Saturday, 1 October 2011

"Mind the Gap" - a response to the FAB Summer School 2011 by John Graham

Architect John Graham gives his take on the Forum for Alternative Belfast Summer School 2011, which ran during August at Queen's. For background, see the series of PLACE reports on the event by Gary Potter.

3 years on from the enthusiastic beginnings the Summer School continues to face challenges those in possession of the brief seem too entangled in their own field to face into. The Summer school brought around this time sponsors in the form of the actual bodies tasked with collating and obtaining outcomes. The DOE, DRD, BCC, SBP, CRA, SMA and lobbyists,quangos were aboard for part of this 'third party' journey.

The thesis was alleged to be given by South Belfast Partnership but had many authors in essence. The failure to create consensus forming pathways, such as a functioning democracy, a city council with a proper function, urban, rural and transport integrated planning and strategies signed off on, all lead into a predicament where the good intentions of external groups have to take the lead into areas which have habitually proprietorial and aggressively static and fearful of vision and collaboration.

7 questions were poised on the back of the year one 'Missing City' map. Perception and alacrity spelt out the challenges the map lay testament to. The depopulation and remaining limbo of the city core was explicitly depicted.  A map of property, spaces, abandoned land, dereliction, misappropriated transport links, decimated neighbourhoods were all there to see and very little of the limbo could be laid at the well used doormat of the 'troubles' except in so far as the abandonment clearly was a cause.  New idealism, property boom, junior tiger has been and gone leaving behind it a tapestry of inherited wastefulness and civic vandalism. The ghost town morphed into a 'lisneyfication' of a city. Now shell apartments built without their 'planning gain' i.e. mixed uses and promised myths of spin and office buildings housing, corrupted finance systems, public quangos, along with very stretched public services, attest to another spin on the same agenda, in which the failed logic emanating from the same souls as hang on  to the coat-tails of the idealised epoch, seek solutions to their 'wards'.

The question which year three was 'gifted' can be related to the 'Missing City' question 'V': "What if we could fill up abandoned land and look properly at the structure of our city?" Interesting question, graspingly put. Pointing to absence, ownership and shifting dogma off the page. Might even the peace-lines become part of the abandonment or have these sacrificial strips become a permanence of fastened boundaries. Most times, these included, the topic is off page.

Instead we usher in Caf矇 society logic once again as the preferred statement the city wishes to convey. So we go along with the pretence and spin it for all it is worth again.  Locking onto propositions of rapid, interconnectivity, housing, commerce, night-life, attractiveness and epoch re-found motivations of green sustainable buildings the Bruce Street corridor is put up by the South Belfast Partnership for a deserved and much needed, no doubt exists there, makeover.

Frankly the time is long overdue but strategies are run up more flagpoles than there are poles to flag them in these parts as odd as that may seem. Counter this with ideas and innocence of youth; one astute and envious contributor from an area much more challenged than we ever were likely to inflict on ourselves, reminded the presentation audience the future belonged to the generations being patronised currently. If you are wondering how they are patronised consider the fallouts on finance, education, healthcare and mainly and catastrophically, career opportunity.

The landscape has been utterly transformed and attitudinal change is foremost in their conscious if not previous generations. On page was the strip south central to the City Hall. The Bruce Street and peripheral lineage. No other aspect of the city was to be taken into account. The holistic was considered to be present without being clarified as fact or pure illogical fantasy absent of planning coherence. Immediately the trade, council and commercial communities could identify the locality, if reinvented, would act as another change in certain centres of gravity. How they respond is interesting.  How their lobby is shown to be a hindrance is another.

Transport was examined for us in the form of video of a morning/noon/night scenario at the back of the City Hall. This 'illustrated the peaks and troughs allegedly; without telling you that 60% of City centre traffic is in DRD survey THROUGH traffic. So pedestrians, cyclists, tourists, essential traffic, public transport and workers spend quite a bit of their time; 60% avoiding this extraordinary flow which encircles, includes the said 'on plan' area.

