The following is submitted to Belfast City Council by Ulster Architectural Heritage in response to a consultation on ‘A City Imagining’ Draft Cultural Strategy 2020-2030. In the context of the consultation our response is set as a ‘call to action’ for Belfast City Council and the provision of the cultural strategy to encourage better protection, conservation and heritage led regeneration of Belfast’s built heritage.
More information on the ‘A City Imaging’ Strategy can be found here. UAH is encouraging anyone who values the built heritage of Belfast to get involved and #HaveYourSay by emailing: cultur[email protected]
Ulster Architectural Heritage welcomes the opportunity to respond to Belfast City Council’s draft cultural strategy 2020-2030. We agree with acknowledgement within Belfast City Council’s draft ‘Cultural Strategy’ that, for some, culture means the ‘buildings around us’, or the built environment. For Belfast, this will be more specifically, the City’s valuable and irreplaceable built heritage, and a number of well-designed modern or new build architecture and good design interventions.
In red brick terraces throughout Belfast, North, South, East and West we continue to make our homes, in the footsteps of the Belfast generations gone before us. We continue to reuse, respect and enjoy historic buildings in different ways, every day, and we continue to walk, and tell the stories of, familiar historic streets, in a City we know as ‘home’. From red brick warehouses and workshops, connecting to what was our proud industrial past, through department stores and the art deco glamour of the 1930s… The architectural heritage of the City is culture in its most physical, visual, and accessible form. Belfast’s architecture is one of our City’s, most important, valuable, and yet under-valued, principal art forms.
We argue that only if the strategic theme of ‘buildings around us’ is further defined as built heritage, together with good new architecture and design intervention, can our built environment be seen to have the opportunity by way of strategic direction to achieve its full potential as an key component of ‘culture’, and associated benefits to society. However, if the physical roots and origins of the city are diluted or irretrievably lost through a lack of prioritisation of built heritage and good architecture within council strategy, combined with a lack of protection, and un-sustainable short term planning, the cultural value that buildings bring to a city is also irretrievably lost.
Accordingly, Belfast City Council must recognise that the built environment, specifically our built heritage, is seen by a majority of the public to be some of the most striking, tangible, continuous connections to our culture, our identity, present and our past. The Belfast public asserted the value that they place on built heritage, and its importance to Belfast, in their unprecedented reaction to the Bank Buildings fire. But was Belfast City Council really listening beyond the Bank Buildings case? Have the wider implications of this public concern for built heritage continued to fall on deaf ears at Council level?
The conservation and rebuilding of the Bank Buildings is a credit to its owners, and others involved, but for Belfast, this exceptional case must not be seen as a happy norm. It must be considered against a continuing ‘culture’ of approved, or often unapproved, demolitions, land-banking, and inconsistent interpretation of, and adherence to, policy, that continues to gather momentum, and destroy the cultural quality of our City, and the future enjoyment and benefit of the historic built environment with every addition to the cumulative loss.
In all of this, the Belfast public do not appear to have any meaningful stake in the future/fate of the buildings which shaped the heritage of their city, their home and their future. The public do not have the voice, or often the means, to express through the planning process what they value about architecture and heritage. The force and priority appears not to lie with the public, or indeed with the Councillors, but with the interests of property ‘development’ which is not noted for its regard for ‘culture’.
It is suggested that people may connect more with the importance of built heritage and architecture through a cultural agenda rather than regeneration or development planning agendas, which, appear to be targeted at more specific interest groups. The cultural strategy must therefore be regarded as key in providing a way in which the wider public can be involved in dialogue about the cultural value of built heritage and architecture in their city, and shape its future on both a general and case by case basis.
With regard to built heritage, Belfast’s ‘not so cultural’ and, in terms of retail strategy, tourism and well-being, outdated, planning and regeneration strategy must stop to consider the broad basis of culture. We do not believe that the new cultural strategy can solve planning and regeneration issues for the historic built environment, either overnight or outright, but we do think it can play a part in empowering Belfast City Council to better consider heritage buildings within the cultural framework for the city by actively setting out to prioritise built heritage within the cultural agenda.
The cultural strategy must reflect the public desire to protect our finite and irreplaceable tourism, cultural and social assets. This stance should not be understood to stand in the way of progress for Belfast, in fact, quite the contrary. The strategy should promote the best approach to protection of heritage, reusing buildings and the potential for repurposing heritage buildings for arts and cultural need. The strategy should promote Belfast building anew in a way that adds to and does not detract from the qualities of the city, for the benefit of many and not the few. The outcomes of the strategy must be acknowledged as being of key importance by Councillors and all Departments within Belfast City Council helping peoples’ leadership in revisions of the current outmoded agenda of regeneration and planning.
We note the title of this cultural strategy is a ‘City Imagining’ not a ‘City Re-Imagining’. Belfast cannot, and should not, continue to throw out existing cultural assets, including buildings, ‘with the bath water’. The approach to this strategy and developing the associated investment and delivery programmes should specifically target public consultation, planning and regeneration frameworks to have any meaningful long term use.
The choice for the council and the outcomes of this cultural strategy lie between realising recognition and respect for Belfast’s built heritage and the alternative, ‘wrecking ball’.
Ulster Architectural Heritage hopes to see built heritage better prioritised according to the above recommendations in the progression, priorities and outcomes of the ‘City Imagining’ Cultural Strategy 2020-30.
More information on the ‘A City Imaging’ Strategy can be found here. UAH is encouraging anyone who values the built heritage of Belfast to get involved and #HaveYourSay by emailing: [email protected]
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