Showing posts with label Opinion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Opinion. Show all posts

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.

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.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Is the architect obsolete?

Doug Patt, howtoarchitect on YouTube, wonders whether architects may be obsolete and considers the three things they still provide clients may always be looking for.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Better Public Spaces?

By Michael Hegarty
Director, PLACE

In Northern Ireland there are a wide variety of Government Departments, public agencies, private companies and NGOʼs that have roles in creating our environment. We have a fragmented government. Until recently agencies acted in isolation to deliver only their own component of cities: housing (NI Housing Executive); roads (Department for Regional Development); urban regeneration (Department for Social Development); and planning (Department of Environment).  Over the last few decades of conflict a very direct relationship between local communities and their elected representatives has developed. Communities drive issues such as places for play, neighbourhood regeneration and so on. Northern Ireland politicians have now taken back control of decision-making from London and by and large these politicians recognise the problems of disconnection.

Portaloos block the access to Custom House Square. Photo by Michael Hegarty.
Northern Ireland has some very good buildings for education, leisure, art and drama, but many aspects of our cities do not perform well under scrutiny and they impact on our general health and well-being as citizens.  Post conflict Northern Ireland society has changed; complexity has replaced simplicity.   It is time once again to repair and renew our cities.  The lesson of the past is that this should not be a grand gesture. What is needed is a series of small acts of intuitive appropriate design. Every act of building should be an act of repair, a part of the much larger process, in which several acts together regenerate the whole city.

Temporary steel panels at Custom House Square. Photo by Michael Hegarty,
Since 2001 DSD and Belfast City Council have developed a number of cultural quarters. The Cathedral Quarter has taken on the mantle of the city's key cultural locality.  It is somewhat disconnected from the recently resurfaced Custom House Square and the river Lagan by 4-lane roads.   Custom House Square should be the main event space for Cathedral Quarter however the basic infrastructure for events such as toilets and event management barriers were not designed into the scheme.

Today on the square public access is blocked by rows of temporary chemical toilets (portaloos) and galvanised steel panel hoardings inserted on rubber feet.  This is evidence of a lack of understanding of the nature of a public space by those who commissioned the recent work.  Public spaces host public events, these are events are for people, people need toilets, safe access and other services. Many of the events require power or on-site catering.  The infrastructure for these should have been designed-in.  If architects designed schools or offices without toilets and supplied portaloos as an afterthought they would rightly be ridiculed.  The lessons of this should inform the briefing of other public spaces currently being conceived such as Queens Parade, Bangor and Ebrington, Derry.

We have compact, legible and easily-walked city centres in Belfast and Derry. Belfast is surrounded by mountains that create a special micro-climate conducive to horticulture. From the Botanic Gardens to Cave Hill Country Park, Belfast has over forty public parks, all in close proximity to the city centre that provide places for a picnic, a stroll or a jog. New foot bridges are being constructed throughout Northern Ireland along a series of cycle and footpaths designed to encourage more people to exercise. These are positive starting points for making things work better.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Christine Murray (AJ) on localism

Christine Murray of the Architects' Journal on the Localism Bill:

"What might have been a bit of empty rhetoric is real. This week’s Localism Bill is proving to be the cornerstone of the mooted Big Society. As the AJ went to press, sneak previews of the bill reveal upheaval aplenty for the planning system, but more crucially, the profession.

So what does Localism mean for architects? Two things so far:

1) Less work for architects
The public will be encouraged to submit their own planning applications, and more developments will be designated as permitted development - stripping away bread-and-butter work for small practices and sole practitioners.

2) Unpaid work for architects

Under the new bill, councils will have a duty to adopt Neighbourhood Plans for their area which will be decided on by public referendum. Community groups will also have increased power in reviewing and deciding on planning applications. Should architects elect be involved in these processes, their consultation is unlikely to be paid.

In this new paradigm, architects no longer have just one client to satisfy, but a whole parish or neighbourhood. They will need to engage in community consultations at several stages to ensure their scheme has been adequately anointed.

As I spoke to developers, planning consultants and community leaders this week, their advice to architects was that Localism is here, and they had better get used to it, and fast."

Saturday, 12 June 2010

"It is time once again to repair and renew our cities" says Michael Hegarty, Director of PLACE

Creating Healthy Environments in Northern Ireland
- Michael Hegarty RIBA MRIAI, Director of PLACE
- Talk delivered as part of "Active Places: Building Healthy Environments", 8th June 2010, Emeleus Lecture Theatre, Lanyon Building, Queen’s University of Belfast

From Sick Buildings to Healthy Environments
In the 1980s, there was much discussion of so-called sick buildings syndrome. This involved the inter-connected environmental problems caused by issues such as radon gas, poor air conditioning, solar gain etc. Psychological concerns were also at play when workers couldn’t control the temperature nor open windows in the hermetically sealed offices of the 1960’s and 70’s. Many problems have now been addressed through retro-fit, etc. The debate has moved on to the creation of healthy places rather than solving sick environments.

In Northern Ireland there is a wide variety of public agencies, private companies and NGOs that have roles in creating our environment. We have a somewhat fragmented government. Until recently agencies acted in isolation to deliver only their own component of cities, be that housing (NIHE), roads (DRD), urban regeneration (DSD) or planning (DOE). We also have a reactive planning system.

