Congress in Belfast is an opportunity our local team of Academicians has sought to embrace for a while. As urban places the world over grapple with significant challenges, they explain why there are few places better than Belfast right now to explore and test solutions.
Belfast has overcome many challenges. Now, it is poised to take on many more. Like everywhere else, the 21st century challenges of climate, wellbeing, globalisation, and living in a digital world are taking hold.
Some of the answers to these challenges lie with Belfast. We look to our place on the Global Resilient Cities Network, A Bolder Vision, our 2024 Year of Culture and our newly awarded UNESCO City of Music status to ensure that people are at the heart of paving the right path towards resilience.
On others, Belfast is not alone in needing some help. The themes for Congress in Belfast – brokering collaboration, informing experiences, lessons of resilience, and building climate leadership – are a signal for where we believe Congress presents the greatest opportunity for Belfast to learn, while showcasing the greatest potential for us to shout a little louder about what we do well.
Belfast has been shaped, physically, economically and culturally by its unique landform, its rich maritime heritage, and by its conflict. However, behind the stories that you know, often from TV reports of conflict, are stories, intrigues and idiosyncrasies that have been embedded in the fabric of the city, and its people. This is the first answer to the city’s future challenges: embracing that which makes Belfast special, and creating experiences that speak to people because they have spoken them into existence.
The second answer lies in recognising that we have resilience by the shovel full. Belfast’s gritty edge is because the city we know today would not exist but for the resilience of people in its darkest days. Future resilience means we need to dig deep again and look instead at climate resilience, civic leadership, and stitching the city back together. There is much work still to be done to bring people back to live within what was, for many years, a ring of steel that kept life out of the city centre. Most importantly, the recovery is about learning to work together, to break down the silos that have created spaces in the city that aren’t always full of life and contributing to the wider city experience.
Good city life needs cultural life and energy. Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter is home to countless of its cultural organisations, including The MAC, one of the venues for this year’s Congress. Bars, restaurants, and cultural institutions sit side-by-side and make the city’s night-time offering stronger than ever. Our cultural stories are legion, from John Hewitt to Glenn Patterson, from Terri Hooley to the Harp Festival of 1792, from the United Irishmen to highland dancing, from Irish traditional music to the architectural legacy of Sir Charles Lanyon.
These stories are what our writers, musicians, producers, and craftspeople use to enliven the stages of the Lyric Theatre. They fill the pages of a Jan Carson or Tony Macauley novel or fire the imagination of an art student at Ulster University. Yet, we have the challenge of helping people know more about these stories and filling more of our places and spaces with culture.
Part of that journey is an upcoming Year of Culture in 2024 and the recent designation as a UNESCO City of Music. Both cement Belfast’s reputation for culture. Both are massive opportunities for us to better connect placemaking and culture, for neither are possible without the other.
One of the main reasons we came together as a group of Academicians in 2019 was to champion the view that that everyone that engages in the city is an urbanist. A Bolder Vision for Belfast is a new strategy to reimagine the city centre and is coming forward now to help show how better places are created when there is joint ownership and responsibility for their creation. People are getting on with filling this place full of life, and it takes a collective effort of many.
But more can be done, and another of those answers to our challenges is to create new mechanisms for collaboration. More and more people recognise that the current way of doing things means sometimes that the opportunity and potential of the city is lost. Too much energy spent getting different silos to work together; too much time spent engineering a perfect solution than testing cost-effective ideas that can adapt and change as people respond to them.
Northern Ireland has changed dramatically over the last 30-years. A cultural renaissance brought enthusiasm and excitement for a new era that would get the city back on its feet. Belfast has redeveloped part of its waterfront, and many of the large post-industrial sites of the city. Hardened, hostile and derelict land is contributing to city life once again.
The Soundyard along the Maritime Mile is one example where cultural experience is helping engage people with their city. It was the result of a competition run by Maritime Belfast Trust and the Royal Society for Ulster Architects (RSUA) for emerging architects and designers to be given a stake in making their city more sensual, more playful, and importantly, a knowledge and power that it is theirs to shape. We have, after all, one of the youngest populations in Europe, which will only grow as one of our major Universities moves into its newly built city centre campus.
You will no doubt know of the city’s maritime past, and I’m sure many of you that have visited before have explored this history that sits along Belfast Harbour at Titanic Quarter, which is slowly being regenerated to accommodate new industries, living and cultural spaces.
However, the thing that makes the city, also presents one of its biggest challenges. If we don’t act, by 2100 sea levels in Belfast could rise to 94cm and we have already been close to major flooding events. In 2018 Belfast became part of the Resilient Cities network, has since declared a climate emergency, and is working hard to get everyone to think about ‘living with water’.
By imagining new softer and greener landscapes, with a drive for a million new trees in the city, and projects delivered like the award winning new Connswater Community Greenway, we are showing that the solutions to this and other problems start with the communities themselves.
As the Bolder Vision moves to its delivery, major new public transport investment will shift us car clung people to make better decisions about how we get around and connect our divided parts sustainably. We have no doubt a much more sustainable pattern of living, working, and visiting will emerge, and hearing from other leading lights such as Pontevedra and Tirana will only move us forward faster. Segregation has had a cost to our economy, our health and wellbeing, our carbon footprint as a result of the many, many more journeys we have to make, but bringing Congress here is a real opportunity to delve into some of these and learn about how to bring about change.
It goes back to our people. As we embrace our new proud City of Music status, we will be working hard to use the opportunities and focus on climate, connectivity and the next generation of people who will have their impact on Belfast.