Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Practical steps to revitalise our towns and city centres

Minister Sammy Wilson joins PLACE, Arts and Business and Deramore Properties for the launch of out of PLACE in June 2010. L-R: Bill Morrison, PLACE Chair; Heather Carr, Arts & Business; Mark Cunningham, Deramore Properties. Photo (c) Chris Neely.

PLACE Director Michael Hegarty highlights the success of last summer's out of PLACE initiative in Belfast City Centre, and calls for renewed energy in battling against urban blight and decay caused by vacant shop units.

Practical steps to revitalise our towns and city centres
Michael Hegarty
Director, PLACE Architecture and Built Environment Centre

3rd May 2011

Our city centres are where we interact as a society. In the past we needed our city centres for trade and everything from pigs to pennyfarthings were exchanged and bartered on the streets and in the shops.  Victorian Belfast had Doctors, Solicitors, Haberdashers, Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick Makers occupying individual buildings making the city diverse and vibrant. The centre of Derry from the 1940's to 1960's had the multinational crews of warships mingling with livestock markets, grain deliveries, opera-house goers, shoppers and traders.

We now trade, socialise, relax, shop and meander through the streets of central Belfast or Derry mostly because we choose to. We can shop out-of-town or on-line, we can bank from home, work by phone and internet, and conduct our business with teleconferencing. The result of the changes in society is that there is less demand for city centre retail space than there was twenty years ago. This is right at the time when people realise that they enjoy city centres. People enjoy interacting with each other in vibrant city centres and it is important that Belfast, Derry and our market towns retain the best of what they have while taking advantage of new opportunities.

PLACE sees the challenge of vacant shop units as something that threatens the quality of our city centres. People will not come in to town to walk past rows of empty units, pound shops or charity outlets. All of those uses may have some role but the collective impact of their multiplication in recent years can be to cause a form of urban blight. PLACE has now shown how occupancy of an otherwise empty unit can enrich the city in the absence of retail, even if the absence is temporary. We successfully delivered the out of PLACE initiative in Belfast City Centre during 2010 and are now progressing to stage 2. Other related initiatives include the UK-wide Empty Shops Network and more locally, Jill O'Neill's ReFound shop.

Above: the out of PLACE unit prior to occupation by PLACE. Photo by Amberlea Neely.

For out of PLACE in 2010 PLACE had a rich programme of activity to fill the space. Other cultural or arts organisations can similarly programme these spaces as cultural embassies. This vibrant mix of uses will encourage greater understanding of our cities and buildings and make the connection for people into the debate around how our city works. Events could include debates, exhibitions, children's projects and festival uses, freely and directly accessible by the public.

This will highlight the unit location and hopefully encourage commercial operators to take over occupancy. That in turn will help develop the commercial role of the city centre. In 2010 our initiative led directly to a commercial tenant taking up tenancy of the unit - providing rent to the property owner, rates for council, and commercial activity to benefit the city centre. We are confident this model can repeat. This first unit was made possible because of a partnership between PLACE and Deramore Properties supported by Arts & Business NI. Those who made it possible include Belfast City Council, Belfast City Centre Management and the Department of Finance & Personnel.

Above: the cultural programme for the unit offered participatory arts, crafts, debate, film and more, with an audience both young and old coming together over several weeks in the summer 2010. Photo by Amberlea Neely.

The Finance Minister recently announced changes to rates policy to facilitate initiatives such as this progressing in future. We support the ambition of the Minister in finding a creative response to an endemic problem. out of PLACE provides a model and others can provide additional richness and variety.

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