One positive thing that has developed here over the last few decades is a very direct relationship between local communities and their elected representatives driving issues such as places for play. These politicians are now back in control of decision making, and by and large they recognise the problems of disconnection.

The Built Environment: A Key to Permanent & Equitable Health Improvement
Locally, we have created some particularly good buildings for churches, education, leisure, art and drama over the years. It would be wrong to be totally critical of all aspects of Northern Ireland cities. For example, Health Estates NI have received numerous awards for good buildings. However many aspects of our cities do not perform well under scrutiny and have a negative impact on our general health and well-being as citizens.

Concept of a Healthy City
Over the centuries the greatest human minds have created models of ideal cities. The concept of a Healthy City is first explored by Plato. Early in Republic, he depicts two cities, one healthy and one with 'a fever' (the so-called luxurious city).

The citizens of the luxurious city "have surrendered themselves to the endless acquisition of money and have overstepped the limit of their necessities". The luxury of this city requires the seizure of neighboring lands and consequently a standing army to defend those lands and the city's wealth. The main character, Socrates, says that war originates in communities living beyond the natural limits of necessity.

In short, the healthy or true city is sustainable, limiting its consumption to actual needs, while the luxurious city is not, and is in a perpetual quest for more. Plato spends the rest of the Republic attempting to reveal the political organization and virtues such as moderation that become necessary for the luxurious city to be more just, more healthy, and thereby sustainable.

Healthy City Model 1 - Leonardo da Vinci
While Leonardo da Vinci was living in Milan, much of Italy and the rest of Europe was struck by plague. Leonardo felt the high number of deaths was partially due to the condition of the dirty, densely populated cities where germs spread rapidly. He saw garbage thrown out onto the narrow streets and there was poor sanitation.

Leonardo designed an "ideal city" where the streets were wide, underground waterways carried garbage away and a paddlewheel system could clean the streets. His city was based on 2 levels, the top level was for the foot traffic and the bottom for carts and animals.

In this city, Leonardo hoped that improved living conditions would help to avoid the spread of contagious diseases. While the ideal city was never built, he did help to improve the Sforza castle by designing a smaller version of his plumbing and drainage system which proved to be both clean and efficient.

The influence of early models in Northern Ireland
A century after Leonardo’s model, work began on the first planned city in Ireland, London’s new city on the site of the long established monastery town of Doire in 1613. The central diamond within a walled city with four gates was considered primarily to be a good design for defence. The main streets were wide and the buildings make visual reference to the renaissance.

However the pre-existing landscape topography defines the city as much as the imposed plan. Any city is inseparable from the landscape in which it is set and can only be understood in terms of its geographical situation, its climatic and meteorological facts, its economic bases and its historic heritage.
"Town plans are therefore no mere diagrams; they are a system of hieroglyphics in which man has written the history of civilisation, and the more tangled their apparent confusion, the more we may be rewarded in deciphering it." - Patrick Geddes, Cities in Evolution, Oxford University Press, (1950)

More than two hundred years after the growth of Derry, the Victorian City planners of Belfast looked at classical and renaissance Southern European city models for inspiration.

Belfast expanded very rapidly from being a market town to an industrial city during the course of the 19th century. It is not an agglomeration of villages expanded into each other like Manchester or Birmingham. The arterial roads along which this expansion took place tend to define the districts of the city. Also the landscape generates the city as much as the imposed plan and Belfast expanded to the natural barrier of the hills that surround it.

Healthy City Model 2 - The Garden City
In 1898 Ebenezer Howard founded the Garden city movement in England. The cities were intended to be planned, self-contained, communities surrounded by greenbelts, containing carefully balanced areas of residences, industry, and agriculture. His initiative was inspired not by Plato but by the Utopian novel Looking Backward written by american Edward Bellamy.

Howard’s idealised garden city was planned on a concentric pattern with open spaces, public parks and radial boulevards. The garden city was intended to be self-sufficient and when it reached full population, a further garden city would be developed nearby. Howard envisaged a cluster of several garden cities as satellites of a central city linked by road and rail.

Many towns in England and elsewhere are based on Garden City Models. Locally we have small estates in Belfast and Derry inspired by the model. Later variations from Walden to New Towns such as Crawley and Milton Keynes have all sought to create the ideal town or city.

The influence of New Town models in Northern Ireland
In 1963, under the Matthew Plan, the new city of Craigavon was founded out of the original towns of Portadown and Lurgan. This plan is incomplete for various reasons. The plan initially was to construct a relief settlement to take people out of the crowded city of Belfast. This did not work. Portadown and Lurgan still exist while Craigavon does not.

Ring roads, zoning, and other key components of the Garden City continue to have significant influence on planning and the places we inhabit.

Garden Cities depended on infrastructure such as goods trains and public transport connectivity. However, in NI we have very poor rail infrastructure - the train from Derry to Belfast has a journey time almost an hour longer than the equivalent car journey. The train lines pass Belfast International and City of Derry Airports but without a halt.

Healthy City Model 3 - Le Corbusier
The Ville Contemporaine was an unrealised project to house three million inhabitants designed by the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier in 1922. The centerpiece of this plan was to be a group of sixty-story cruciform skyscrapers. These housed both offices and the flats of the most wealthy inhabitants and were set within large, rectangular park-like green spaces.

