for these should have been designed-in.  If architects designed schools or offices without toilets and supplied portaloos as an afterthought they would rightly be ridiculed.  The lessons of this should inform the briefing of other public spaces currently being conceived such as Queens Parade, Bangor and Ebrington, Derry.

We have compact, legible and easily-walked city centres in Belfast and Derry. Belfast is surrounded by mountains that create a special micro-climate conducive to horticulture. From the Botanic Gardens to Cave Hill Country Park, Belfast has over forty public parks, all in close proximity to the city centre that provide places for a picnic, a stroll or a jog. New foot bridges are being constructed throughout Northern Ireland along a series of cycle and footpaths designed to encourage more people to exercise. These are positive starting points for making things work better.

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