Can Belfast become a city fit for the future?

A few minutes after you leave Belfast City Airport to head into the city centre, a row of fluttering purple flags greets you. They signal that the estate behind the fence is the territory of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Seven months ago they weren’t there. It’s a visible sign of the fragility of Belfast’s recovery from historic conflicts and the vulnerability of its efforts to reinvent itself as an inclusive, welcoming city.


Belfast City Hall: setting the vision

There are other signs of that fragility. Political consensus still has to be spelled out, emphasised and underlined several times before anything is done. Yet despite the territoriality and suspicion that persists in many parts of the city, progress continues to be made.

This week I was involved in Belfast City Council’s ‘future city’ conference at the MAC, an arts venue that is itself a sign of the city’s growing confidence. Its chief executive, Anne McReynolds, described it as ‘a great big concrete symbol of what can be done when we work together’. It connects communities within Belfast, and it connects the city with the wider world of arts, music and dance.

There are other signs of the city’s self-assurance and broadening horizons: the burgeoning film industry, which has given the world Game of Thrones, or the Titanic building, which has surpassed expectations for visitors. You could point too to the increasing investment from companies outside Northern Ireland, or the impressive research expertise in Belfast’s two universities and its medical services.

Soon Belfast City Council will be given new powers over planning and regeneration, a much needed expression of faith in local democracy and an important shift away from Northern Ireland’s traditional central control.

This week a redrafted masterplan for the city was released for consultation, along with a 3D model of the city to help planners and politicians visualise the impact of their ideas. The masterplan stresses the importance of the central corridor between Queen’s University and the Titanic Quarter, an area which hosts nearly half the working population of Northern Ireland. For the rest of the city to work, this area must work well.

But there is still a sense that the city is walking a tightrope, and that the worries of the present are preventing Belfast from planning effectively for the future. For Michael Parkinson, a longstanding ‘critical friend’ of the city, the concern was not the local economy but politics and society: the fractures between local communities remain, and the interests of the city as a whole often play second fiddle to local jockeying.

Neil McInroy, who chaired the event, sounded a note of caution among the celebrations of Belfast’s economic revival: there is no guarantee that economic progress brings social progress, and without an economy that works for everyone many of the city’s communities will continue to feel disenfranchised and excluded.

My own contribution to the conference was a discussion of the role of the city centre. A city can’t function well without a lively centre: it’s like having a doughnut with no jam in the middle. But the jam needs to be there for everyone.

To make sure that happens, city centres need to be inclusive and they need to be future-oriented: two things that the global trend towards bland, ‘glassitechture’ dominated central business districts has failed abysmally to deliver.

Inclusivity involves a realisation that what brings a city centre to life is not the high-rise offices or even the cultural icons and events, but the everyday use by everyday people. Cheap property that can be used by artists and makers, independent retailers and restaurants is as important as Grade A office space. It’s this life that creates the value of a place and turns it into somewhere others – including corporations – want to be.

A mesh of thriving small businesses is as vital in creating a sense of place as interesting buildings and public spaces. These businesses, too, help to connect people from the surrounding neighbourhoods with the city centre, providing flexible and entry-level employment and start-up spaces for new entrepreneurs. Amid all the talk of foreign investment in Belfast, it needs to be remembered that the overwhelming majority of businesses in Northern Ireland are small, employing 347,000 people between them.

Our city centres need to be accessible to people on low incomes as well as the wealthy, because incomes aren’t going to rise any time soon. Food prices have risen by 12 per cent in real terms in the last five years, at a time when wages have fallen or remained static: people are going to have less money to spend for the foreseeable future. We can’t afford to turn the heart of our cities into enclaves for the wealthy.

This leads us on to the requirement to orientate city centre development towards a very different future. We need to think in terms of shifting from a fossil-fuel economy and accept that transport costs are likely to rise; we need to accept that the idea of limitless growth on a planet of finite resources defies rationality, and plan for cities that will work well without depending on an increasingly desperate competition for external investment.

These are huge challenges and Belfast is far from alone in struggling to come to terms with them. But rethinking the role of the city centre provides an opportunity to take steps in the right direction – by taking car-sharing seriously, as in Ulm, for example, or by setting up a city-wide cycle-share scheme, taking advantage of low levels of car ownership by investing in alternatives that remove the need for it. Belfast has the topography and is compact enough to rival Copenhagen or Amsterdam as a cycling city, and has enough vacant land to create a ring of walkable green spaces around the city centre.

Over the last decade Belfast City Council, commercial investors and public bodies have put in place many of the building blocks needed for a successful city. There are signs that a new generation wants to leave behind the political snarling of the past; and as the city council’s chief executive, Peter McNaney, put it, they’re ready to have ‘a conversation about what good looks like’. But creating a city fit for the future is a big ask: it demands leaders with the vision of a Galileo and the hide of a rhinoceros.