At the centre of the planned city was a transportation center for buses and trains, as well as highway intersections and at the top, an airport.

Le Corbusier, like Leonardo, segregated the pedestrian circulation paths from the roadways, and glorified the use of the automobile as a means of transportation. As one moved out from the central skyscrapers, smaller multi-story zigzag blocks set in green space and set far back from the street housed the proletarian workers.

The influence of Modern Movement models in Northern Ireland
Le Corbusier’s ideas were less influential than his drawings. Many sub-standard, poorly conceived high-rise communities were constructed in the post-war years.

The systemised deck access housing constructed at Divis in Belfast and Rossville Flats, Derry were quick cheap attempts at slum clearance and housing provision by the Northern Ireland Government. They were initially welcomed by tenants who gained larger bedrooms and better equipped kitchens however as elsewhere in Europe these systems soon proved to be a social disaster.

Other post-war policy initiatives such as the Clean Air Act 1956 have had a much more straightforward beneficial impact on our health.

Ideal Models versus Indigenous Landscape
Over the years our towns and cities were built on whatever land could be purchased, on a field-by-field basis. In this way the streets retain the field pattern. The twists in the landscape which had become land divisions became translated into the urban form as a memory.

This kind of growing, organic, self-repairing city fits into a view of architecture and urban design where intuitive decisions are valued as much as grand visions, where the specific place is more important than the general location. This view has been given intellectual rigour and structure by theorists like Christopher Alexander.

Northern Ireland society has changed; complexity has replaced simplicity. It is time once again to repair and renew our cities. The lesson of the past is that this should not be a grand gesture. What is needed is a whole series of small acts of intuitive and appropriate design. Every act of building should be an act of repair, a part of the much larger process, in which several acts together regenerate the whole city into a healthy place.

PLACE Challenging the Status Quo
PLACE has a history of challenging government policy to try to encourage better and healthier environments. For example the Happy to Live Here? exhibition created by two architects working in Belfast, Mark Hackett and Declan Hill (also founder members of the Forum for Alternative Belfast) was originally shown at PLACE in November 2005.

The starting point was a review, in text and photographs, of the DOE Housing Policy Initiative first released in January 1996. The Policy was published as a guidance document, “Creating Places: Achieving Quality in Residential Developments” in May 2000.

The exhibition questioned how policy has impacted on housing since 1996 including the orientation of houses, car parking, street layouts, the re-use of old buildings, possibilities for apartment living and home energy costs. The exhibition and accompanying booklet pays much attention to the generally poor quality of public spaces, amenities and infrastructure around housing developments.

Changing NI Planning Context
Looking forward in terms of changing policy perhaps the most important initiative will be a new Planning Policy Statement ‘Planning for a Natural & Healthy Environment’ published on 10th March 2010 for consultation. The policy aims to: conserve and enhance the natural environment, minimise vulneralbility of places, people and wildlife to climate change, deliver safe and attractive places to live and provide access and recreation opportunities in rural and coastal areas.

Planning is one of the powers to be moved to local councils under RPA and there is a current initiative to quicken planning processes primarily to aid economic development. Meanwhile in the last few weeks DOE has announced that Planning Service staff will be cut by 30%.

Barriers to Healthy Cities
Approximately 30 Peace Line walls still divide fourteen districts in Belfast and one in Derry. These are the most visible remainders of a conflict legacy.

Roads such as the M3 flyover and the Westlink separate the largely uninhabited city centre of Belfast from surrounding neighbourhoods.

A public transport strategy is dependent on roads due to long-term underinvestment in railways. Investment in roads promotes private car use as much as it facilitates public transport. Existing railways pass beside all 3 N.I. Airports and yet they are not interconnected. A proposed rapid transit bus system for Belfast is to be funded only after major roads works elsewhere in Northern Ireland.

Children are still driven to school with only sporadic successes through local walking-to-school initiatives.

Building Blocks of Healthy Cities 1 - Bridges, Parks and gardens
We have a number of compact, legible and easily walked city centres, in Belfast, Derry and other towns across NI. Our built heritage has remarkably been substantially preserved despite bombing campaigns, slum clearance and roads projects.

Belfast is surrounded by mountains that create a special micro-climate conducive to horticulture. From the Victorian Botanic Gardens to Cave Hill Country Park, Belfast has over forty public parks, all in close proximity to the city centre. Parks and Gardens provide places for a picnic, a stroll or a jog.

New foot bridges are being constructed throughout Northern Ireland along a series of cycle and footpaths designed to encourage more people to exercise. We need to face up to challenges such as alternatives to the school-run by car.

Building Blocks of Healthy Cities 2 - PLACE Architecture in the Curriculum initiative
PLACE this year trained Primary School teachers and built environment professionals with practical skills to introduce architecture and the built environment as teaching resources via the existing curriculum. This is being undertaken currently in eight schools on a pilot basis around Northern Ireland.

Our towns and cities are a freely accessible learning resource through which we can explore maths, geography, language and almost any other subject. Architecture in the Curriculum will begin the process of encouraging everyone to better understand the spaces and buildings we inhabit and the ideas that have created these places.

