Archive for March, 2010

Contested Space

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.


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I am a bit obsessed with NPR radio personality and host of All Songs Considered Bob Boilen.  But honestly, what’s not to love? He has a smooth, attentive voice.  He listens to all the best music, goes to all the best shows. He has a laugh that forces me to stifle a foolish grin as I listen to his show walking through the park.  I’m sure passersby wonder what the hell is so funny, but it is only because they aren’t hearing the sweet charm and infectious laughter of DC’s most talented music personality. Most importantly, Bob constantly challenges me to find the best (defined as whatever is interesting and appealing to me at the moment) music in whatever city I am visiting or inhabiting.  And Belfast would definitely not disappoint Mr. Boilen.

I started realizing Belfast was a great place for music when I began making the open mic night rounds with my housemate.  Unlike my American experience with such events, which are usually 90% guys wailing some Nirvana cover forcing me to hit the bar more than usual, the open mic nights in Belfast weren’t bad at all.  In fact, some nights I found myself in disbelief that I hadn’t paid for such a great show.  My favorite open mic spot in Belfast is the John Hewitt where on any Monday night you can experience the upcoming singer/songwriter trying out some new material as well as old favorites like Dylan and Guthrie.

My most current bit of music madness has been the Empire‘s blues night where every Thursday, free of charge, Rab McCullough and his band play a show that could only be better and more bluesy if the bar was serving hurricanes and throwing out beads.  The Empire’s blues night even has a dancer in residence, Jumpin’ Jack, a thrilling older gentleman who bursts onto the dance floor with a cartwheel and attracts ever female in the bar to shimmy up next to him.  Jack alone is worth the trip.

For the classical music enthusiast, Belfast won’t disappoint.  After two grand performances I can say with some authority that the Ulster Orchestra is worth a night on the town.  At Christmas, Adam and I went to see their performance of Handel’s Messiah at Waterfront Hall, which is a great venue beside the Lagan.  Last week Larry and I saw the orchestra perform Britten at Ulster Hall with its romantic muralled walls.  The best part about the orchestra is their incredibly cheap 3gbp student tickets. The second best part about the orchestra is their close proximity (in both venues) to Nando’s.

Belfast is also home to the Odyssey complex, where usually one can catch a Giant’s hockey game, go bowling, or dance in one of the many clubs, but ever so often the Odyssey is transformed for headline shows.  In the fall Beyonce and Toby Keith came through.  Neither of which I could afford to see, but I did see Gaga there two-weeks ago, and like any good arena, it was packed.

Just across the street from my flat is Mandela Hall, a great venue in the Queen’s Student union.  In the fall, Ben and Adam and I went to see Dublin born Imelda May and her rocker-billy fans tear it up.  Thinking of Dublin born artists, back at Thanksgiving Trina was sweet enough to get all the Mitchell’s tickets to Irish soul songstress Laura Izibor who I had unknowingly been listening to in movie soundtracks such as P.S. I Love You and Tyler Perry films.  Her show was great, though I think she might be more appreciated back at home, and her album ‘Let the Truth be Told’ is equally good.

Belfast also hosts some pretty good music festivals.  Almost every month there is some festival that fills the pubs with free and cheap shows. The end of February saw the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival.  I was on retreat most of the week but I did catch a decent show at Stormont. At the end of this month is the Moving on Music Festival and I’m hoping to catch a few shows.

When I’m not out listening to great music in Belfast I’m listening to great UK and Irish music at home, walking through the park, in the gym, on the way to class, in the library, basically everywhere.  I’d listen to music in my sleep if I could.  My good friend Larry is busy exposing me to as much ‘local’ music as he can. So far he has led me to UK based Laura Marling whose melodies have brought some of my favorite musicians to their knees and Cara Dillion, from Derry, whose clear, pure tone utterly transports you.  Both ladies will be in or near Belfast in the next few weeks and I’m definitely going to be there.

So all of this is to say that Bob should come be with me in Belfast so I can listen to even more quality music and get that commentary only public radio can provide.

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. . . (all resolutions need a little breaking) I’m finally blogging a bit more about life here in sunny Ireland. In the last month I’ve had a few great adventures, but I won’t bore with the details. I’ll let the accompanying pictures tell most of the stories, but I will hit a few highlights.

Scotland: I went searching for the Loch Ness monster in Scotland and all I came back with were these ridiculous pictures.

The Bike Ride from Hell: Snow is the enemy of any bicyclist, for obvious reasons.  I especially hate snow when I’m utterly exhausted, but decide nonetheless to set off with my bike from Portrush to Bushmills and beyond. It started out a brilliant idea.  I’d meet the Mitchell scholars, who were up visiting Northern Ireland, at Bushmills and then spend the night with them in their rented cottage.  But it turned out to be one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had.  First, I didn’t realize how incredible hilly the path was, made worse by the snow and ice that covered the winding farm roads that make up the cycle route.  I went between cursing while pushing my bike up an icy bank to praying and screaming while sliding down the other side.  After I finally made it to Bushmills I got lost on the journey to the cottage and ended up at the Giant’s Causeway, a great place to get stranded.  Eventually the other scholars came and stuffed a very muddy, wet and grumpy Bre and her bike into their tiny rental car and carried me to the warmth of their cottage and Alec’s fresh made bagels.  While the ride was miserable, it was some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.  I’d be just cycling along and bam, there’s another castle.  I will defiantly go back- when it’s warm and pleasant, and next time I’ll be in a car. *Note* Since this experience I haven’t touched my bike, even with the sunny weather of this week.  I think I am slightly traumatized.

Gaga in Belfast: Months ago, 6 of us Mitchells bought tickets to Lady Gaga.  Though I appreciate Gaga in the club I wouldn’t say that I’m a passionate Little Monster.  If anything, I figured a Gaga concert was an awesome way to kick off my birthday week.  I was completely right.  It was incredible.  Gaga was amazing, but more than anything it was a visually stunning production.  And I mean production.  The stage was circular with a runway jutting out into the middle of the arena (we stood near the end).  Periodically a circular curtain would drop, allowing for set and, of course, costume changes, and these incredibly artistic projections would play.  Most of them were Gaga in outrageous outfits, but a few were crazy like Gaga eating a heart.  But it was a spectacular performance and I was so glad to be there with good friends.

23 on the 23rd: I love the number 23.  It’s my birthday. It appears in almost every number identification I’m ever given.  It is my lucky number, winning me the occasional small lottery pool.  It’s always the locker I chose at the gym.  I just love the number.  So you can imagine my excitement at turning 23 on the 23rd!  I’m just going to say it was a night to remember.  *For pictures see Adam.

Castle Leslie: Last weekend, the Mitchell scholars, including myself, got to finish our retreat at Castle Leslie in Monaghan.  [Check out their site!] It was an absolutely spectacular estate with a sparking river and lush garden. But the best part was Sir John Leslie, the 94 year old Baronet and cousin to Winston Churchill, who took up clubbing in his 70’s.  Sir John took us to his favorite clubs where he schooled us all on the dance floor and kept us out until about 3am.

The coming weeks have a few more adventures in store.  St. Patrick’s day is approaching, as is a Mitchell excursion to Brussels.  I will try my best to be better about documenting the details.

Next up- The Belfast music scene.  I’ve been waiting to write about that for a while.  Next week. Promise.

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