Power, politics and planning in the divided city
Elizabeth DeYoung (Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool) discusses her research trip to the former Girdwood Army Barracks in Belfast.
‘The way to get at what goes on in the seemingly mysterious and perverse behavior of cities is, I think, to look closely, and with little previous expectation as is possible, at the most ordinary scenes and events, attempt to see what they mean and whether any threads of principle emerge among them’.[i]
My PhD thesis focuses on the way space is used and controlled in ethnically segregated cities. In particular, I am concerned with the actors and agencies which shape space in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and how these have actually reinforced both sectarian and economic divides in what should be a ‘post-conflict’ society. This summer, I continued my fieldwork on the regeneration of the former Girdwood Army Barracks. The Barracks are located across from a ‘peace wall’ in a multiply divided and deprived area of North Belfast. Because of the BAIS bursary, I was able to supplement the broader theoretical framework within which I have been working with the minutiae of everyday life, political machinations and social interaction which is no less important in the analysis of space.
Initially, the Girdwood Barracks’ prospective redevelopment garnered huge enthusiasm – as a way to bring life and activity back to a derelict space, to provide employment and educational opportunity to a poor area and to promote good relations across the ‘peace wall’. Indeed, the Draft Masterplan referred to the project as internationally significant and a catalyst for social and economic growth in North Belfast. However, space itself is the source of conflict in Belfast, serving as a symbolic site of power used to further political ideology. Resource competition between the two main ethno-national political traditions, particularly around social housing and shifting electoral demographics, stalled the development plans. The site lay empty until 2011, when Belfast City Council received EU PEACE III funding to build a cross-community ‘Hub’. Today, the Girdwood Community Hub has opened, offering a gym, educational courses, event space, a youth space and a 4G pitch. It has been hailed as a ‘state of the art building’, a ‘significant stepping stone for North Belfast’, and alternately a ‘sectarian carve up’ of territory and a ‘neoliberal-influenced peace-building project’. Despite its shiny exterior, the building seems a far cry from the initial optimism for an internationally renowned ‘shared space’. My research argues that it serves instead as a subtler, more insidious redesigning of the ‘peace walls’ which mar the surrounding landscape.
This summer, I was first able to reacquaint myself with this landscape. As an anthropologist, I believe that using walking and observation as methodology is vital in getting to know a space over time. One day, I was taken on an extensive tour of a neighbourhood near Girdwood, its hidden side streets and stories, by a community worker who had grown up there. Other times, I retraced the physical geography of the area on my own: charting new territorial markers and murals, derelict and newly-refurbished houses, changes in the built environment on both sides of the ‘peace walls’ and what these might reflect more broadly in terms of power and resources (or lack thereof). One shift worth mentioning was the removal of the former Barracks security barriers from the perimeter of the site as part of redevelopment. Without the hulking metal sheeting, what had been a claustrophobic series of neighbourhoods opened up. There was a sweeping view of the Belfast Hills and the city centre instead of a wall – a glimpse of possibility.
Having been primarily based in Liverpool during the months previous, this visit was also an opportunity to revisit my connections and re-immerse myself in the field. I attended meetings between a range of local community groups and statutory agencies. These discussed how the first few months of the Girdwood Hub had unfolded: the challenges, priorities and practical realities on the ground and the responses of the stakeholders involved. Sitting in on these meetings allowed me to get a sense of how everyday politics, administration and use of the space had progressed since my last visit, and to observe the dynamics within and between groups. I also arranged one-on-one meetings with people working around the Girdwood site. These were to gauge opinion on shifts in policy and planning in the area and if, in practice, the Hub was a ‘shared space’ or, more frankly, a wasted opportunity. And of course, I visited the Hub itself to observe patterns of usage and the events and activities taking place. This data will lend itself to analysing if the Girdwood Hub has achieved its initial aims as a development, or if it has failed in its outcomes. During the summer, I was also commissioned for a separate project: to produce a research report for a community development trust on the impact of urban regeneration on deprived neighbourhoods in Belfast.
My weeks in Belfast this summer were spent immersing myself in the Girdwood Barracks area and the wider urban landscape, and reconnecting with the people who have been so helpful to me in my fieldwork thus far. I gathered a wide range of detailed observations and opinions on the site which will be an invaluable supplement to my theoretical framework. In addition, I researched and produced a report about broader themes of urban regeneration and uneven investment in the city. The ultimate aim of my work is to balance theory and practice, to contrast rhetoric and reality, and to involve the detailed observations of everyday life and social interaction in analysing contested space. Thanks to BAIS, I was able to visit Belfast for an extended period in pursuit of achieving these objectives.
[i] Jane Jacobs. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. 1961. Reprint. New York: Random House, 2002: 24.