Monday, 22 August 2011

Forum for Alternative Belfast 2011 Summer School: Setting the Scene (Part 1 of 4)

This week on the PLACE Blog Gary Potter will be reporting on last weeks Forum for Alternative Belfast summer school. Part one will focus on the summer school's 'Setting the Scene' event, followed in part two by an analysis of the chosen area of Belfast and in part three the findings and proposals of the summer school will be outlined. Part four will be a report from the presentation delivered by the summer school's guest speaker for the week - Senada Demirovic Habibija (Senior Advisor for Urban Planning, City of Mostar, Boznia and Herzegovina).

Forum for Alternative Belfast (FAB) is a not-for-profit organization launched in 2009 to explore alternative ways that Belfast might be developed. Each summer FAB hold a summer school to explore these some of these alternative options. In the first summer school the ‘Missing City’ map was produced which highlighted the huge areas of land, often in public ownership, which lay empty and un-used. The following year the summer school produced an alternative vision for the York Street Interchange proposal declaring that it is not just a roads scheme but an urban design opportunity. Alongside the successful summer schools FAB is actively involved with other projects and campaigns to unlock the city’s potential. On Monday 15 August the third summer school run by FAB got underway looking at the connection between inner South Belfast and the city centre.

An impressive turnout of students, graduates, professionals, government representatives and members of the public had gathered in the Ashby Building’s lecture theatre on Monday morning for an introduction to the week ahead. Declan Hill, an architect and co-director of FAB introduced the study area of inner South Belfast and explained that one of the key themes would be connectivity. Currently the only connection working reasonably well is the Dublin Road, whilst the Ormeau Road and Great Victoria Street present in-active, unfriendly pedestrian spaces that should be vital connections to the city centre.

Looking south along Great Victoria Street at the junction of Hope Street
and Bruce Street. The southern section of the Inner Ring Road if built
would run across this picture further dividing Great Victoria Street.
Photo by Gary Potter.

The situation has the potential to get worse with the proposed completion of the inner city ring road from Hope Street, along Bruce Street, alongside Ormeau Avenue and on to Cromac Street. (MAP!!!) Considering key themes such as urban design, street design, transport and housing the summer school will attempt to provide workable and achievable solutions that can be promoted and taken forward to improve inner South Belfast. The involvement of all the vital departments in this years summer school based on the excellent work of previous years is of huge significance and should make for a very successful summer school. Each department agreed to present on the first morning of the summer school an outline of where their department is at in relation to south Belfast and Belfast as a whole. This is a round up of the key points arising from that event…

Mark Finlay (South Belfast Partnership Board)

The first representative to speak was Mark Finaly of the South Belfast Partnership Board(SBPB) who are a responsible for Neighbourhood Renewal in south Belfast and the overseeing of a number of other economic and social regeneration projects. The SBPB is a Limited Company with charitable status with 25 representatives who include 8 from the community sector, 8 Belfast City Councillors, 5 from the Public Sector and 4 from the Private Sector.

The area of reserved land for the southern section of the Inner Ring.
From Google Maps. Edited by Gary Potter.

Mark believes that streets are the linkages that make a city work, but all too often they have the potential to divide the city. In the case of inner south Belfast the road reservation line severs key opportunities to travel to work, and three of Belfast’s ‘quarters’ are defined by the proposed road - the ‘Linen Quarter’, ‘Queens Quarter’ and the ‘Markets’ area. Mark stated that whilst other cities are expanding and drawing people in Belfast has not managed to see growth of any significance in decades. We need to look at the issues that are preventing growth and we need to look at how we provide infrastructure for our city that creates an attractive liveable city. Mark suggested that with the Shaftesbury Square Concept Masterplan, plans for Donegall Pass and the work of the FAB Summer School we can stitch the three together and take south Belfast forward.

Ken Sterrett (Forum for Alternative Belfast)

Ken is an Urban Planner who has been teaching at Queen’s University since 1994 and helped to launch the Forum for Alternative Belfast. Ken began by explaining that the ‘missing city’ of empty land, disconnection from infrastructure projects and the loss of population are the three key themes that shape and define Belfast and that FAB and other statutory bodies must address.

Vacant land created by the Inner Ring Road and the Westlink.
Photo by Mark Hackett (Forum for Alternative Belfast).

Ken believes that a ‘collaborative vision’ followed by ‘collaborative action’ is the way forward to begin to repair the city. The history of separation and fractured governance must evolve into collaboration, not just in government, but in communities and across disciplines.

