Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Connecting Places: Why occupy Writer's Square?

In this new series, Connecting Places, we explore the spaces, places and sustainable transport systems in Belfast and beyond, with an aim to generate critical debate on the design of our towns and cities.

Series curated by Aaron Coulter

Writer's Square - Belfast's Best Public Space? From Bing Maps - edited by Aaron Coulter.

At 1370m² Writer's Square is one of the largest public spaces in Belfast's city centre and plays host to a variety of festivals and one off events throughout the year. The square was completed in 2002 by the Laganside Corporation. Then Chief Executive Mike Smith said:
"The new public space will be an important environmental asset to the area, creating somewhere pleasant to walk and relax... literary inscriptions will ensure that Writer's Square is welcomed as somewhere to enjoy, and a place to gather inspiration rather than pass through." - Mike Smith, BBC News website, January 2002
Despite these intentions, the square is widely regarded one of the most poorly designed spaces in Belfast and for the majority of the year, when there is not a specially curated programme of events, Writer's Square is a largely derelict and windswept space and 'passing through' it is often a last resort.

So why have the Occupy Belfast movement set up camp here?

Occupy Belfast at Writer's Square. Photo by Aaron Coulter.

Undoubtedly, Belfast's public spaces suffer from the lack of population density within the city centre, particularly those spaces outside the retail core of repaved streets surrounding Victoria Square. Yet it is the design of Writer's Square itself that plays a critical role in understanding why the space is underused.

The most obvious fault with the space is the lack of activity taking place at its edges with buildings turning their backs on the square through exposed gable walls, poorly designed ground floor treatments and inappropriate building uses that are unable to effectively activate the space. This inactivity is further exacerbated by the spatial attributes of the square. It lacks any real sense of enclosure, with the awkward shift in levels and street running through rear of the square further distancing potential users from understanding the function of the space.

Exposed Gable Wall isolating potential users. Photo by Aaron Coulter.

A Space to 'Stay and Relax'? Photo by Aaron Coulter.

Poorly designed fa├žades enclosing the square. Photo by Aaron Coulter.

False shop fronts attempting to activate the space. Photo By Aaron Coulter.

Poor design resulting in awkward corners being gated off. Photo by Aaron Coulter.
It is easy to be dismissive with the benefit of hindsight - but it is hard to imagine why those responsible for the design of the square thought that gimmicks such as 'literary inscriptions' would be enough to create the type of space Mike Smith envisioned. Speaking in the same interview, he said:
"We (Laganside corporation) have always maintained that in order to be successful, regeneration must be about much more than bricks and mortar alone...This project is a perfect example of that theory put into practice.'' - Mike Smith, BBC News website, January 2002
The essence of this statement is true - regeneration projects shouldn't focus solely on buildings but should also take into account the spaces between the bricks and mortar - the 'public realm'. However, the reason why Writer's Square has failed as a well-used public space is because the importance of the relationships between the 'bricks and mortar' elements with the open space hadn't been fully understood - how the uses within the buildings and their design play a critical role in the activities within the space.

Alongside the obvious design flaws, there has been a conscious effort to rid the space of its users - namely the skateboarders that once convened here. The skaters themselves were an illustration that the space was on its last legs: those participating in these urban sports often seek space in which no one will disturb them. This period saw the removal of many of the benches as well as areas of greenery that occupied the central area of the square, leaving the space devoid of purpose and life.

As such, the design and management of Writers Square has been systematically fighting against all of the elements that have come to define quality public places. The space is a statement in itself that good quality public places are not merely about materials and finishes. While these elements can play a role, public spaces are mainly about about people and activity, which always tend to act in a self-reinforcing way, feeding off one another.

For built environment professionals and urban enthusiasts, much of this will be nothing new. However, the decision of the Occupy Belfast movement to 'occupy' Writer's square has raised a question in my mind: is this the best public space in Belfast?

If Writers Square, by all means an out of the way, underused (bar special organised events), intimidatingly inactive space, is the best place to grab the attention of whoever the protesters are trying to get the attention of, is this not a sign that Belfast is lacking quality public places?

It appears that the protesters decided to locate here simply for the convenience and functionality of the space: it's the only public space in the city centre with some element of greenery on which to pitch a few tents. As indicated by Alan in Belfast, perhaps the protesters would be better off making their protest outside the likes of Citibank in the Titanic Quarter, rather than an empty square. Is this decision an indication that there may be lack of truly public space in Belfast's newest quarter? In Dublin, for example, the Occupy movement have set up camp on a small area of public space outside the Irish Central Bank on Dame Street. There is no grass here; but there is a sufficient amount of dedicated public space surrounding the building.

OccupyDameSt - Outside Central Bank - Dublin
(Photo by Aaron Coulter)

It is clear that while Belfast has the capacity for major outdoor events in spaces like Writer's Square and Custom House Square, it is severely lacking in well-designed, responsive public space. Not enough attention is given to the spaces between buildings, activating them not only through one-off events mainly aimed at tourism, or pieces of commissioned public art that few appreciate, but with an urban experience centred around informal day-to-day activities. If we want people to move back to the heart of Belfast, generating this type of public realm is a vital component.

Despite its design flaws, Writer's Square is able to act as a 'third place' for Occupy Belfast, highlighting the importance of public space not just as an area to take part in commercial activities but as a space for the public to engage in a dialogue with each other and, in the case of Occupy Belfast, with government. The space is currently being occupied by a use never possibly intended by the designers. But this is what is best about 'urban' - it is the unexpected.

Teach-ins are organised throughout the week further activating the space
(Photo by Aaron Coulter)

However, when this modicum of life leaves the square and we're once again left with a vacuum of activity in the centre of our city, we have to ask: do we not deserve better public places than this?

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