What kind of city do we want Belfast to be? by Successful Belfast

Successful places are built on two ingredients: their distinctiveness and how they involve people. Their vibrancy, their sense of place, comes from using what’s authentic and making that relevant to people.

Belfast’s mix of Edwardian edifices and sarcastic sensibilities make it a unique and special place. Its story is messy. And yet, for all of that messiness, it is the city’s heritage that provides the basis for its future.

Successful Belfast emerged by asking ‘What kind of city do we want Belfast to be?’ The answers to that are sometimes a hope and sometimes an ambition. But they are always a reaction to what is here now and what has come before.

The Successful Belfast vision is for a city that, in 2066, is confident, ambitious, prosperous, and distinctive. Launched in late 2016, it challenges all of us, as citizens, to become involved in the city’s future in enterprising and creative ways. One of its projects is ‘We Are Belfast’. A monthly profile of people who are thinking and doing differently, this tells the story of a city that challenges perceptions through its people. Another project is Belfast City of Music, on which it is working with a number of organisations. This provides an opportunity to use something authentically Belfast to involve people in exploring what makes it unique and to support economic growth.

Three values drive Successful Belfast. First, a belief that Belfast’s regeneration has to reflect what has come before. An authentic sense of place means referencing the city’s past. That is not the same as being trapped by the past. It simply means that character and distinctiveness do not magic themselves out of thin air. A future without heritage will only destroy the distinctiveness and vibrancy of our places.

Making heritage relevant is how we shape a successful future. Heritage is integral to character, and the character of our places affects us. Belfastians are different from Edinburghers, for example, because of ships and linen against a castle and Adam Smith. So people have to value heritage and, most critically, use it and be involved in the city’s regeneration. Places with authentic identities are places where people spend more time and money. They are places where tourists and residents alike are part of the puzzle. They grow organically and support local enterprise. Strong, durable economies and societies are about place. In Belfast, that’s as much about our red brick terraced homes and our fondness for Good Vibrations.

Finally, a city’s confidence, its quality of life, depends on making the authentic relevant. Sense of place is an experience. It combines the tangible and intangible, the ordinary and extraordinary. It is, in varying degrees for various people, the look and feel of buildings, the ways in which we use or don’t use our public spaces, maritime or landlocked, industrial grit or genteel merchant city. It shapes individuals, neighbourhoods, and entire cities. It helps to define who we are as people. It affects our well-being and our potential in life.

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So not only should the design of places be of the highest quality. They need to reflect the fullest heritage of place. Developments that fail to consider heritage very often have, in the words of Jane Jacobs, “no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavour all its own”. As you start to answer the question of what kind of city you want Belfast to be, remember that it is a city with a tradition and flavour all its own. And that’s the basis for our future heritage.

Belfast Design WeekComment