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Driving the social divide: planning in Belfast reinforces the city’s segregation

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Proving roads and urban planning can be as divisive as walls: twenty years since the peace process began Belfast remains a city disunited

Expanding around mills, shipbuilding and other industries, Belfast is a radial patchwork of arteries developed into streets, with tracts of terrace housing laid out in former fields and estate boundaries. It is a city largely without a plan but that once had spatial coherence and connectivity along its streets. To the visitor, Belfast may initially appear similar to many other UK cities both in its Victorian-era brick fabric and in its contemporary disparate developments. Yet one soon encounters the dominance of roads and a realisation that surface car parks are not the exception but a norm that surrounds and peppers the city at every turn. This is a city redesigned for the car and for commuters living in the wider suburban and metropolitan area. In this, Belfast shares the characteristics of many American cities.

Familiar too are the low-density housing estates of the 1970s to ’90s that one encounters beyond the wide ring roads, or on occasion, is encircled and entrapped by. One notices the introversion in the housing, fences, walls and layouts that are strangely disconnected and labyrinthine – urban distortions that affect the entire zone around the city centre. Only partly responsible are the prefabricated concrete walls with steel posts, layered with mesh fence growing ever taller, taller than you could throw a stone over. 

‘Roads can form the most effective urban barriers, as violent and divisive as physical walls’

These are the ‘peace walls’ of Belfast, of which the city now has approaching a hundred. The visitor, however, will be hard pressed to find or identify most of the structures – the smaller, more recent ones are strangely intimate, set between the backs of suburban houses in outer areas of the city. Others lie off main city arteries. One, however, runs for two miles out from the city: the Falls/Shankill peace line that first formed along the line of terrace houses burnt out in August 1969.

Today each side of this line has a wide new road. In places three parallel roads exist, something that may confound those who talk about ‘bringing down the walls’. The larger roads run along the Shankill side and allow a vista of wall in picturesque brutality, softened by low level artwork, murals and the marks of international visitors. The wall is now a main tourist draw helping to support the economy of this neglected sector of the city. 

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The Rape & Plunder of the Shankill by Belfast community planner Ron Wiener

The Rape & Plunder of the Shankill by Belfast community planner Ron Wiener addresses the deleterious actions of developers and planners and the response from the working-class community who lost so much in the process


tourist bus at the peace wall. photograph James O’Leary

Buses of tourists now arrive to see the peace walls, also a symbol of the divided and segregated city. Photograph by James O’Leary

As the Conflict in Cities project led by Wendy Pullan poignantly notes, roads can form the most effective urban barriers, as violent and divisive as physical walls. A remarkable restructuring of Belfast took place between 1970 and 1990, essentially hardwiring sectarian division but moreover leading to a complete sifting of the city based on income and affluence. This social divide in the city is largely formed and defined by the urban motorway and by other large road structures. When direct rule began in 1972, a region-wide governance structure took control of all major decisions, the most dominant and powerful of which was undoubtedly the transport and infrastructure department in what was aptly termed ‘Roads Service’. 

The urban motorways were first proposed in the early 1960s, but the Westlink, the only section constructed and cutting through the arterial routes of the west and north of the city, was not started until 1981, and finished two years later. However, the neglect and blight caused by these plans, before a spade had even broken ground, had profound impacts on the working-class communities adjoining the city centre. Families who had rented for generations found landlords unwilling to repair housing that was to be vested and for which the landlords would be compensated. During the late 1960s, industrial decline was causing social stress for the Catholic mill workers in the Falls and Protestant shipyard workers in the Shankill. The violence that erupted in the streets connecting these two areas evolved in this context of housing stress and uncertainty, a factor omitted in most Troubles histories.

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Belfast in the 1960s and now, maps by Mark Hackett

Belfast in the 1960s (left) versus now (right). The cordon sanitaire of the Westlink (shown above in red) separates the outer city from the commercial and more salubrious core. A profusion of cul-de-sacs have appeared in its wake. Maps by Mark Hackett

Still unrealised in the 1970s, the Westlink plans lent themselves to an increasingly balkanised city of sectors and enclaves. During the early years of the Troubles in the 1970s, a working committee tasked with examining security issues in the city noted ‘the wisdom’ of using the urban motorway and inner ring road projects to create a wide cordon sanitaire to separate the west and north of the city from the commercial core. These were the working-class areas where the effects of the Troubles were most intense.

‘The Westlink seems to have assumed the status of a “natural impediment”’

The city plans of the ’60s also saw the old arterial routes of shopping and civic connection, which give cohesion to the terraced side streets, strategically downgraded to ‘traffic distributors’. This involved the widening of carriageways as urban clearways, the removal of granite kerbs and reducing pavements. Most city arterial routes now have large ‘shatter zones’, created by a double cut of ring road and motorway at their springing points from the city core. This undermining of the edges spread to blight nearby buildings, a decline that created wide intimidating zones to walk through, especially in the context of sectarian killings and attacks during the conflict. The bleak anti-urbanism of the shatter zones endures today. 