Healthy Environments are already on the mainstream agenda within University Planning and Architecture departments - for example, the University of Derby MA in Sustainable Architecture and Healthy Environments.

Building Blocks of Healthy Cities 3 - Participation in Shaping our Cities
- Cathedral Quarter & Royal Exchange

Since 2001 DSD and Belfast City Council have developed a number of cultural quarters. The Cathedral Quarter has taken on the mantle of the city's key cultural locality. It has arts centres, galleries and hosts a yearly visual and performing arts festival. Nearby Custom House Square is one of the city's main outdoor venues for free concerts and street entertainment.

The site for the major Royal Exchange mixed use development overlaps into Cathedral Quarter. PLACE has engaged with the developer to promote community participation in this potentially contentious major development. The developer has approached this in an open way and engaged. In parallel, Planning in Northern Ireland is being reconfigured to frontload consultation.

- Gaeltacht Quarter & Former Andersonstown Barracks
The Gaeltacht Quarter around the Falls Road in West Belfast promotes and encourages the use of the Irish language. DSD have also developed a regeneration strategy for the adjoining area - Andersonstown Gateway.

PLACE is working with West Belfast Partnership Board and DSD Belfast Regeneration Office to help redevelop the contentious former police station site for a community-led regeneration project. This will go to an international design competition and Daniel Libeskind has agreed to chair the Jury.

- Clooney Greenway, Derry - Former Military Site
In the Waterside area of Derry, PLACE is working on the transformation from former military site to public greenspace including play areas in a collaboration between DSD, Derry City Council and local community.

- Queen’s Parade, Bangor
The site for the major Queen’s Parade mixed-use development lies between Main Street and Bangor Harbour. PLACE has engaged with DSD, North Down Council, the local MP and the developer to promote community participation in this previously contentious major development. The developer has approached this in an open way and engaged.


"Active Places: building healthy environments" was hosted by Belfast Healthy Cities in collaboration with the UKCRC Centre of Excellence in Public Health (Northern Ireland) and the Institute of Spatial and Environmental Planning at Queen’s University of Belfast and PLACE, the Architecture and Built Environment Centre for Northern Ireland.


Further reading: Happy to Live Here? is available for download on the PLACE website:

Monday, 7 June 2010

Water Taxis

"Other cities have ferry lines sprouting from every pier like weeds from pavement. Why not New York?"

The New York Times' City Critic suggests New York needs more water taxis. Perhaps this is something which could reinvigorate Belfast's Lagan as well?

NY Times: What New York Needs: More Water Taxis

Friday, 25 September 2009

Forum for Alternative Belfast Summer School 2009 - A View

A view of the courtyard of the Keir building, with Belfast surrounding - image from Wikipedia

John Graham discusses some of the issues coming out of the 2009 Summer School recently held by the Forum for Alternative Belfast.

I wonder if the Forum has been an expression of the paradox of inertia that is present on the Belfast landscape. The fact there is a mix of opinion forming examinations. Some from an economic imperative. Some from a recycled town planning objective. Some with a dispersal background - continuing the patterns of the recent past. Some with no constraint of an agreed path and heightened by greed not need. Some media generalities and a lot falsehoods fashioned around a paucity of research or interest and even determination to inform. There is a tapestry of lots of mixed messages and even built
examples, which defy belief in some quarters.

Where this exists though hope and optimism can flame the kindling which the Forum has brought forward. Examining the challenges through exploratory openness and reasoned debate added to an all too forgotten, negated and sidelined aspect of community - robust inclusion of community in place of a territory for exploitation.

Instead of the backward thinking associated with greed over need and spin meister indoctrination of stalled governance and intellect there is a capacity recognised for change. And much desired change. The appetite and awareness is manifest in the continuing metamorphosis of the Forum and its engagement at all levels.

The manifesto and subject have a certain enormity. Yet the scale of the task and the case for raising issues and examining them is the first step towards resolution of some basic problems and fundamentally flawed approaches. The evidence base is being assembled and looked at through the Forum. Out of it need arise clearer understanding of the challenges presented.

The paradox of inertia is the focus of the Forum. It brought with it, the do it through robust and unfettered independent thought, in the medium of collective resourcefulness. From the studio of the School of Architecture/Town Planning room at the top floor of the David Kier building the view favoured the green topped urban landscape of South Belfast and out to the hills of the East. Stormont visible in the distance sitting stubbornly attached to its hill as if defying the sliding reality of the mechanisms of politics. The sun was cast upon a calming and relatively cohesive vision of Belfast. In the East a nucleus of industry in the Shipyard estate, the airport. The greenery was there in large part through the parks, Botanic, Ormeau and this landscape seemed to carefully and randomly merge with the hills.

How different the opposite view where the hills rise quickly and arrestingly. Where the hills are seemingly hostile environments and attempts at codifying access has ran into a wild west field of recreation.

The topography and natural separations have been logged into Belfast’s fabric for hundreds of years and in the last period, the hostile period, it has become a victim of its aggressive discontent. A legacy of imported defensive Architectural and Town Planning design in Northern Ireland and then some. One query often coming up was that of dereliction and its origin. What has been the cause of dereliction?

