A Model for Belfast Regeneration?

The amount of vacant land in Belfast city centre is equivalent to the size of 265 football pitches, according to the Forum for Alternative Belfast. If this space was used efficiently, at least 50,000 more people could live within 20 minutes walk of central Belfast without the need for high-rise buildings or the destruction of green spaces.

undera12northqueenstNext week, Forum for Alternative Belfast (Fab), a not-for-profit organisation run by a group of architects and planners, will launch the first ever architect’s scale model of Belfast in an effort to change how people – and politicians – think about regeneration in the North’s capital.

‘Belfast needs an integrated approach to housing and to stitching the city back together,’ Mark Hackett, an award-winning architect and the Forum’s co-director, told the Sunday Business Post.

‘The city centre is the part of the city that anyone would want to live in but (in Belfast) it is actually the most dysfunctional part of the city.’

‘Belfast: A Method’ is a 1:1500 scale model of the city centre, highlighting all the buildings, streets, and also the vacant space. Constructed out of plywood in the University of Ulster’s digital fabrication facility, the model will be open to the public from May 2, in Belfast’s Golden Thread Gallery.

The idea for a Belfast model arose from the Forum’s involvement at the British pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale. Similar city models were successfully used in Berlin in the early 1990s, in Dublin’s Temple Bar and, more recently, in Boston.

‘These kind of models are very important. People can look at drawings all day long but they cannot get the same assessment of scale, mass, topography that you get in three dimensions,’ said Martin Barrett, an architect and proprietor of Oscar and Oscar, a design and reclamation business based in Belfast.

Four years ago the Forum for Alternative Belfast produced Missing City, a map that identified and plotted all the unused land in the city centre. Now, as Belfast city council prepares for the return of formerly centralised planning powers, the hope is that the scale model will stimulate debate about the need for regeneration in the city.

‘A lot of the reports and plans we’ve had over the last fifteen years don’t get to the heart of the problem,’ Mark Hackett said. ‘There are parts of the city that don’t work.’

Over the last 35 years the population of Belfast has decreased by 35 per cent. This decline in population is particularly evident in inner and central city areas that have been decimated by the impacts of roadinfrastructure, low-density housing redevelopment and the proliferation of car parks. Many parts of the city, particularly the East, West and North, feel disconnected from the city centre.

‘Most good cities have a sense of themselves, a sense of the civic,’ said Mark Hackett. ‘Belfast kind of lacks that, it has developed into sectors that are not really connected, not just because of the Troubles but also because of the development of its infrastructure.’

Earlier this month, planning permission was granted for the redevelopment of the former Maze prison site, near Lisburn, on the outskirts of Belfast. Most of the H blocks architecture, which formerly housed paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles, was demolished following the prison’s closure in October 2003.

The new Maze development will include an £18m peace centre designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, and funded by a European Union grant, and an agricultural centre. The project is expected to create several thousand jobs but there are fears that it could exacerbate Belfast’s on-going suburbanization.

As well as vast tracts of vacant space, Belfast city centre is scarred by a large number of low-quality developments. Permissive planning has, said Fab’s Mark Hackett, led to a focus on development for its own sake.

‘Politicians aren’t brave enough to say, “Ok we want development but we don’t want development at any cost”.

This piece appeared in the Sunday Business Post 28 April, 2013.