Transport is an area of great concern and of competing forces. It became clear from discourses that revenue (parking, car-park rateable value, commuter ease, insurance, car leasing, ownership, industry) was all relevant and above board as a design driver (sic.). Hubs and general well being were added as tangibles.  The lets link hands across the gap philosophies abound and laudable as they are, do not actually manifest as design except as Belfast knows where you literally drive a coach and horses, gun carriages excepted, through communities knitted together over several hundred years.

The Hubs were identified up to a point. The central significance of Great Victoria Street rear car park and Boyne Bridge got a mention.  What did not get mentioned was the Bus Station Depot, Durham Street (leading unfortunately onto the rat run of Barrack Street - past St Mary's school) The Grosvenor Road, The North hinterlands and pockets off the College Green area. The BT site and on the other side of the Bridge, Railway, Murray's Exchange (north-side) Weavers Court, Hope Street, Linfield Road and beyond Distillery area, the West link, Northumberland routes any number of which are wide expanses as needed for integrated and meaningful, not signal and manoeuvre car predicated routes.  Seeing the speeds involved on the West-link and Motorway locations you will soon see how illogical applying a term 'rapid' to an inner city transit system is.

What is the scope for taking people into and out of the West and North sides by public transport? What is the connectivity with the East?  The message seemed to be, please ignore these, they do not allow focus on prime real estate (land resources) in the city centre. Nearly all transport usage is by car with the buses and train links playing an underutilised or non-integrated role. Spasmodic and subject to entrapment via districts has enforced boundaries rather than disenfranchised them.

There are Hubs which have no distinct advantage of linkages, a railway system inner city which has fragmented connections and super-services, sub utility services in single locations. The large tract of land on the North side of Great Victoria Street Bus station is accessed through an underpass below the Boyne Bridge. The buses flow freely and connections are avoided with North West routes. Province wide bus hub fails to utilise its location to the fullest and in actuality gives over much of its space to parking buses and public parking.

What strategy is at work? Again we have to decide how the 'mini - bus arras' termini, having the independently run Black Taxi service gets slotted into integrated transport or is it to attest to division into the future? I would love to see the levels and complexities given structured and real professional thought as it potentially; more a probable outcome than not, would see the integration the City needs. Through having good easily accessed frequent public transport; essentially a Luas light tram system exploiting the levels and over under routes along existing WIDE thoroughfares is essentially the key to the surrounding built environment.  Not the reverse. The signals for a rapid transit system - kept off page here at the Summer School - are I have found to be resignalling, designated bus only areas, fiddling and reshuffling what we have got with the professionalism of STEM and ex-Luas personnel ramping up the spin and appearance of 'movement, in a 'Rapid Transit Strategy.' The anticipated all spin and no content.

The hub needs to be examined more fully and not obliquely as the Summer School has chosen this time around. It need to be properly brought into the integrated quest for solutions instead of being left on another 'favoured' consultants desk, led by agenda and politically driven transport interests. We even have within the province a major transport manufacturer with whom local investment and reform strategies can be advanced.  If a hybrid transport vehicle is needed then why can 'Wrightbus' in possible partnerships with others, not pioneer a new vehicle(s) and give a lead, utilising all that has gone before.

The electric tram, if I am not mistaken, was first sighted on the road to Bushmill or Dunluce. A radical set of decisions are needed to advance the economy locally and the past in relation to Belfast and Northern Ireland has seen more than it's measure of advancement here in transport methods. The imagination exists to follow this. Using the basic problems we face can be exploited further than is presently imagined if a bold and purposeful best practice agenda is pursued straight away. The buildings and spaces are, it has been realised only lately as functionally dependant and operational through proper planning and citizen led needs. Recently, post the ignorance and greed driven sang-froid of the property led prophets, it has become evident the examples of development have had very few gems or much appreciated buildings amongst them.  Even Dublin during its boom period ended up with a few.  We have none. Only exceptions on the horizon are the Lyric Theatre and The Causeway visitors centre.