Mark Hackett (Forum for Alternative Belfast)

Mark is an architect with Hackett Hall McKnight and one of the founding members of Forum for Alternative Belfast. Mark is passionate about Belfast and has a positive vision of where the city should be heading. Mark began his presentation by highlighting how well connected Belfast was before the urban motorway network created a “peace wall” barrier through the city. Mark explained that Victorian Belfast provided many key connections from the residential areas to the civic core and despite the damage of the Blitz these connections remained largely intact. It was the implementation of a poorly designed urban road infrastructure in the 1970’s and 1980’s that led to a disconnected city claims Mark.

How south Belfast could have appeared if the planned Belfast Urban
Motorway network had gone ahead. The Gasworks are located to the
top of the image and the Ormeau Road runs along the left of the image.

Mark also believes that the design of housing developments in the city in the past decades has been poorly planned out. In Divis the problematic Divis complex was replaced with two storey housing in a cul-de-sac arrangement. Mark believes that this creates an introverted, inward looking community which fails to integrate well both physically and socially.

It is clear that roads infrastructure has had a significant impact on how Belfast functions and as Mark also highlights it has also had a detrimental impact on land use in many areas. Mark highlights the geometry of the Westlink and questions the logic of such a layout which creates awkward spaces and spare land in odd shapes. A map is shown which highlights the undeveloped land around the Westlink and suggests that a grid pattern would have been more effective for the city as a whole rather than from a simple roads perspective.

A FAB proposal showing how a re-organisation of space, landscaping
works and building edges to define streets can help to correct the
negative impact of poorly designed roads infrastructure.
Image by Mark Hackett (Forum for Alternative Belfast).

The grid pattern of connected streets has also been eradicated with the demolition of rows and rows of Belfast’s terraced housing. New cul-de-sac developments produce islands of homes surrounded by car parking and ‘nothing’ spaces. Where as the same number of homes can be placed in a smaller area with coherent use of space and connected streets. Mark displays an image comparing a cul-de-sac layout in west Belfast with a grid layout in the Queens area in which the same number of homes take up considerably less space on a grid layout and the streets are all connected and walk-able.

This image brilliantly illustrates the advantage of connected streets.
On plan view the house is not far from the school and should be walk-
able. But look at the route that must be taken in a cul-de-sac layout
versus a well connected street network.

Summing up Mark stated that…

“we actively unbuilt the city … and rebuilt it … at great public expense …”

John McGrillen (Belfast City Council)

John is a previous Chief Executive of Down District Council and now Director of Development with Belfast City Council (BCC), responsible for economic, tourism and community development in the city. John provided an overview of the key aspects of the Belfast City Masterplan which was commissioned in 2003 to provide a single vision of where the city was going. It is recognised that Belfast and Northern Ireland have a fractured governance structure in which power is shared amongst various departments with no clear leadership and often no effective collaboration. The Masterplan identified this issue as a barrier to addressing Belfast falling retail ranking, declining population, high reliance on public sector expenditure and the city centres traffic dominated public spaces and infrastructure.

Section of the Belfast City Masterplan 2004 - 2020.

John highlighted that despite this there has been some considerable progress since 2004 and listed projects such as Titanic Quarter, Victoria Square, Streets Ahead, The MAC, The Lyric, and the refurbishment of the Ulster Hall and City Hall.

The Lyric Theatre opened in May 2011.
© Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The MAC will open in early 2012.

John was also optimistic about the recent stabilisation in the city population and high visitor levels in recent years. However he issued caution in the face of a ‘new economic reality’ in which employment has returned to 2005 levels, there is 20% unemployment amongst graduates and the young, Belfast experienced a significant fall in house prices, Peace money and credit is hard to come by and there is poor or mixed performance across most sectors. This paints quite a gloomy picture for Belfast, especially when considered with figures that show Belfast as having some of the highest worklessness levels in the EU at over 28%, 95,000 living in the worst 10% deprived areas, 55% of the workforce commuting into the city and on a scale with comparative cities Belfast ranks 7 out of 11 on quality of life indicators.

However it is not such a poor outlook as John was keen to stress - Project Kelvin means that Belfast has a world class digital connection, Belfast has huge tourist potential (visitor numbers are still well below pre-Troubles figures), office accommodation and labour costs are low, a highly skilled workforce is readily available and Belfast is the main economic driver in the region - Perhaps some cause to be optimistic…

Whilst considering these opportunities to growth and success John also proposed that to make a competitive city we should look to unify the goals of urban design and transportation, adopt institutional masterplanning, look to sustainable design, innovation and opportunity and focus on our skills and education. John highlighted the city of Freiburg, from which the Academy of Urbanism drew its Freiburg Charter, as somewhere that Belfast can learn from. Belfast as a ‘compact city’ should have social and functional integration and as a ‘learning city’ the Universities should play a greater civic role. The integration of the student population within the inner city is vital to provide a vibrancy and confidence to the city which will help to establish creative and digital hubs with a skilled workforce.

