When I first got to Belfast I took a wander through the city. I find it’s always the best way to get to know a place, take a walk or a jog, get a little lost, find your way home. I have to admit I was a little ignorant about the Troubles as well as the divided spaces within Belfast, so you can imagine I was a little confused when I drifted into North Belfast on a sunny September Saturday, just a short walk from the lively Cathedral Quarter downtown, and saw almost no one walking about. As I really started to look around I realized in just a few steps I’d gone from a busy mixed use section of the city to a nearly deserted area featuring miles of fencing around everything, including patches of grass, and towering walls where houses peered just above the barbed wire. I had stumbled up Crumlin Road and found myself at an interface of communities around the old Crumlin Road Gaol. At the time, I just thought the lack of development of such a central location bizarre, but after seven months in my program I’ve come to have a much fuller understanding of contested space in Belfast and found it very similar to many culturally divided cities in the American South.
In my Environmental Management course Queens we are taught to be managers of the natural environment (i.e. rivers and streams), physical environments and infrastructure (i.e. building efficiency), and human or social environments. My classes range from planning in contested spaces to managing the sustainable business. My planning courses are some of my favorite. In the fall I took a course on sustainable planning. I have absolutely no experience in planning so at first I had to recover the huge learning curve when planning students started spouting things like BMAP (which I now know is the ever important Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan) or discussing the planning authority, a completely foreign idea to me as a rural American who doesn’t have to do much more than get a building permit to erect a new structure. But after I caught up on the planning system in place in Northern Ireland I was intrigued by the development of Belfast, past, current and future.
My undergraduate thesis looked at the ability of community gardens to bring divided communities (economically, racially, etc.) together through the creation and fostering of bridging social capital, or the building of social networks across lines of difference. Coming to Belfast after finishing that work has inspired lots of questions about divided communities and ways of creating bridging social capital. Belfast has plenty of bonding social capital, or the creation of social networks within similar groups. Both Protestant and Catholic communities have leisure centers, clubs, services and public spaces- they are just all separate. The perspective I get from my planning courses is that planners and government have been encouraging bonding social capital through funding and development and have hoped those capacities would spill over and bridging capital would begin to be formed. But spatially, bridging social capital is nearly impossible with walls, roads and sometimes even businesses acting as lines of divisions splintering the city. Even open spaces like parks and football pitches are contested in areas.
In sustainable planning I undertook a group project that has come to shape my understanding of Belfast as a city. Our group conducted a sustainability appraisal of The Crumlin Road Gaol Masterplan, the area I found myself in on that first walk around Belfast, in which we looked at all aspects of the plan and evaluated its overall sustainability in terms of environmental, economic and social aspects. The plan, which is still in discussion with the community and the city, would build mixed used development including improvements to the nearest health facility and school around the Crumlin Road Gaol, a popular tourist attraction in Belfast. Currently the Gaol is surrounded by an abandoned army barracks and an incredibly amount of unused land. The proposal seeks to feature the Gaol and museum as a focal point and surround it with housing, green space, shops, leisure facilities, and so on. Our evaluation showed that the developers had included lots of green planning such as garden space, renewable energy, green building material and water conservation measures and the development would have positive social aspects for the area in terms of construction and retail jobs as well as improved access to services.
The only problem with this plan is that it lies smack in the middle of a highly contested space, flanked on one side by a Protestant community in decline and on the other a growing Catholic community, desperate for more housing and space. It essentially comes down to a turf battle. The Protestants don’t want to lose the space which they view as theirs and they see the development, which is being pushed as non-sectarian, as providing Catholic housing and many believe the entire development will be co-opted by those who live closest. The situation gets even more complicated when considering the services the development would offer such as health facilities and leisure centers, who will those belong to? Security issues are also a factor, not if violence will occur, but will people using the space will feel secure and welcome? The Crumlin project as a contested space is a case study in the dilemmas planning faces in Belfast.
Traditionally Belfast planners have approached issues of contested space as a neutral authority. Not challenging territoriality but remaining impartial. One of my professors writes persuasively on the need for a new kind of planning in Belfast. One that challenges communities to air difficult concerns, discuss problems that will probably make people uncomfortable, but with the issues on the table communities will be able to make cross-community decisions that need to be made. It is this kind of difficult dialogue that will ultimately bridge divides, bringing down emotional and social walls not just the physical symbols of division.
While I’m still not sure the exact methods by which planning and management can positively affect communities and bridge old divides, I feel deeply that planning and planners have a role to play in making social change in regions. In recent weeks we’ve seen the role planning in Israel has had in pushing a government agenda and creating further divides and perhaps blocks to the peace process. Planning can act as an agent for political and social agendas, both positive and negative. More optimistically, divided cities such as Johannesburg, South Africa have created a new model of development planning in which planners also act as community organizers, helping identify and meet the short-term needs of communities.
Looking towards my dissertation in the coming weeks, processing my course material as well as my undergraduate work, I am interested in considering what culturally divided communities in the US can learn from the planning exercises of divided cities such as Belfast. I think a more systematic, thoughtful approach towards bridging divides in the US will be ultimately more affective than just hoping towns and counties will have cross-community dialogue and air difficult concerns. I’m not sure where this inquiry will lead- check back with me in 5 months or so.