I would lay it at the feet of institutionalised crisis management and the coat tailing lobby of sectional interests of all shades of narrowness, it expands further.

Town Planning has despoiled the residential areas and in the south even allowed a kind of sectarianism to happen. Over large parts of the area the densities have increased, the population made transient, the long term residents pressured out and new buyers blocked out by grant aided schemes and a dominant form of occupancy. Decent family homes have not been reformed, remodelled, instead they have been subjected to internal carve ups which teeter on the lowest level of spatial need. They also bring forward hybrid notions of standards. Not applied anywhere else. At a previous Forum discussion the subject of the wretched spatial standards we continue to perpetuate was noted, added to which is the non-evolution of better forms of living. The extent of child poverty is not even on the radar. That NI still has some of the worst housing conditions in the islands and has a large housing waiting list looking incapable of redress is focus enough presently.

While politicians and others claim governance over their budgets and perform stunts to reclaim tokens for constituents they themselves indulge in the property merry-go-round though even their dumbness and greed is set for a mood change. The introductory film reels off the visual, as Source has done over the years with images of the static, a
portrait of a troubled and segregated city. No longer entangled with the shackles of historical dispute, (we have agreed to disagree that disagreement is destructive and agree we must move on by turning backwards and forwards in unison), but now also dealing with the backwash up the Lough of years of tribal planning and exercises in containment. The economic wars are upon the population as are the ever changing atmospheric imponderables presented by environmental change and the wonderment of discoveries and expanse of knowledge achieved through science. Many of the certitudes and hardened attitudes are being bent by change. Forced into radically thinking and not applying the gathering of information for purposes other than holding onto it, repackaging it in unfeasibility studies and casting it out as work accomplished. Change exists in the present. From one second to the next as it always has. There is also an adjustment taking place with mankind in response to the onerous demands of planet living.

Unmistakably, and the view from the studio testifies to it, the sudden downpours, the blistering sunshine, the wind thrown tree tops and the boiling greenery show us that nature dictates and also empowers us. The built environment of Belfast sometimes acknowledges this and occasionally it pointedly indicates a way forward. Without nature and the capacity to feed nations and cities nothing of our making survives. It becomes consigned to a temporary history made and forgotten and remade as the times require. It was an act of kindness using the predication Summer School in a truly Irish summer. Northern Ireland and the Island of Ireland has survived in its form through its management of land and its survival depends on the productiveness of that land. Be it in educating the brains to command suitable endeavours and futures, be it expressing life, be it exploring who and what we are. It is all in, as the Frank Mitchell book title neatly puts it, examined in Reading the Irish Landscape. The book has a revelatory significance as it links the human to the landscape. There is a sociological portrait of the island and its relation to nature at the basic level which confounds us and inspires us. It reminds us much is unknown yet we still believe in some dreary absolutes.

Times shifts us forward and it does it on our landscape.

The climate has put heavy demands on infrastructure and environmental response.

Northern Ireland according to some does not do vision. Its potential is actually largely untapped though and if the nurturing of its roots are not cut off with dated gardening techniques, which head always in the direction of chemical warfare, then it will continue to be disabled.

The Forum is as much about conceptual change and alternative views of the future as it is about using acquired skills, experience and knowledge in an attempt to fashion some built environment that can be shared and be useful to all.

A key part was identifying the linkages across the river which have become neglected in the hospitable sense, are hostile environments and devoted to car movements basically. When the Titanic section was mentioned the chains of linkage appeared. It was as if an anchor was thrown out but what is on either end of the chain is barely defined or firmly conceived. A one act play or brand which brooks companionship with a college and another stream of financial HQs and a package of land filled opportunities complete with a gift shop furnished with crystal glass from China no doubt.

A great deal more than the seed capital is needed for around 185 acres of a small part of the entire estate. The detachments, gates are already evident. The connections and directions are not. At the Lough location, the present phase if one exists, (an inertia is mainly apparent and more apt a description,) is a Baltimorisation of the natural assets. Creating copies of dated responses in belated hope and expectation. So dominant is the Lough feature all manner of attachments and reshaped sentiments are gathered to project an idea upon the space beside it. Impressive towers poke upwards insightfully raising expectations?

No vision of a knowledge based/medical based community or other but a catalyst of tourism. Instead water features and landmark buildings are the extent of inspiration development.

The existing clutter of street level buildings erodes any sense of the nature of tall buildings in the midst of this area. The forgotten trade marks of this type of design - part of a city grid, or district pattern, of street level courtyards - that they ease up areas of the street - become informal courts and the meeting places between are in the public realm is all absent. Instead the payoff for the top bit is the sacrifice of the lower bit and with it a spatial land grab.

It borrows (poorly) any attachments instead of contributing to them. The Lough provides no spatial help either as there are only a few in the city who can walk on water. Out of the David Kier building you do not have to look far to see how it should be done with the white decoratively restrained Ashby Building which sits back from the road and delivers into the centre of the Stranmillis village a little patch of additional and important green. The fact is the tall Ashby Building relies heavily on the space at its foot in its design as townscape. It even succeeds in being of place, strengthening identity and a sense of place. It has also become a visible landmark from some roads and bridges around South Belfast. It may seem bogus or pretentious to claim other benefits of the Ashby Building but it is a defined sense of time and place which most locals will recognise.

