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Artikel von:
Geraint Ellis
Brendan Murtagh 

Ellis Geraint arbeitet an der School of Environmental Planning, The Queen's University, Belfast.

Brendan Murtagh arbeitet an der School for Environmental Planning an der Queen's University in Belfast.

Artikel aus Ausgabe 13

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Planning and Regeneration in an Divided Society


Despite the relative peace since the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, Northern Ireland remains a highly polarised and divided society. Thirty years of bitter conflict have left a deep mark on the political, economic and cultural life of the region, which is likely to take generations to overcome. The peace process touches almost every aspect of society, not least the spatial management of the region’s towns and cities. This process is most vivid in Belfast, the capital city of the region home to nearly half of the region’s population of 1.5 million. The city witnessed some of the worst of the Troubles, which compounded the high levels of deprivation resulting from de-industrialisation and peripherality. Belfast is putting a huge effort into its bid for European Capital of Culture in 2008, resurrecting fears that place-marketing hype is putting „Lipstick on the Gorilla” (Neill, 1995) of a City where indices of both poverty and ethnic-religious segregation have increased markedly (NISRA, 2001).

From 1972 to 1999 in an attempt to stabilise the volatile political situation, Northern Ireland was governed directly from London („Direct-Rule”). In a move to more local accountability, the 1998 peace agreement included a power-sharing arrangement consisting of an Executive made up of the four largest parties (from both sides of the political divide) and an elected Assembly. In the last three years, these bodies have aspired to introduce new approaches to addressing the problems of urban deprivation and spatial polarisation. This paper reviews how land use planning and urban regeneration have reacted to these problems and comments on some of the huge challenges that remain if Belfast is to normalise city life.

Land use planning

Land use planning has been an arduous task in Northern Ireland over the past decades. Not only has the legitimacy of any state intervention been questioned by a large proportion of the Nationalist community, but the „Troubles” have created a society polarised along sectarian lines that has resulted in specific planning related issues of social and economic deprivation, distorted land markets, blighted space and the need for duplication of many urban services (Boal, 1999). Above all, planning policy has had to be intensely aware of the intricate territorial geography of Belfast and the implications this has for the safety of members of both the main communities in the city.

Although some suggest that the natural reaction of the state planning system has been one of complicity with the security forces (Dawson, 1984), the truth is very different, but has still resulted in an approach that in the long term has been insensitive to social needs and cultural differences. Thus, painfully aware of the potential accusations of discrimination towards one or other of the main religious communities, planners resorted to an extreme form of technocractism, passing off value-judgements of planning as technical decisions and resorting to dubious notion of a unitary „public interest” to justify its decisions. This usually meant that engineering solutions were applied to social problems, inequalities overlooked in the name of „neutrality” and quite incredibly, the divided nature of society never acknowledged in formal planning documents until the late 1990s. The result was a built form divorced from the needs of the city’s inhabitants, a loss of major areas of cultural heritage and more roads per capita than any other British city, making it the most car dependent in Europe, (Adair et al, 2000). This is in a city where 54% of all the population have no access to a car, and in the most deprived areas such as the Falls and Shankill Roads, this reaches over 80%. Therefore, in a naïve attempt to avoid discrimination, land use planning compounded many issues of deprivation.

The high point of this technocratic approach was the Belfast Urban Area Plan (BUAP) completed in 1986, at the height of the Troubles, which proposed a new inner city motorway, focussed regeneration on the high value central business district and established an unelected Development Corporation to develop the city’s riverfront and Docks area. This is the plan that has guided the development of Belfast for the last 15 years. However in late 2001, the procedure began to develop a new plan, the Belfast Metropolitan Plan (BMAP), which will run until 2015. This plan is being produced in a political and economic context vastly different from the previous plan. In the mid-1980s the city was virtually at war, its economic base was melting way under conflict and de-industrialisation and the planning process was being overseen, at a distance, by a market–driven Thatcher government. Today the context is much more optimistic and stable, with Belfast experiencing some of the highest GDP growth in the United Kingdom, relative peace, political stability and a planning system scrutinised by a cadre of local politicians. The fledgling Northern Ireland administration has agreed a broadly based Programme for Government which integrates social, economic and environmental objectives to direct public spending and this is a major achievement given the polarity and antipathy that have often characterised local politics in the past. While disparities in income and environmental quality are as polarised as ever, there should be some hope that the planning system today has more capacity to address the key problems.

Part of this optimism can be sourced to the publication of a new spatial planning framework, the Regional Development Strategy (RDS) for Northern Ireland in 2001. For the first time, this recognised the need to engage the spatial effects of conflict and social change. A new Strategic Planning Priority, „Community Cohesion”, encourages planners to create religiously integrated housing and neutral spaces whilst at the same time, respecting peoples right to live safely in segregated communities. The preparation of BMAP, within this context, began with the publication of an Issues Paper in which some of these priorities were raised but it lacked the detail and rigour expected in a document designed to delivery the strategic commitments of the RDS. Although it is still early in the plan making process, it has already generated much criticism from community and environmental groups, who have suggested that it fails to address the key problems of the city, such as car dependency and social polarisation, and how it has employed crude participation techniques that are more aimed at giving middle class NIMBY groups a voice rather than empowering the excluded. In particular, it has been pointed out that the plan should focus action on the problems of the most deprived areas and to engage more seriously with the spatial legacy of violence, while pointing out how this agenda has been taken forward in urban regeneration policy. The lack of policy and practice connection between the statutory planning system and the implementation capacity of urban programmes remains a structural problem in delivering long-term change within the new Northern Ireland administration. However, it is clear that the exposure of urban regeneration policy to the sharper realities of crises centred on sectarian conflict and fatalistic community politics has created new thinking and creativity in programme design.

