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Cohesion in contested spaces

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'Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, ' wrote WBYeats in 1921, the year of Irish partition. Can Belfast prove him wrong?

Belfast City Partnership Board (BCPB), led by Belfast City Council and the Department of the Environment, is a coalition of joint public and private sector interests. Much of its urban strategy is inspired by some of the 'shared visioning' models of urban planning, employed in racially divided US cities such as Detroit and Baltimore during the 1990s. Its strategic plan, Belfast 2025, sets out a vision for the city based on principles of community, citizenship and sustainability; where the 'problems of the past are channelled positively' to discover and create solutions.

While many of Belfast's problems are typical of cities in industrial decline across the developed world, its fundamental problem exists in the absence of integrated living between its catholic and protestant communities. An enduring feature of Belfast since partition, when 60 per cent of the population lived in segregated housing, the proportion of core city inhabitants living in segregated streets flattened out in the late 1970s to its current level of just under 80 per cent.

Post ceasefire, as sporadic incidents of sectarian violence continue to spiral, these figures may at best stabilise.

However, in the short to medium term they seem unlikely to fall.

The 1970s corrugated iron, barbed wire barricades and stark metal cages - objects of violent hostility for years - have metamorphosed into gentrified brick and landscaped environments; the physical barriers between communities, known as 'peace lines' have now become permanent - even commonplace - features within most working-class areas. Nowadays, though, nobody seems to question them. The conflict management of the old Northern Ireland Office seems to have become transmogrified into an Urban Task Force policy of social inclusion.

Channelling the troubles of a separated past and present towards the discovery of a 'new Belfast which will belong to all its people' is an ambitious project. The BCPB - whose members include local Sinn Fein, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) councillors - is the first to acknowledge that not all residents of the new 'rainbow city'may choose an 'integrated lifestyle'.

'It is better to live together than to live alone, ' states the BCPB, as yet another peace wall goes up across the north of the city.

The beleaguered residents of Ardoyne and Glenbryn may be reassured to know that 'genuine choice of residence will be respected', and that the BCPB even recognises 'positive aspects to segregation, such as safety, a close bond with fellow residents and sufficient people to support local schools and cultural activity'.

Leaving aside its tendency to retreat into pious relativism and some of its more fanciful notions, such as uniting the city through redirecting its historic 'energy and culture of tribalism' towards a passion for competitive sports, can the BCPB's laudable aspiration towards a common civic identity ever be achieved?

In stark contrast with the experience of Belfast's residential areas, the peace process has effected a remarkable improvement in the fortunes of the city centre - which is increasingly perceived as belonging to both communities, coming together to share the benefits of new global models of consumerism. Shopping, eating and drinking remain some of Belfast's most enduring cross-community activities. The relaxation in security has led to a renewed consumer confidence and a boom in leisure, retail and commercial building in the city centre.

The redevelopment of the centre has, in turn, been a factor in building a shared sense of civic pride, security and enjoyment among people whose attitudes, shaped by separated experience, may well be mutually antagonistic. So, as the city centre recovers and reinvents itself as a neutral space, will it find itself marooned within a divided city, or can it generate a sense of citizenship outward to its divided populations?

The bands of underdeveloped space at the fringes of the city centre provide some interesting clues. Less obviously stated than the residential peace lines, these interfaces are the gateways where Belfast's divided communities converge or, more properly, collide with the commercial neutrality of the centre.

As a consequence of a massive programme of inner-city, publicsector building during the '70s and '80s, segregated housing estates, such as Donegal Pass, Sandy Row, the Markets and Divis, exist in close proximity to the centre. During these troubleddecades the ragged fringes of these areas became ruined, dangerous spaces, locked behind gates and checkpoints or overlooked by police barracks of fortress dimensions.

Many still project a threatening, desolate atmosphere: part of the city but not yet fully integrated, symbolic of Belfast's unhappy history of economic and social collapse. Developments under way within these fringe-areas may indicate future patterns for the integration of the wider city.

Along the fringes of the inner east side, development has followed familiar UK models of post-industrial urban regeneration. The Odyssey Centre, like the Newcastle Arena on Tyneside, uses reclaimed waterfront land to provide leisure activities. Selfconsciously presenting itself as a neutral venue for 'non-aligned' activities such as ice hockey, cinema and science parks, the Odyssey is perceived as a regional, rather than a local, resource.

Residents from the protestant heartlands of Lower Newtonards Road often cite poor pedestrian access and ticket prices as obstacles to using the facility; but perhaps they also feel a sense of estrangement and loss at being displaced from the industrial terrains they once dominated and which previously defined their relationship to the city.

North Belfast, the original economic and industrial centre of the city, is again being redeveloped as a cultural quarter, along the lines of familiar urban regeneration models, by reclaiming Victorian commercial premises and harnessing local creativity to improve the area. Given that the citizens of the north inhabit a patchwork of segregated areas, where city gateways become seasonal flashpoints, it is hoped that the provision of low-rent workspaces for community arts organisations may encourage people into the city to share creative activities in a safe environment.

However, it is on the, as yet undeveloped, western fringes of the city where new social, economic and political relationships may prove to be more powerful indicators of change than the self-conscious layouts of urban planners to the north and east.

Areas such as Castle Street and King Street, linking the Falls Road to the centre, remain underdeveloped and ruinous spaces, reflecting the onceuneasy political relationship between nationalists and the state.

A major part of Sinn Fein's strategy has been to claim the city for its own nationalist constituency, under the slogan: 'It's our city too.' Sinn Fein councillors currently hold more seats than any other single party on the city council's planning committee, (although they are not dominant on the environment committee) and the newly confident nationalist middle class has injected a sense of economic vitality into the west end. There is a sense of inward movement to the centre from the Falls and a new sense of accommodation to a previously excluded community, where even 'republican' black taxis are to be integrated into the new transport 'gateway' situated at the back of Castlecourt shopping centre.

As property values continue to rise, the growing political fortunes of the nationalist community look set to drive forward a limited commercial redevelopment within the western fringe. The opening up of the city to nationalist west Belfast contrasts with the experience of loyalist communities - such as Sandy Row and Donegal Pass - at the southern fringes, who find themselves shut out from new office, leisure and residential developments.

In Belfast, social mobility is confined within strict parameters of national identity, as the politics of control have always determined the character and contours of the city.

Given these real and historic constraints, urban planners seeking to integrate the two communities within city streets and spaces are taking on the role of mediators, operating in a complex and seemingly intractable set of circumstances. For all the talk about encouraging social mix, the process thus far has not been so much about changing hearts and minds, as seeking to contain them.

Pauline Hadaway is the director of Belfast Exposed, which will be commissioning a new photographic work early next year, exploring the fringes of Belfast between the centre and the peripheries. For information visit www. belfastexposed. com

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