As the Royal Society of Ulster Architects launches a campaign to encourage new thinking about our post-lockdown city, leading urbanist and Forum for Alternative Belfast founder Mark Hackett (left), takes a radical look at how we could develop a new city for its all its people.


If we want to kick start the city in a safe way, and not risk stagnation, we need to reimagine it all quickly and grasp an opportunity to ‘flip’ the way the city operates.


We cannot expect a mass of population to walk/cycle without now guaranteeing their air quality and safety throughout the city feeder routes - this can only be guaranteed if measures are implemented in a wider zone. Just dealing with the core will not work.


We need to get ‘out of city’ commuters stopped further out in the city and then enact quality arterial routes to cycle, walk and low density bus in. We need generally affluent suburbs to walk and cycle into the city, they will have no excuse in the new city mode.


We can provide two-three rings of postcode residents badges to be displayed to minimise using the inner city as car park, a key problem.


This arterial strategy has one notable benefit for businesses everywhere — footfalls will increase.

RUNNING ON EMPTY: Urgent changes needed if Belfast is to rise again
RUNNING ON EMPTY: Urgent changes needed if Belfast is to rise again

Do we believe business/public footfall confidence will return to the core on the old model of using the shatter zones again as parking, creating polluted environment, in pending Covid recession economy?


Many sectors such as food, entertainment, retail, tourism and hotels will struggle. Some of these might remodel if they can actively take over streets in a deregulated fashion - but these streets would then need to be largely empty of cars/pollution. We need to get footfalls up but spread widely in city.

DESOLATE: Castle Street under lockdown, May 2020 but this area of the city centre was already failing says Mark Hackett.
DESOLATE: Castle Street under lockdown, May 2020 but this area of the city centre was already failing says Mark Hackett.

Make one major ‘flip’ of the city transport mode - and use Covid-19 and ensuing economic concern to enable this to take hold and be led with key city sectors.


Spatial strategy - stop the bulk of commuter parking at key existing edge city nodes (not the edge of core). Use commercial carparks and road/on street parking in industrial and non residential areas. Choose these nodes carefully with nearby quality arterial routes to enable walking and cycling, or networks of buses working at low density.


This adds to the amenity and footfall of all these key arteries, enabling a feeling of communal safety and new footfall and new business revival for these traditional arteries.


Belfast’s shatter-zones around the core are mainly intimidating because they are polluted, noisy and traffic dominant/aggressive spaces. If everyone has to use them - we can transition and reactivate these quite quickly with landscape and temporary measures. This requires three other system changes, which are low cost but need organisation.


  •  Enact 20 is plenty city wide

  •  Heavily intervene and regulate centre car spaces (public and private) on basis of need

  • Allow app booking of the new pop-up and repurposed edge city car parks (free)


20 (MPH) is plenty


This needs initial enforcement by PSNI and zero tolerance. The trigger limit may be 22-25 but the culture change means all residents retain the new environment they have recently enjoyed, every street becomes a safer street.

Most drivers recently have been aware that an accident will land them and others in a pressurised NHS and a person facing new additional risks. We can observe some good changes in driver behaviour. Build on this narrative. We ‘flip’ the city into a Chambray type new civilised mode of driver care. Chambray is a city in France that has not banned cars but curtailed their speed and use over time, starting with schools areas.


SECTORS

CITY REIMAGINED: Lockdown gives opportunity to start anew with city geared to community not cars
CITY REIMAGINED: Lockdown gives opportunity to start anew with city geared to community not cars

The current societal changes and compliances have worked because people accept a new narrative, they see, have relatives in NHS, and most see the benefits and reasons.


We need to build on this. If this ‘flipping’ or ‘tipping’ the city into a new mode is accepted by a wide sectoral and business group —  then this group also needs to lead an agreed media narrative that faces down opposition. It requires a wide pool of people convinced and then leading.


So many people travel and see civilised cities working elsewhere, but come home and return to poor habits. This idea needs to convince and have a vision for what a calm, slow speed and clean air city could be like, a city renewed and a positive narrative for business in changed city.


SPATIAL AND COSTS


Because this is repurposing the entire city in a new behavioural system immediately, it requires hardly any spatial or infrastructural changes. Cyclists use the normal streets where car speed and volume has been constrained in two ways; firstly the supply and demand of car parking has been flipped to the edge, and secondly all vehicles behaviour has been flipped into calm mode by a sweeping new rule and enforcement. This includes bus behaviour and deliveries.


We will need to enforce resident and city parking to avoid misuse. This can be done on postcode rings and display of badge - outer residents should not be parking on inner residential streets.


COMMUNICATIONS WILL BE KEY


Instead, new communications systems will be important, and there are a few months to evolve better systems to control parking. Commuters might need to book their edge space - and this needs agreed with some large retail nodes. But these retail areas have then a captive commuter audience twice a day (Forest-side, Park Centre, Connswater and so on) Some workers may be able to avail of closer parks just off the motorway through road, based on need and booking. Centre deliveries and Blue badge would be allowed access, but again some sectors may have to pre book - or be pushed on. Deliveries could now be spread over the day.


Taxis would need restraint - but Covid era fears may cut off demand for excess taxi use to allow time for a transition and a system to evolve.


There is time to learn and evolve these systems in the transition period.


Civil Service and key public sector staff lead on this - all public workers and especially senior managers/policy and non essential public service to adhere and advocate for the new city system. The large public sector commute population should lead by example. But this large sector is a key customer base for business who needs them back in, buying/eating.

NEW BEGINNING: A reconfiguration of the city gives us an opportunity to look at inner-city areas blighted by under-investment and division
NEW BEGINNING: A reconfiguration of the city gives us an opportunity to look at inner-city areas blighted by under-investment and division

Businesses need to advocate and this strategy needs them to be convinced. The thrust of this narrative is not led by activist city dwellers or environment;  it will work if business says: “We are the ones that need the city to operate in this new way. We need pavements, we need relaxation, and we need footfall. We need people back in, and if that is walking and cycling then we need the city to change’


There are many longstanding city issues that would be solved and would change in this new mode of the city - the inner neighbourhoods can be transformed and the negative narratives of their current neglect can be changed. This is an opportunity to change many issues of health, exercise, wellbeing and how our city works.

THE CITY AND ITS PEOPLE WIN


The wins, if envisaged and imagined are far more potent. We can address social division (by income) and many legacies of neglect.  After decades of piecemeal urban programmes where researchers ask at the end; “how come we don’t see change” - the reason is obvious, the problem areas of Belfast have deep legacy issues that drill into every area of life. Only system change at scale and vision would solve them. Many of our key workers live in areas of high deprivation; many of our hospitals are set in them.


We have new narratives that can be built upon to make a bold new step.