The school tried to vigorously examine and present their findings as well as enabling peoples sightlines to be improved and raised by looking at the city by applying observational skills and assigning reason to it.

Being in the David Kier Building; it is in the Telephone exchange tradition of masterful brickwork and august rigour, I thought as I looked around the spaces within it, that the large wall mounted map enjoyed the height of the space and having light cascading in from the South and the students and assembled were able to be uplifted by it.

The internal space had given room for some free thinking, it did not constrain or limit. The building has covered and open courtyards with generous core staircases and free and clear movement. All done under large span steel and bolted technologies. No welding or concealment and decorative expectation.

The map was like a symbol of reverse engineering the city and the functional backdrop unwittingly played a part. The Summer school had this willing assistant as a memory of the past, in the form of the building and a versatility of use. The expectations are not dissimilar in the new University Building for its capacity to facilitate thought and inspire. One wonders.

The view from the upper levels of the Kier building are interesting in lots of ways. There we see conventions of land use, parks, roads, residential, commerce and the tacked on interventions of out of centre shopping. Consumer logic pails significantly, becomes a back flip on the experiences the recent history has played out. The energies and evidence of value added endeavour do not look good when summoned to thought. It has a rather chaotic and un-uniform look to it. Any sense of a city in progress or a society in concert is absent. The severity of the difficulties presented by the recent past has not been realised. The future restructures itself with or without intervention, the future possibilities depend on preparation as well as what awaits.

Find it.

Imagine a boulevard Belfast, opening up the savaged, torn strips of community binding and boundaries. How can a visitor walk out of the centre into any area? It only appears comfortable purviewed from a bus or special taxi. Drop the inner city speed for any vehicle to 20 mph. Find out how public transport can best develop without the enforced congestion of personalised transport.

The shifting possibilities of transport will in any case very quickly take on Moore’s Law in degrees of efficiency and energy use as to become almost axiomatic. A long way to go yet but not so long in timescale terms it sometimes seems. How then the old street patterns and means of distributing goods and persons?

The main cost is in freeing up and reforming established routes and making better use of existing infrastructure. Imagine the boundary walls of community being brought to ground level and in their place a seat or bench a place to stop and talk or reflect. The removal of the Berlin Wall became as much a linear division which required to remain in some form, in locality in order it could be confronted and made plain. So it became, not something we looked over, but something you could walk over. Belfast has no less potential.

The Forum presented several examples on which several aspects of the approach to design and remodelling had been taken forward. It pointed to the need for consolidated thought and an appraisal of the Town Planning needs. Becoming signatories to proposals which are under evaluated, wrongly centred and without a basis of good practice and exemplary design serves only short term interests. Nowhere is any accord with social need embraced.

A ‘master plan’ is not a strategy, an urban plan is a carefully formed piece of quality objectives. It requires to be responsive and based on continued nuancing and adjustment in the way master plans cannot. Narrow, all encompassing solutions tend to fail, and fail spectacularly. There is an intent already clear in making Belfast a place of academical excellence, to build on the exposure to learning and the immediacy of requirements to service the future with clever, smart, intelligence based ideas.

Major US cities have been ravaged by scale and large industry has imploded in some cities, their core industries fallen. Belfast’s scale is small in comparison with most cities of its industrialised type. The city has though a unique position as being one of the few on the island. Most Irish cities are ports and sea dependent. The Harbour is becoming a key element in Belfast again but without the previous levels of manpower. It has advanced and altered without carrying industry with it. Instead it has become the servant of the consumer politic. The first educational lesson will be that the industrial age is in dry dock and no replacement industries other than services exchanges are in their place and they are transitory and unencumbered by boundaries or allegiances. There will be future forensics on this phase that will present some obvious directional nonsenses.

The examination of the patient is incomplete but there is reason to consider the forms of intervention previously taken have in large parts failed.

A great deal is owed to the 40 to 50 or so persons who sat down and sifted through all manner of information to arrive at some analysis of the condition. Like doctors they worked on the physiological structure the Belfast DNA was made of and they looked at the life support systems that made it function. There was a lot of head shaking disbelief at the actualities, at the prognosis, at the explanations of the topographical images seen in visual confrontations. Some anticipated the visceral, were there perhaps to see magical solutions arise on the screens, however the reality is as always slowly revelatory. Otherwise we would have done things differently and better.

It was as C. S. Lewis found when traversing the border of the real and unreal. This is Strandtown but not as I know it, this is the Mournes but not as I know it. The invisibility of the DNA was something not even contemplated in that age yet we reference it all the time as a genus loci. Good reason could have it that all cities are amorphous and the purpose and heartbeat constantly changes. Belfast's DNA is suitably complex and challenging.

Nevertheless by exploring things as they seemed to appear, the observations catalogued and presented, it was possible to determine how they actually were. The maps once they started to appear unwittingly or intentionally had a lot of red on them.

It was a creation of matured clinical difficulties in an operating theatre.

Where the leg operates the arm is barely functioning, where air is required it is absent and thin, where verdant gardens flourish excess is encountered in temporal fusion. Wild imaginings overcome logic and the will is rendered lost.

