Tuesday, 28 August 2012

What I learned from the FAB Summer School 2012

Anna Skoura works with the Forum for Alternative Belfast and is a contributor to the PLACE Blog. She reports on the Forum's recent Summer School, "Re-stitching the city" held at Belfast City Hall from 13th-17th August.

The Forum for Alternative Belfast (FAB) 2012 Summer school took place two weeks ago (13-17 August) in the City Hall. The event was organised in collaboration with the East (EWPB) and West Belfast Partnership Boards (WBPB). The theme was “Re-stitching the city” and its primary goal was to address the very poor connection of the city centre with East and West Belfast. This is the fourth FAB Summer school, after 2009 which resulted to the "missing city map", 2010 which focused on North Belfast and 2011 on South Belfast. It followed the same structure: presentations for the first two days, public consultation on Tuesday and Wednesday evening and workshops during the rest of the week.
Photo by David Bunting
The organisers along with Belfast’s governmental and community bodies (Belfast City Council, East and West Belfast Partnership boards, Department for Social Development (DSD), Department of Environment (DOE), Department for regional Development (DRD)) presented their views and future projects related to the study areas.

Right from the start, it was interesting to see the distinctive approach that East and West Partnership representatives held during their opening presentations. Maurice Kinkead (CEO of EBPB) in an optimistic manner highlighted the positive impact of the Partnership’s recent activity in certain areas of East Belfast, while Geraldine McAteer (WBPB), very concerned, underlined West Belfast’s challenges and most urgent needs. Regarding the presentations given by the different Departments, the lack of a comprehensive vision for the city’s future and the lack of inter-departmental collaboration becomes evident. Sadly, clashing projects are sometimes the result.

Frank McDonald, Environment Editor of the Irish Times and chair of the first open panel discussion, gave some challenging input. He shared his experiences from Dublin where in several cases, citizens (not just community partnerships and campaigning organisations) rallied against poor development schemes and managed to set higher standards for their city.

A number of issues were raised during the presentations and public consultation during the week. As hinted by the title, the disconnection of the outlying areas of the city from the city centre is a critical subject, especially due to the vast amount of unused and un-shared space that constitutes the zones between. The city centre itself is dysfunctional, with its absence of residential life, and vast amount of parking spaces. Naturally, housing came up - more specifically, the need for affordable units, of mixed size and typology to accommodate diverse needs. FAB is very eager to promote the idea of housing-led regeneration in place of the retail-led regeneration that has been the city’s aim in the recent past.

Maps, transparent paper and highlighters ready! Photo by David Bunting
Four study groups were formed to address some of those key issues:

  • “Comparative cities”, led by QUB Senior Lecturer and FAB director Dr. Ken Sterrett, aimed to carry out research comparing urban regeneration schemes between Belfast and other UK cites of similar size and population.
  • “Good Streets” was led by QUB Lecturer Dr. Augustina Martire, looked at the qualities of Belfast’s better streets (by studying the street sections) and propose solutions for the improvement of problematic street sections.
  • A third group emerged after the first couple of days discussions to look at possible adaptation of shops to affordable, short-term lease housing.
  • And finally, two urban design groups, one each for East and West Belfast, were led by architects and FAB directors Declan Hill and Mark Hackett respectively. These groups closely examined the study area (from Dunville park to the West to Templemore Avenue to the East) and came up with ideas and proposals for their enhancement and regeneration.

The groups were working in the City Hall’s main rotunda, raising a lot of interest from both councilors and tourists passing by. PLACE very kindly hosted some of us in desperate need for internet connection during the week. After four long days of research, brainstorming and sketching, the final day arrived. Everybody’s contribution had to be delivered to Mark Hackett by noon on Friday in order to be integrated in the presentation of the outcomes.

The Workshops setting up in the City Hall rotunda. Photo by David Bunting
A very unsettling graph was shown by Ken Sterrett during the presentation revealing that Belfast is the only city among those compared (Sheffield, Bristol, Cardiff, Leicester, Nottingham, Newcastle) whose population has continued to decline in the last 20 years. It is not easy to pinpoint the reasons behind this continuous decrease, but the fact remains worrying and must be taken into account by the authorities.

Good streets are mainly about proportions and liveliness. They must be functional and make users (pedestrians, inhabitants, cyclists and drivers) feel safe. Clearly marked pedestrian crossings, cycle lanes, carefully planted trees and plants, wide enough pedestrian lanes are all crucial. Sadly such features are missing from many of the study areas.

Transformation of empty shops to affordable housing could bring life back to areas where retail has plummeted in the last years. FAB argues that allowing flexible tenure agreements and changing the rates will encourage people to make their home in an old shop. An example was illustrated from the Newtownards road.

Coming to the issue of re-stitching east and west to the city centre, one can hardly fail to notice that it is mainly the major roads (the motorway junction in the east and the Westlink in the west) that facilitate the disconnection. Although roads by definition are meant to connect, they can (and in the aforementioned cases definitely do) create physical barriers between neighbourhoods with pedestrians and cyclists unable to safely use or cross them. Another serious consequence is the land remaining around the motorway areas, which is dysfunctional and very challenging to develop. There is no easy way out and bold measures have to be adapted in order to rectify the situation.

Two possible solutions were drafted during the summer school, with the help of transport planner Stephen Wood: removing one of the motorway fly-overs (East Belfast) and reducing the connections between the Westlink and the city roads. The east Belfast Shatterzone was re-examined, after the fly-over removal, with a number of possibilities opening for housing developments.

Housing development proposal for the East Belfast Shatterzone. Photo by David Bunting
A detailed regeneration proposal for the Divis Link, designed by FAB, was also presented and can serve as an example of how moderate public investment can create development opportunities in previously unused and very low-valued land.

Close up of the Divis Link Model @FAB. Photo by David Bunting
On the whole, I thought the summer school was very informative and raised a number of issues beyond the constrain of the study areas. What is clear to me is the need for a comprehensive city plan that looks at Belfast as a whole. Where does Belfast wants to be in 50 years? There seems to be much potential, but sadly no collective vision. Only after the vision is clear can challenges posed in different areas be properly dealt with.

Did you take part at the FAB Summer school too? What did you learn from it?

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