Regenerating places of fear

Evidence of a departure from the Thatcherite property model of urban regeneration can be detected from the mid-1980s, when sustained paramilitary activity and sectarian violence exposed the limited political and social vision of trickledown economics. Working class and intensely poor Republican communities proved a strong basis for the inexorable rise of Sinn Fein and it was this political imperative, more than anything else, which produced the Making Belfast Work programme in 1986. This targeted resources at the most deprived areas of the city but was strongly underpinned by assumptions about the problems of the ‘supply side’ of failed local economies rather than the sheer shortage of work in the labour market. However, urban programmes developed more subtle and appropriate instruments and greater depth in the quality of analysis, as the emerging peace process placed new priorities on local decision makers. Central to this was the development of one of the most formidable anti-discrimination and equality laws in Europe, which placed a strong emphasis on mainstreaming initiatives to prevent discrimination and promote good community relations in every part and level of policy-making. Government Departments must now produce Equality Plans and proof key policies and decisions with Equality Impact Assessments. This new methodology is placing pressures on the core competencies of planners and urban managers but is providing a framework to redirect the content and aims of delivery programmes. Urban policy has, all but, abandoned its market-led ideology in favour of a consensus based and overtly reformist agenda.

The new Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy makes an explicit commitment to deal with the problems of ‘interface’ communities and prioritises a limited number of the most deprived neighbourhoods for major allocation of resources designed to tackle underlying environmental, economic and social problems. The Strategy also establishes new partnership structures to increase community participation and sets targets to determine improvements in unemployment, crime, educational attainment and health. The first wave of projects will be implemented using the EU Structural Funds, significant in that the positive „turn” in local policy has adopted the European vocabulary on social exclusion and spatial planning, rather than the Anglo-Irish tradition of focussing on property, rather than people. The URBAN Community Initiative and the special PEACE Programmes for Northern Ireland have brought with them considerable extra Structural Funding but with clear strings attached. Funding conditions were applied, not just to the content of the Programmes themselves but to the way in which the money was to be delivered on the ground. Bottom-up participative processes, clear needs-based targets and devolved implementation structures have become central components to the delivery of a whole range of public services and policies. The URBAN II Initiative 2000-2006 is targeted at North Belfast, which is the most ethnically, and socially polarised area of Northern Ireland. The Initiative will concentrate on regenerating ‘peaceline’ areas, developing stronger cross-community contacts and building the social economy. A local cross-sectoral partnership comprising politicians, community workers, statutory sector representatives and members of the private sector will deliver the programme.
The PEACE II Programme 2000-2004 also makes a clear connection between area renewal and building better community relations. The urban regeneration component of the Programme will concentrate on 12 interface communities with a range of measures designed to deal with the physical effects of ‘peaceline’ segregation, the isolation of enclaved communities and the effects of fear on the way in which people access services, facilities and crucially, jobs. ‘Chill factors’ such as political graffiti, flags and emblems will be removed through local consultation, not an easy task when many of the most polarised communities are controlled by paramilitary gatekeepers (Robson, 2000). The positive signs of transition seen in urban regeneration strategies, is not however shared by all government sectors. Many bureaucrats dealing with other aspects of community development cling to the certainties of the rational-technocratic model, fearful of the unpredictable nature of ‘ethnic’ planning. Therefore the shift in policy that accompanies peace has placed a range of pressures on the skills base of contemporary planners and the competencies that will be required to manage more complex socio-spatial problems.


Politics and spatial development policy are at a crossroads in Northern Ireland. The constitutional peace settlement has been experienced unevenly across society and especially across places. The economic dividend of peace has produced rising GDP, an increase in employment and falling unemployment. Growth sectors, especially in communications and informatics, have fuelled the top end of the property market, created new places for consumption in the city centre and the riverfront and an emerging middle class with disposable incomes chasing new lifestyles unconnected to traditional political identities. But a twin speed economy is creating a dual city where those without the skills or education to take advantage of the new growth opportunities are increasingly being ghettoised in the poorest public sector housing estates. Economic collapse, ethnic segregation and community alienation combine to produce especially ‘wicked problems’ in a smaller number of inner and outer city areas. The real task confronting planners and urban mangers will be their ability to contribute positively to Northern Ireland’s transition into a post-conflictual, post-industrial and post-bureaucratic world. The serious engagement of the spatial wreckage of ethnic turmoil and de-industrialisation can help to construct a discourse in planning that has relevance well beyond the particular context of Northern Ireland.

Geraint Ellis and Brendan Murtagh, School of Environmental Planning, The Queen’s University, Belfast


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F. Boal, From undivided cities to undivided cities: assimilation to ethnic cleansing. Housing Studies, Vol.14, No.5, pp.585-600. 1999
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