How can Belfast draw residents into the city centre? Residents who would be eat, shop, work, socialize, network and most importantly just be in the city centre 24/7?
Belfast City Centre has come a long way in the past few years. From the days of “the ring of steel” where every car entering the city centre was searched, and shoppers were screened before entering stores, today’s busy center of retail, offices and cafes galore seems like an entirely different city. After 6pm on a weekday, however, there are hints of its history as a virtual ghostland. Belfast City Centre has historically been non-sectarian- but this is partly because essentially nobody lives in the city centre! I learned this week that the best way to make public spaces and the city centre as a whole feel safer, is for there to be residents that occupy the city 24/7.
Security is not the only reason that city centre residents are desirable asset to regeneration. It would also be good for businesses and many aspects of the public realm. Now, how to draw people into the city?
And how to draw a diverse demographic? A lot of recent development has been profit-motivated. An exhibition, Red Light, that recently opened at the gallery, Belfast Exposed, reflects on the recent transformation of the city centre. www.belfastexposed.org
I spoke to a few experts about the prospects of building social housing in the city centre- and how to execute it well so that it is truly mixed in. One of the best strategies seems to be mixed-tenure housing, buildings where some units are owned and some are rented. One of the biggest issues is that there is no tradition of rented housing being desirable- or apartments in general. Most people- including those who qualify for social housing- assume that they will get a two-story terrace house with a small garden in the back. How can this trend be changed? What would it take to make the center city seem desirable to families? Could building typologies be fused or altered to accommodate a mix of both families and young professionals? Privately-owned housing and social housing? Developer contribution schemes are being discussed, where private developments would incorporate a certain percentage to social housing, but the Executive Director of Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations claims that this will take at least 5 years to come to fruition.
And then how about mixed housing in terms of religious/political tradition? A few schemes are part of a program called Shared Future, which some estates take part in if no more than 70% of its residents are of one religious tradition. Achieving such a percentage is rare as social housing is allocated by housing need, and not a quota system where religious tradition is taken into account.
As one can see, multiple factors play into the issue of attracting residents to the city centre- and attracting a diverse population is even more complicated. Then being able to provide the services, such as schools, etc., in the city centre is a whole additional cup of tea (pardon the expression?!).
Last week a fairly busy week full of meetings. I met with a landscape architect working on the Belfast Streets Ahead Programme, a civil servant in the Department of Social Development who is in charge of the Belfast Regeneration Office: Inner West, the Executive Director of Clanmil Housing Association, and three other professionals from Clanmil who work on both design and policy of social housing, and lastly with the Executive Director of Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations.
This week, I am participating in a summer school run by the Think Tank, or rather “Do Tank,” Forum for an Alternative Belfast. The program runs 9am-9pm, and I have limited access to the internet, but I return to the States on Friday, so I will most likely be able to next update you then.
Also– I apologize for a lack of photographs… I will upload some as soon as I get a chance!