The new University of Ulster city centre campus will bring an influx of
students to the city when opened. Photo from

John also underlined the importance of a ‘green city’ in which underused land and buildings are reactivated through new funding models which reflect the economic situation. This may be of significant relevance to the FAB summer school area of Ormeau Avenue. Also of significant interest to the FAB summer school is the vision of a ‘connected city’ through the proposed rental bike scheme and rapid transit system.

Identifying key areas going forward John drew attention to the University of Ulster expansion at York Street, Royal Exchange, Titanic Quarter and the North Foreshore to name just a few.

The proposed Royal Exchange development.
Photo: MCE Public Relations.

John’s presentation provided an excellent overview for the summer school of where BCC believe Belfast has come from, how the city is performing currently, and what Belfast is aiming to be in the future. BCC has real ambition but the economic reality provides a difficult scenario for any city administration. Perhaps the FAB summer school can help to identify achievable solutions…

Mark O’Donnell (Department for Social Development)

Mark is Acting Director of the Belfast Regeneration Office (BRO) whose role is to oversee Belfast’s Neighbourhood Renewal Areas with both a physical and social focus. At the FAB summer school ‘Setting the Scene’ event Mark focused on the physical renewal agenda and provided some examples of projects the BRO have delivered in south Belfast.

The refurbishment and extension of Murray's Tobacco Works on the corner of
Sandy Row and Linfield Road is perhaps one of the Regeneration Office's most
noticeable projects in the area. They contributed around £1m in the form of an
Urban Development Grant to the project which is the first phase of the
Murray's Exchange mixed use development.
Photo by Gary Potter.

Planned projects by the Regeneration Office include public realm and
environmental improvements to the Albert Bridge Gateway area.
From Google Streetview.

In addition to more local projects Mark explained that BRO has significant vesting powers which have enabled it to deliver more comprehensive developments such as Victoria Square.

Speaking about inner south Belfast and projects relevant to the summer school Mark highlighted the work ongoing with the Shaftesbury Square Concept Masterplan. This is a collaboration of different organisations identifying catalyst sites and Urban Development Grant opportunities, and public realm and environmental opportunities. Whilst the plan is not statutory it is hoped that it will provide a vision for the area which currently presents a bleak, underutilised space disconnecting south Belfast with the city centre.

Armagh House is in the ownership of the Belfast Regeneration Office.
The building is situated directly within the summer schools main area
of focus along the proposed Inner City Ring Road. Mark suggested that
the summer school consider this within any plans.
Photo by Gary Potter.

Mark suggested that the summer school consider that south Belfast being on the edge of city's main office area and the historical Linen Quarter make it a very marketable area. However Mark stressed that any proposals must take into account the current economic climate and should be realistic and deliverable in the face of Government ability to invest in capital projects being severely curtailed and the Belfast development market having virtually vanished. Mark believes that deliver-ability and market conditions will be the major issue of the 2011 summer school.

Liz Loughran (Department for the Environment Local Government Policy Division)

Liz is from the DoE’s Local Government Policy Division (LGPD) who are taking forward the reform of ‘Local Government and Community Planning’. Liz explained that Minister Attwood (current DoE Minister) is keen to move forward and the priority for her department is to pave the way for strengthened local government with coherent powers and returning power back to local representatives.

Liz set out a vision for a “strong dynamic local government leading vibrant communities”. Outlining what the DoE’s LGPD believe community planning is, Liz stated that, “Community Planning in essence is the recognition that the needs of individuals and communities - if they are to be addressed successfully - must be addressed collectively, not separately”.

It is the job of Liz and her colleagues to ensure that statutory agencies thoroughly consider the community within an enhanced system of involvement and engagement and to encourage communities to trust statutory agencies during the process.

A series of pilot projects are planned to see how the system will work in practice before a full roll-out. This will allow any difficulties or barriers to be resolved and improvements to be implemented to ensure an effective engagement process. Liz suggested that the FAB summer school could form the basis for a pilot project in south Belfast…

Ciaran de Burca (Department for Regional Development Rapid Transit)

Ciaran joined DRD in 2009 as Director of the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) Division. Ciaran is a charted engineer who previously held the post of Project Manager for the Quality Bus Network Office in Dublin City Council and has worked on the Luas light rail system.