During the Troubles, general planning policies permitted business and people to relocate to what were seen as safer enclaves in suburbs and towns around the city, essentially facilitating the relocation of the middle class away from the city and increasing the process of social division and sifting. All of these factors led to the ‘bubble’ of car use becoming the predominant and safe method of crossing the city during the conflict. Notably this has a class dimension, since car ownership in poorer inner areas is low, but the middle classes (where car ownership is high) can navigate the city, largely overcoming urban and sectarian obstacles. 

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highway over fences and cul-de-sacs, photo by mark hackett

An elevated highway structure where car is king looks down on a bleak landscape of fences and dead-ends, distorting and dividing the urban fabric. Photograph by Mark Hackett


Car parks and roads encircling the Belfast city core. Photograph by Mark Hackett

Car parks and roads encircling the city core separate it from the working-class communities. Photograph by Mark Hackett

It is clear that the Westlink motorway is the largest structure in the city arising from the conflict, yet it seems to have assumed the status of a ‘natural impediment’. Unlike the static and mute peace walls that might cause stagnation, the motorway is seen as providing a function. In this way roads form the most effective urban divides because they can be disguised from view as ‘normal’. Few now remember the way the city was connected, the populations who were moved are scattered and their stories are lost. For a new suburban and commuting generation, the motorway provides easy access to and through the city. This transactional relationship views the city as a utility. 

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive was set up in 1971 to address the city’s decades-long housing need, and tended to adopt region-wide suburban design norms. The redeveloped housing areas around central Belfast followed the lead of the planned road interventions. Where dense terraced housing had fed onto arterial routes with shops, workshops, public buildings and a wider middle-class business ownership, the redevelopment process essentially provided a monoculture of housing. Neighbourhoods were not only rehoused in sectarian enclaves, the enclaves themselves were reduced in their viable population, local economies and social mix. More damaging still has been the introverted layouts of cul-de-sacs that make attempts to transition the connection and repair of the neighbourhoods more intractable.

When it comes to the strategic development of the city, the peace walls are largely forgotten. A set of hidden barriers and social-class divisions have unfolded in the last two decades in a process that is washing over the older layers of sectarian division. The city appears to be more divided, not less, despite the superficial appearance of progress. The recovery of the city in recent decades has been very fragmentary. In Brendan Murtagh’s words, a ‘twin speed city’ has emerged whereby favoured areas benefit from investment, while other areas remain unaddressed, the ‘contrast’ in the city has been turned up in peace times. The shatter zones and inapt developments that sully city life create a centre that is isolated, almost an island set within a ring of poor neighbourhoods with decades of unresolved issues, impervious even to gentrification. It is arguably this social division on class grounds that defines how the city is being developed today.

A renaissance for belfast john duncan

A renaissance for belfast boom town john duncan

John Duncan’s Boom Town series records Belfast’s transformation since 2002. This image from 2006 depicts Arthur Square, on the dubious cusp of a renaissance

There are signs of change: recent refurbishments are bringing people and bespoke offices into the remaining vacant Victorian buildings. Night life is spreading that is not solely reliant on the evening wave of commuter traffic, or the fleets of taxis depositing and collecting crowds for weekend nights out. Three tracts of major development are driving change at the moment: a new central rail station; the former Sirocco Works to the east; and a new Ulster University campus to the north, an entire university relocating from its suburban campus. The latter brings with it student housing blocks that are adding new residents to the centre. However, all of these developments are piecemeal and missing strategic opportunities to create a wider social and spatial stitching of the urban fabric.

As Belfast is currently engaging on a new urban plan, the first by the actual city authority in more than 75 years, it faces key challenges. The first is that it still lacks the powers and levers to create fast enough change. Many powers, especially roads, still rest with regional structures that have little interest in a city that appears from a rural and regional perspective to draw resources and attention. The people of the wider metropolitan area are unlikely to give up easy access to a city core that is viewed more as a ‘utility’ than a civic space for inhabitants. So the suburban commuters claim the key space in the city that is vital to its repair: a doughnut of grey roads and car parks around the core that act to exclude mainly working-class city residents.

Belfast’s centre is deemed to be a successful example of creating a ‘shared’ and non-sectarian space, but the development of the city in recent decades is felt to exclude those living around it, spatially, physiologically and economically. The divisions in the city are less visible and less visibly violent than before, but the current mode of development is manifestly creating a more insidious and deep schism, Belfast is still a city divided.

Lead image: the Belfast Urban Motorway (BUM) as it was proposed in the 1960s, sweeping through the city in the name of progress. Apart from the section which became the Westlink, the BUM would never be realised in its entirety. Image courtesy of Department for Infrastructure Northern Ireland

This piece is featured in the AR June 2019 issue on the islands of Ireland – click here to purchase your copy today