Without the encumbrance of the normal formalised constraints the purview could be brought into focus. This can produce in equal quantities dismay and hope. The fundamental requirement is however to not only be cognisant of the facts but to realise the scope to act and improve the outlook and enable progression, it is after all a necessity.

As well as the works in progress and the continued discussions around moving some forward there were several instances of an unsatisfied appetite for the information needed to give studied and timely consideration to elements of interest. The main difficulty was in consolidating the database and finding a route for it to take. In scarcely 4 days the team had put together a robust level of the status of most of the cities buildings in terms of their use and occupancy and also identified the outlying derelict scraps and not so scrap of the euphemism brownfield sections.

It was a stark exercise and the debates and faffing around garden land grabbing were neatly contrasted with some actual figures and indicators. The photographic evidence brought some honesty forward. In order to make best use of this information and to see it does not become swamped under counter intelligence moves by the usual suspects, it is worth bearing in mind the campaign underway to FREE OUR DATA as is locked away under the control of OS Ordnance Survey and introducing it to the link world of the internet. The Digital Britain project currently has it in its sights but the detail and outworking of the OS Data usage has several things to overcome.

Many people wish to have access to and make use of this evolving data and are outside of Town Planning, the natural home of such information. Many other sectors recognise the value and potential in having collective ownership of the DATA and allowing it to be designed forward to encapsulate many digital uses.

The Land Registry could use it, there could be a live register in use for all property and land. Agricultural, Health and Social agencies could set up their own layers of information and make it work for improved practice.

All manner of uses could be found for it and the Public could access information which many preciously make their life’s work to hang on to. Flood Plain maps, Geological maps, Population dispersal maps and many other packages of information could be established using the Ordnance Survey Data as the central component. The Database. Many industries and professionals are now familiar with the use of layered information in IT and it is in use in very many aspects of our lives already. Some readiness to extend its potential and knowledge gathering forward is clearly needed. One commentator at the recent discussion brought forward the notion of it being a Wikipedia type database and while this is not the ideal model, (it has no ‘public’ responsibility) it is not far from the requirement and need.

The FREE OUR DATA quest is a larger and potentially valuable concept to be hold of in forward discussions and indeed actions. Government is distinctly in need of such fundamental change and it is undergoing many aspects of IT management which it has so far failed to properly deliver. The OS provides a model and the Planning models etc. can all be linked across formats. NI has already, it appears, spent a colossal sum in putting Planning details on line and has yet to achieve it. There is need of a breakthrough and a general acceptance of approach is needed for it to not prove impossible in the short and long term.

CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment)
For a long time it has been evident the design of the urban areas has been displaced to align with commercial and movement imperatives. The design of buildings stops at the elevations in many instances and the spaces between building has become a battle of clutter, identity and image. Temporary elements are always present and when Belfast hosted the Tall Ships even the main streets had contractors' Tonka toys, hoardings and lines of plastic bricks shepherding visitors and locals around the centre. Even the riverside was not functioning as a continuous walkway and surfaces failed the task put to them. A clear up of sorts happened but it showed the city had yet to understand people.

Outsiders look at Belfast from the perspective of their own experiences. Some of the extreme expectations have been hopefully overcome and are not to be found.

Nevertheless the striking thing about Belfast to an outsider on a tour of European cities must firstly be how uniform it is becoming in comparison with cities near and far. Add on the scarring and planning debris of the past few decades and there is a view of transition, not quite together, struggle for cohesion. All this is evident in the Forum examinations. The means of pursuing a better rationale for cityscapes has been advanced by various cities. Helsinki, Copenhagen were mentioned. The formation in England of the unit, CABE, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, has realised a lot of successful interventions with councils and procurement agencies at several levels. Its purpose is proven and its benefits are evident. Northern Ireland needs also to confront the mediocrity of everyday design seek out decent design and demand that anyone wishing to construct something, have it put down as part of our built fabric must do so in a decent manner. The infancy of the MAG group has well meaning direction however it needs clout and activated programmes to lead the debate forward and out of its malaise and contradictory aspects. It must not dictate alone on the ‘elite’ proposals but get into the very basics including the spaces between buildings.

The quality of architecture needs to radically improve and that includes all forms of public architecture. It needs also to be real about the ‘eco-towns’ it flags up in arable countryside, where ‘non-towns’ expand as dormitory motorway suburbs with all the strain taken by the city. These nonsensical schemes need halted.

The information gap is one which was unknown to our forefathers, the OS co-ordination of mapping and building occupancy and usage was a very strategic part of public information use. Whether you needed to know or not, it could tell you pre-1840, that the city centre was full of all kinds of teaching establishments, even boarding schools, 4 pupils, 30 pupils etc, teaching everything you needed to know on mathematics, Latin, drawing, primitive sciences et al.

It also told of the numbers of churches, inns, timber yards, dog yards, brickworks. Every conceivable use the city was put to was recorded. It then could also point to the odd phenomenon that in the Ann Street area, dozens of straw hat manufacturers took up their trade. Striving for an efficiency - of sorts.

Is the city so uniform it does not require this degree of scrutiny and record of usage? The point is, it is not, as the witness of dereliction has been inescapable, and questions of intent of usages are not to be avoided. One site mentioned is Berry Street, the pre-history of which includes the Belfast Dispensary and Fever Hospital. There is a long roll call of delinquent sites and continued documentation, an overall live register would enable some thinking to overlap for once.