Ciaran began his presentation with an overview of the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan (BMTP) which highlights key features relevant to transport planning in Belfast, and particularly, the proposed BRT system. The BMTP highlights the ‘civic spine’ and ‘Belfast cross’ which define the road network within the city centre.

Key issues from the BMTP.

The BMTP also suggests that three high accessibility zones should be developed at Great Victoria Street (a new transport hub is planned), Central Station and the Cathedral Quarter (a new rail halt is planned and the University of Ulster campus relocation will create a new inner city population in this area).

Initial proposals for the new Belfast Transport Hub.

Within the BMTP there is also an objective to reduce the dominance of vehicles within the city centre and develop the inner city ring road as an orbital ring on which traffic can be diverted around the city centre.

The proposed Inner Ring completed as a 'boulevard' road.

Addressing the policy objectives from the BMTP is the Belfast on the Move Transport Masterplan for Belfast City Centre which aims to reorganise traffic management within the city centre to facilitate a reduction in general traffic levels and encourage greater walking, cycling and public transport use. To achieve this the plan proposes redistributing available road space in favour of public transport and cyclists and improvements to the road network to the west of the city centre to provide an alternative and attractive route for northbound traffic.

Sustainable Transport Enabling Measures.

The process will be carried out in phases:

Streets Ahead Enabling Measures Phase 1 is the work that has been ongoing around the city centre for some time now alongside the new public realm works to create, for example, a one way system on Donegall Place.

Currently in Belfast everyone will have noticed the new junction layouts at Howard Street and Wellington Place. This is part of a £300,000 process to move bus traffic away from Donegall Square and onto Upper Queen Street, Queen Street and Castle Street. Bus traffic will enter Upper Queen Street (which will operate as a bus only street 7am - 7pm Mon - Sat towards Queen Street), cross Wellington Place onto Queen Street where buses can then turn left towards King Street on a one way system or right towards Fountan Street on a two way system. Once at Fountain Street buses will enter a bus only section of Castle Street to Castle Place. The details of this can be viewed on the map below...

This work will be fully complete on 1 September when bus traffic is diverted away from Donegall Square West. To read the press release for these works Click Here.

The remainder of the Sustainable Transport Enabling Measures (Phase 2 of Belfast on the Move) will be implemented in late 2011 into 2012. These changes are currently awaiting Traffic Regulation Orders being processed. On completion of this £3.5m project Belfast city centre will have an extra 2.6km of bus lanes, 20 new controlled pedestrian crossings (from 73 to 93) and 1km of new dedicated cycle lanes. On May Street the current four lanes will be altered to create two general traffic lanes and one wide bus lane. Similarly, on Wellington Place, the three current lanes will become one general lane and one wide bus lane. Ciaran explained that until the BRT system comes into operation Metro and Ulsterbus services may use these new Rapid Transit lanes. A more detailed overview of the changes ahead in the next year can be viewed on the diagram below...

Currently DRD’s main priority in Belfast City Centre, as illustrated above, is the BRT system along with plans for cross city bus routings and working with DSD on the Streets Ahead project. With such a strong emphasis within DRD the summer school will likely have to give serious consideration to the BRT system in any proposals that are developed.

Ciaran explained that there are three pilot routes under consideration at present and these will be put out for public consultation later in 2011. The pilot routes proposed are:

1. CITI - This route, proposed for the Titanic Quarter, would travel along Chichester Street, along Victoria Street, past Custom House Square and over the Queen Elizabeth Bridge to the Titanic Quarter. This route would return by Queen's Bridge, along Oxford Street, onto May Street, then Howard Street and back to Wellington Place.

2. EWAY - This route, proposed for east Belfast, intially proposed travelling along the Comber greenway, however it is now suggested that it could travel along the Upper Newtownards Road after leaving the city centre from East Bridge Street and the Albert Bridge.

3. WWAY - This route, proposed for west Belfast, would either travel along the Grosvenor Road or Divis Street and the Falls road.

Proposed BRT Routes.

Whichever routes proceed, they will all demand the same high quality attributes, explained Ciaran. “The BRT will be a high frequency, high quality system”.

The BRT will be integrated with existing public transport and park and ride sites. Vehicle priority, frequency and enforcement will ensure guaranteed journey times which Ciaran believes is more important than speed. In addition to enforcement of the busways an off-board ticketing system will also speed up the process and Ciaran believes that 15 - 20 seconds at each stop can be achieved to ensure that the system is moving at efficiently.

Ciaran outlined that the BRT will be specifically marketed to represent quality. The vehicles will be modern, comfortable and high tech with real time passenger information. The system will be branded to be distinct from the other public transport offerings in Belfast and as such the stops will be much different to current public transport stops. Stops will be safe and secure and well equiped with ticketing machines, real-time passenger and network information and CCTV.

