Another Belfast is imagined
“˜A city built upon mud; a culture built upon profit” – that’s how Louis MacNeice described Belfast in the 1960s. Today’s city is still in thrall to commerce, studded with grandiose towers, lavish retail temples and ambitious, half-built apartment blocks. But according to the Forum for Alternative Belfast – an independent group of architects, academics and planners, set up by two local architects, Declan Hill and Mark Hackett – Belfast has become a dysfunctional, disconnected place, suffering from a legacy of neglect, and desperately in need of dramatic intervention. Belfast has become a city without a heart: a place where people go to work, shop or play but then return home again, leaving the centre cheerless, sinister and deserted at night, they say.
Hackett and Hill offer a stark analysis of the city’s current predicament. They argue that Belfast has been disjointed by piecemeal, ad-hoc development, which preferred profit to quality, and by an ill-judged roads infrastructure that sliced through and broke up once-flourishing communities.
“In a sense, we un-built the city by building roads that were not needed,” says Hackett. “People coming here from Dublin say to us, thank God we didn’t have money in the 1960s and 1970s to build roads like that. Dublin, by comparison, is relatively intact,” adds Hill.
The two architects say Belfast has become a car-dependent city, choked up every morning by parents taking children to schools they could once have walked to. As the exodus of city-dwellers continued – the population has decreased by 35 per cent in 35 years – many inner city primary schools, shops, libraries and churches have closed, compounding the problem.