I noted in recent times a bewildering indictment of how far back practice has fallen when I noted a local government advertisement seeking Consultants to determine the best methods of obtaining good school design. There are many stepping of points for that but surely it has not been the educationalists design that they have forgotten the principles of procurement and cannot dovetail with larger and detailed examinations of the very same difficulties already produced. The debate on school design has been the subject of creative criticism through CABE, various providers and ministers ‘who know’ in the UK. One stepping off point is the example set through charitable status in producing decent schools, The Coram Foundation. An exemplar, if there was one of providing the right primary facilities.

When you look at building types and aspire to a form of architecture very little of the meaning is gathered. The colonnades and walkways for example get lost in translation. They are borne out of the andante pace of historical cities and searing heat. The shade is a place of functional architecture and we must also determine the need and capacity of such entities in design of the city. Instead of trying to appear as a grand city such as Rome and five centuries of nurturing we need look to alternatives.

The red brick Bologna (35 kilometres of shade!) - was beset by war but was able to hold onto its identity and as an active preservation. Not some dreamed up notional paddywhackery for the simple consumption of others.

It belies Belfast’s potential as well as becoming deceitful about the past. There are other comparators and many smart ideas which cut across the crude across-the-board solutions which appear in any other venture would be dismissed.

There was no reference to a reliance on the Regional Development Strategy which is coming forward. Its core strategies are insufficiently defined and its scope and ambition only that. No actual projections can be made under the cloak of an economic catastrophe. No alternative economic model has been constructed to fashion the ‘Chinese dollar’ into the equation. A single currency I see as the Axiom.

Without a linkage between all costs and uniformity the expectations and projections are fanciful and unanchored. It is then an agency concern to produce its own corn, the presence of gross mental indolence, of obdurate spin and hype needs to be consigned to history. The Public Service model is in need of returning to being the servant of the people and not the exchange counter for dubious third party service provisions. Housing provision has been a prime example of the collective failure to meet the issues and like a stone in a pond the outward rings of its corrupt market has been damaging beyond its initial leverage. The first ring being the 1988 Housing Act on which every subsequent Housing decision was formed.

Subjects for discussion are numerous, including:

Eradicating Poverty.
Land reform.
Town Planning.
Town Management.
Rural Management.
Genus Loci.
2011 changeover.

as well as the abstract, bells and whistles and content?, homogenous design, bitter fruit, inference and perception. There are many other elements.

From the curse of the past 200 years, (from one period of enlightenment) there is a realisation it has run its course and there is, almost out of brinkmanship and grief held over continental divisions, a new spirit of enlightenment. It is not inconceivable to have upon us the relative and new proximity of nurtured global pathways.

Decisive and dynamic negation of the ineffective, centrifugal politics of old and a structure of centripetal paradigms. They all might not be exacting and precisely identical but disposed to location and its capabilities alone and joined.

It will be youth who determine the means of appropriating this future and it is their understanding of the inbuilt and systems of the everyday that will enable their futures.

The underpinning ongoing development is the access to core knowledge and uncompromising freedom of thought brought through digital means.

Many ’unintended consequences’ of information access are apparent and some are very harmful. Formerly ’stable’ societies are disrupted in a moment and destroyed or disfigured through digital access. The evolution is in dealing with its reality.

A recent study, RSA Social Brain project, has it, to put it crudely, that the right-wing emphasis of human willpower overcoming the environment, derives from childhood depravation scarring. On the other that to co-operate and seek out overall approval inhibits creativity and exploration for the sake of it.

Neither is integrally correct as the need for formal systems, management is well understood, it is in place to counter stupidity for the most part. If we were to act intelligently and smartly then these elements would not inhibit forward thought.

Remodelling the financial landscape has become a 21st century affliction brought on by two major economies China, India, having their industrial revolution in the space of a few decades. Except it did not go according to plan and is stalled on the premise that the Western model worked. Bring into it enforced environmental change, most of it driven by this phenomenon being allied to Western culture then there is unmistakably a need for new solutions and unheard and unspoken ones. A reliance on science would only partially create a correction and then only, with adjusted models, unpractised, unheralded. The immediacy brings with it peril as well as potential.

The posture of risk averse is not wholly beneficial, it inhibits trial and occasional error, but also the debt driven growth is a legacy of former times - which informs basically every aspect of planning going forward.

The models of doing just in time business are also undermined as the strain is felt at all levels. Cleverness, smart business and organic growth is required now as never before.

This is fundamental. The need to put in place the instruments to allow all the factors to be openly viewed and built upon is essential. The instruments are the information strands. A layered version of the OS data could bring with it access to a live register. It could link with Planning and Land Registry. It could also be of use for many society groups and individuals. Indeed the pressure on the OS to free their data comes not in the main from planning/built environment interests but many different and additional strands of community.

Every venture has some peril and the security of information is important and requires proper management - however the digital age has ways of taking care to build reputation, and therefore integrity, and this can be embraced.


John Graham is a "lapsed architectural type" living in Belfast with a continuing interest in the standards adpoted around housing and the core dynamics it calls up for everyone.