Ciaran finished by reminding everyone that the BRT route options will be open for consultation in October 2011.

Clearly the BRT will have a huge impact on transport patterns in the city and will almost certainly dictate to some extent the proposals that the FAB summer school develop.

Stephen Pollock (Department for Regional Development Roads Service)

Stephen is from DRD Roads Service and provided an overview of the southern link road as part of the Inner Ring. He began his presentation with an overview of the BMTP and emphasised the importance of the southern section of the Inner Ring to meeting the objectives of reducing traffic around Belfast City Hall and expanding the public realm works. If the Streets Ahead Phase 2 works go ahead which would see all traffic except the BRT removed from Donegall Square North then displaced traffic needs to be accommodated elsewhere.

Stephen provided some figures to illustrate this - Currently 16,000 vehicles pass City Hall on May Street every day, and 14,000 pass the front of City Hall on Donegall Square North daily. Of these 30,000 movements per day 60% is through traffic with no final destination in the city centre. If this volume of traffic is removed then it must have somewhere else to go. For years the area between Ormeau Avenue and Bankmore Street has been reserved for just this purpose.

Roads Service considered various options which even included a partial tunnel which was soon ruled out. A dual carriageway to full standards and right turning provisions was also suggested, however this option had little consideration for land use and surrounding communities admitted Stephen. He says that DRD now know that this would not be acceptable and that a much better design would be required for the area.

The dual carriageway proposal (Bankmore Link).

Another option considered involves using the existing infrastructure but this would require considerable junction upgrades to cope with the traffic levels.

The final option outlined by Stephen is a one way system in which traffic travels east along Ormeau Avenue and west along Bankmore Street. At approximately £20m this option would be the most likely to be implemented according to Stephen.

Looking to the opportunities that the southern section of the Inner Ring could present Stephen suggested that more signal controlled crossing points are achievable, there is potential to tie in with a south Belfast BRT line (which would likely follow either the Ormeau Road or Great Victoria Street), and there are good development sites which could be released if the scheme was designed well. Whilst some desire lines will inevitably be severed, the road if designed properly with pedestrian facilities and public realm works, could provide opportunities to link south Belfast with the city centre claimed Stephen.

Outlining the status of the project it was stated that there is no proposal at the moment and it is very much “on the long finger” and dependent on a collective decision with other departments such as DSD. Summing up, Stephen explained that the scheme would only be required if traffic is to be reduced in the city centre and public realm works are to be expanded into Donegall Square North.

Steven Patterson (Sustrans)

Steven is Director of Sustrans Northern Ireland, a UK charity since 1977, and operating in Northern Ireland since 2006.

Sustrans works with communities, policy-makers and partner organisations to enable people to choose healthier, cleaner and cheaper journeys, with better places and spaces to move through and live in. Sustrans work on the physical environment, work to influence policy and work to change peoples attitude to travel. Steven continues to explain that they do this to improve people's health and quality of life, reduce the environmental impacts associated with transport and widen access to local jobs and services.

Sustrans has helped to deliver the Northern Ireland National Cycle Network which passes through Belfast as Route 9 along the River Lagan. This section provides on and off road sections and was jointly delivered by Sustrans, the Laganside Corporation and Belfast City Council.

The Lagan Cycle Path, Belfast.
© Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Belfast since 2000 has seen year on year growth in cycling and with the increasing competition for space on the roads Sustrans continue to campaign for cyclists. Steven believes that safety is key and the feeling of safety for cyclists must exist for growth to continue. A survey was carried out on the Ormeau Bridge to measure cycle traffic on the road and on the pavement at the same location. The results highlighted that many people did not feel safe on the road and cycled on the footpath. To achieve the 'cycle city' vision Sustrans is campaigning to have cycle spending of £15 per head and to have 10% of all journeys in 2020 completed by bicycle.

Steven suggested that the BMTP provided too many cycle routes which would likely end up a mediocre standard and proposed that we should "do less, but better". The Lagan and Comber greenways were highlighted as successful projects and a new £4m (approx.) traffic free bridge from Ormeau Park to the Gasworks was suggested as a vital link for the city.

Proposed bridge. From

Concluding his presentation Steven highlighted the importance of sustainable transport and liveable streets for a successful city.

Forum for Alternative Belfast Summer School 'Setting the Scene' Summary

The event on Monday 15 August provided an informative background for the summer school and the involvement of all the main agencies highlighted the commitment to improving the city and displayed an openness to collaboration with the Forum for Alternative Belfast.

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