In the presentation of the Bruce Street area across the plan were in the region of 18 new build sites variously cut out of the street mapping and displaced pockets and junctions of land making up this spine South of the City Centre. It was a stark and immediate response of the Summer School, though how immediate and how predetermined these advanced proposals were before reaching the School is questionable. It seemed the solution had been festering in a pragmatic form before the School took place. The 'solutions' were nothing if not pragmatic and led the viewer in a direction which sought appeasement instead of vision; to such an extent when I drew attention to the absence of public transport, in ANY of the presentation slides, save an outline of a coach, there was an intake of breath at the audacity of pointing this out.  It said a lot about the 'decide amongst ourselves' interface this process is. Criticisms are disallowed/discouraged, no-brainer was one hurried response to the 'vision' on display. (For a brief period only) no in depth analysis was to be proved or made flesh.  Instead the word 'rapid transit' system I believe flashed up on one slide causing me to think most inner city systems, excepting underground or levy type systems are all the better for being at the majority of places under speed restrictions.  Even the car dependants seem resigned to the fact for a better environment and massively increased safety  we need to limit city car speeds to around twenty mph.

The Housing issues where spoken of only tangentially; a two year old planning school scheme (Posnett Street) slide appeared, as poor an example of one hit solutions as you would be likely to find and itself ignoring - on the slide - the transport comprising a train station and its separated car park - themselves components of any solution that might be found there.

There were also representatives whose recent contributions have been luxurious speculation apartments, authors of Public Housing inner city town housing from vintage '80's and 'Essex' design' clap boarded housing built to outdated proxies for lamentable absent vision. The 'Green line route' for that is how I believe it was presented, was indeed heavy on environmental symbolism, trees - in full leaf, wide spaces and pavements. Landscaped terraced frontages and the occasionally lofty eyrie,that streets were locations in which cars and people happily co-exist.  Then you have illustrations of the weave of traffic management, its devices, disability unfriendly junctions and the return of the belisha beacon along with ready-made poster tubs. Presto the near future presides.

The functionality of these new build spaces was interesting to decode.  Firstly they existed on plots of land readily identifiable, for the most part, were inclusive of a strip of green either side - I wondered if in homage to Mies van der Rohe whose adherence to space at the foot of buildings was transformative even if most post Mies advocates discarded the need for street level space.

This space on these plots does not even conceive of the spaces between buildings as belonging to the public space. No courtyard, public or private, being formed, no under croft sheltering the pedestrian forming colonnade, no straight avenue or dominating civic entity or identity. Nothing except looming buildings negatively placed on tried and failed spatial planning logic. No avenue or single note of functionality is advanced. The fact is the spaces shown were the forms of spaces replicated elsewhere in the city where shared ownership is contested, civic amenity left to its own definitions and low public awareness of 'franchised' space.  The breakdown of these spaces is quick, environmentally and architecturally.

The dynamic of a foot way becoming bridge at a line through the Gasworks seemed to be taken up as a non contentious object crossing the river. It did this through having no destination as such and once again highlighted the lack of strategy. Indeed if it were to follow the prescribed route you will find a precursor for the type of land grab which breaks down land uses as it can be noted already at the Hotel location only one side of the significant water element is a public foot way as the other has been fenced off for the Hotel use only. Add to this the failure to set up the possibilities of City Airport dedicated transport use and Titanic use alongside and there is a huge deficit in aims. Not only for locals but for visitors who might avail of a direct across city route to other West and North 'tourist' Hotels and features. The greater call would be for East /West connections which access Titanic (a No. 28 bus appears to be the current extent of ambitions) and George Best City Airport etc. Not all, indeed any of these might be formative elements but the placement of these buildings has a pattern familiar to short term design enablement not the complex strategic thinking where each element - transport need, housing, commerce, market, natural, civic, utilitarian, future flexibility, densities and land usages are encompassed. Nowhere is it possible to form these collective concerns as we have neither a functioning City Town Planning department, no hard strategic thinking, no administration of will and determination, no pioneering vision, no digital ordnance (An OS capability of central access is needed, see previous submissions) or oversight.

The discourse must continue to address the major concerns this city has in respect of ALL elements of the identified Missing City and get round to confronting the use of the exploitative Housing Markets and the economic interests they pursue to the Cities disadvantage.  It need advance  recovery of the small business and industry (light or knowledge driven) with lead infrastructure enabling it to develop properly instead of the ad-hoc ways of approach I still see as being all pervading.

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