Belfast

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BELFAST

Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, has suffered many decades of acrimonious troubles between its loyalist and republican citizens, with the British State, its police force and

its army caught in between and disliked by both parties. The quarrels in Northern Ireland have deep historical roots which deserve and require book-length explanations. What is indispensable as background understanding is the constitutional question, that is, the unresolved dispute over the national belonging of the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland. Many Catholics, nationalists and republicans argue that it should be part of the Republic of Ireland. Conversely, many Protestants, unionists and loyalists claim that it is a legitimate part of the United Kingdom.

These two ethnic, religious, linguistic groups have never been evenly spread across the territory of Belfast. This spatial clustering became more pronounced during the city’s industrial heyday when the accelerated need for manual labor drew many Catholic families from rural parts of the island to the boomtown in the north-east where they tended to settle either in proximity to the existing Irish community or where space was available, which was largely in the west of the city. While some physical barriers separating the two communities were built in the early 20th century they were never a prominent feature of Belfast’s urban fabric until 1969 when a phase of extremely violent atrocities, known as The Troubles, began. Bombing campaigns, street battles and arson attacks against “25,000 households”(1) triggered the exodus of thousands of families from relatively mixed areas into the heartland of “their” community which resulted not only in collective trauma, deep-seated hatred and a seemingly hereditary mistrust but also in a staggering degree of segregation. In 2005, the percentage of Belfast’s population living in severely segregated wards (whose population is 90% or more homogeneous by religion) was 55.4% (2).

1 Calame and Charlesworth, 2008, 80
2  Morrissey and Gaffikin, 2006, 881
comm_protestantcomm_catholicsLoyalist


 

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Many violent clashes between, mainly young, members of the warring communities of Belfast take place at this area along Limestone Road. A forest of fortified poles with CCTV cameras mirrors this situation.

01/16 

DEFENSIVE ARCHITECTURE / PEACELINES

Many urban artefacts in Belfast owe their existence, shape and sometimes even color to this socio-political condition. Most notorious are probably the 88 “security and segregation barriers”(3), many known as Peace Walls, separating Catholic from Protestant communities. These barriers are made of concrete, brick or corrugated metal, often with barbed wire on top, and extend up to 1.6 kilometers in length and 12 meters in height. However, the manifestation of conflict is not only visible in monumental walls but also in fences, the design of houses, neighborhoods and streets; even the orientation of windows or the decision which plants to grow in one’s garden. The foot paths in the Poleglass development, for example, were allegedly constructed to full road specification to facilitate access for heavy army vehicles. Similar observations (or rumors) have been circulating in the planning community for many years.


Growing up and living in such an urban environment doubtlessly has an impact on the (ir-)regularity with which mutual stereotypes can be challenged through direct encounters with “the others”. For this and many other reasons, we would therefore argue, does the material shape of the city not only reflect (mirror) but also influence (mediate) the lived reality of the division. Luckily, a so called peace process is underway in Northern Ireland and the consensus is growing that the future should be non-violent. This goal is not easily implemented in hearts, minds and on the ground, however, and part of the problem certainly lies in the obduracy of the built environment. Nevertheless, successful attempts can be reported to remove security fencing, gates and road barriers3. Yet more ambitious than the removal of architecture that keeps people apart is the establishment of material structures that (try to) bring people together.

3 Community Relations Council 2008




 

01/16 


MURALS AND POLITICAL SYMBOLS

Belfast is famous for its hundreds of murals, ranging in artistic quality from quick tags to elaborate paintings and in their message from intimidating, aggressive, protective, revengeful, educational, celebratory, solidary etc.

 

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Many houses in the protestant Suffolk enclave were vacated over the last decades because of the flight to the suburb and the sense of being ‘under siege’ from the surrounding catholic community. They are mostly demolished now. Photo: SRRP

01/18 

The Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project

(SRRP; www.stewartstownroad.org) in Outer West Belfast is such an attempt and our particular focus in Belfast. It is located at the interface between the predominantly protestant enclave of Suffolk and the predominantly catholic area Lenadoon. The Stewartstown Road was the site of countless violent clashes between these two groups, the police and the British Army over several decades and was therefore fortified with a peace wall, intended to keep the warring factions apart. Over the last ten years, however, courageous individuals from both sides took the initiative to develop a more peaceful relationship between their communities which resulted – after many years of negotiations, disputes, highs and lows – in the construction of a jointly owned and managed two storey building. Its roughly 1,000 square meters accommodate offices for community groups, four retail units and commercially let office space. The scheme is widely considered a financial and social success with a long waiting list for the retail units, general acceptance among most residents of the adjoining communities, absence of sectarian graffiti and income generation for community initiatives. This experience energized the construction of a second phase, which extended the building by two more retail units, more office space and a separate nursery.


More projects like this are imaginable and actually pursued by various grassroots, non-governmental and state organisations (incl. the Northern Ireland Housing Executive). It thus seems highly worthwhile to identify some of the factors that make such initiatives work – and to find out whether / what role architectural elements might play in such a context of de-polarisation and de-radicalisation. Such findings may assist the many shapers of urban environments in contested cities in their important contribution for a better future. This includes, of course, official planners and architects but also community groups, designers of playgrounds, engineers of peace walls, architectural liaison officers of the police forces, youth workers, academics and many others.

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