First published at the Belfast Telegraph
Northern Irelands biggest infrastructure project, the York Street Interchange, asks serious questions of First Minister, Arlene Foster’s DUP pledge to build “prosperity for all” and invest in “deprived communities.” Architect and campaigner, Mark Hackett, tells me that the complex network of flyovers, junctions and underpasses will punch its way through an already blighted area of Belfast, leaving some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city even more disconnected than they already are.
The scheme attempts to address the congestion problems and peak time delays for traffic travelling between the Westlink and the M2 / M3 motorways. It is on this controversial project that around £150m of the £400m infrastructure budget agreed in the £1.5bn Tory-DUP agreement, will be spent. To put that figure in perspective, that’s 10% of the entire £1.5bn budget. Significantly more than the £50m allocated to much needed mental health services.
“Residents affected by the new wider road crashing through their neighbourhood and back gardens have fought hard to have their concerns listened to” says architect Mark Hackett, who has been working with local residents to help them understand what the often “complex and unintelligible” plans produced by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) actually mean for their communities. Around 300 houses in the New Lodge and Lower York Street area will be affected.
“There is currently no funding in place to repair the damage to the local community that this scheme will create.” In an area with no green parks or spaces, Mark tells me that the DfI initially promised resources to help the local community, but none has been made available. “There are not even plans for a health survey to monitor dust levels during the construction work.” A significant concern for local residents.
Residents feel disempowered by the lack of willingness displayed by the Department for Infrastructure to engage with them on the impact that the scheme will have for the local community. In 2015 a public inquiry was held, but residents found it difficult to engage with what was a highly technical and legal process. “No thought seems to have been given to deal with the social upheaval during this period. Many old people will be trapped in their houses and there are no green parks anywhere in this area, parents and young kids have few green spaces to go to.” Walking around the area I am immediately struck by how fragmented it is with barriers and fractured spaces in all directions.
Frustrated with the workshops the residents feel disenfranchised from the process. One resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told me; “I feel we are entirely forgotten, and we are only a short distance from the city centre. It is like we will be walled in on three sides below this road. It would not happen in [affluent] South Belfast.”
“Single function planning such as roads development” like YSI “has largely ignored the broader spatial needs of the city.” Dr Ken Sterrett, former Senior Planning Lecturer from Queens University tells me. The focus on individual schemes “celebrating the value of individual projects sidesteps the civic and collective needs of the city. Such needs are so important in the Belfast context where exclusive ethnic and social spaces more often than not triumph over the civic.”
Mark has been helping local residents find innovative solutions to some of the problems that the scheme will create. The proposed York Street bridge “can easily be improved to make the street better and more safe for walkers and cyclists.” Given that connectivity and access to the city are central to the proposals laid out in Belfast City Council’s 2015 Regeneration and Investment Strategy, it is hard to see how disconnecting lower York Street from a newly regenerated end of the city can be justified.
Mark has also been identifying potential development sites that the scheme creates. “Better design in this area will actually save money” he says; “because the surplus public sites created by the scheme will have a greater development value.” Not only does he believe that his proposals will create better conditions for the local residents, but they will also generate income which in turn could be used to fund the scheme and release money to be used elsewhere.
In Mark’s view, through a “poverty of city vision and planning,” the YSI is an infrastructure solution to a problem created by past inadequate traffic planning that will only serve to create significant future problems for inner North Belfast. For Mark, and many of the residents he works alongside, “it is time that advocates of a better city speak up and support the process of getting a better resolution. Now that funding is readily available, it is incumbent on the promoters of the interchange to do the best by the city and by the residents who will have to live beside this road and endure three years of disruption as the scheme is built.”
In spite of their party pledge to tackle “poverty and social exclusion, protecting families and the most vulnerable within our society,” Alliance party infrastructure spokesperson Kellie Armstrong MLA, believes that the scheme must be a priority for Belfast. A spokesperson for the party told me that they are “in support of the infrastructure project.”
Chair of the Infrastructure Committee, and DUP MLA for North Belfast, William Humphrey, told me that "the securing of funding for the York Street Interchange by the DUP, as part of the “Confidence and Supply” arrangement with the Conservatives, is great news for Northern Ireland in general and Belfast in particular. The Westlink, M2 and M3 are the busiest roads in Northern Ireland and they are vital to our economic life, linking Belfast with the airport and to the West.”
Sinn Féin MLA for North Belfast, Carál Ní Chuilín said: "Sinn Féin supports the construction of the York Street Interchange as a crucial improvement in the infrastructure connection the M1, M2 and M3 following consultation and in partnership with residents affected to ensure the development design incorporates their concerns."
How all three parties reconcile their support for the scheme with their party policies and negative affect on the surrounding area remains to be seen.
It is clear that a traffic solution for Belfast is much needed, but local designer and urbanist Fearghal Murray asks; “when so many cities across Europe are being designed for pedestrians and cyclists why are we, in Belfast, continuing to preference cars?” MMAS, based on the Falls Road are a young architecture practice passionate about a community focused architecture.
Talking to Fearghal and his business partner Gareth, I am reminded that the future success of Belfast depends on how successfully we navigate the next few years. The York Street Interchange is not the only significant project happening in the city. In the next few years Europe's biggest regeneration project at the Sirocco Quays will begin and planning permission for the controversial Cathedral Quarter regeneration is imminent. While permission was recently granted for an office development at the Gasworks site previously designated social housing — much needed by the adjacent Markets community. Fearghal tells me that “the future of our cities depends on how we deal with projects like these.”