The Linen Quarter consultation proposal is out and its main goals are to improve the public realm, but also to suggest general improvements to the area in itself and propose those change to the relevant institutions.
The vision for the quarter is based on the following aspects and is accompanied for the following picture
- Enhance the arrival experience – Transport Hub to Blackstaff Sq
- Develop new street typologies
- Create new focal spaces
- Make the most of the unique building stock
- Provide a framework for new buildings
The image shows a lack of ambition in providing more green spaces and fills some areas of the quarter with new buildings, when there is no need to. On the public meeting we were informed that there was plenty of interest in private investment in the quarter, but we should improve the quarter primarily with the most vulnerable users in mind. Ideally, that could start a good design framework for future developments within the city.
The focal spaces mentioned in the document are Blackstaff Sq and Linenhall St West. Though Blackstaff is an obvious location to be improved, Linenhall seems like a perfect second place to improve the area for pedestrians. However, the proposal for it is not ambitious enough.
The zone behind the BBC building could be the target of an even more audacious change to introduce a green space that actually takes advantages of the views of the City Hall and Saint Malachy’s Church. To achieve it would require Transport NI cooperation to make the streets around it access/delivery only. the more audacious proposal would be to include a bigger part behind of the BBC building as part of this new green space. An area of almost 5000 square meters is a great improvement on a city whose large parks are not within reasonable walking distance from the city centre.
The other place that could incorporate a greener area is the area around Invest NI building and maybe even into the car park right beside it. This has huge space to develop a better area to dwell and to entice new businesses (e.g coffee/food vans). With a potential area of over 2500 square meters it is another space that would help to entice the ground floor shops to the area.
Develop New Street Typologies
The road layout is one of the most anti-vulnerable people aspects of the quarter at the moment and a change in it would lead to an improvement in the social and economic growth of the quarter.
However, the solution provided is not good enough. Increasing the width of the pavements and reduce the on street car parking (which are not fully contemplated in the document) are easy wins for the liveability of the streets. On main trunks (Bedford St, Ormeau Avenue) it would be also fundamental to separate cycling from the remaining modes of transport. The Bedford St case is even more important as it would start a link between the City Centre and Queens University, which would reduce journey times of 15 min (walking) to 5/6 min (cycling).
The new typology suggested is commonly known as shared space. The “equality of opportunity” on which this is based does not lead to an equality in outcome between all modes of transport due to simple physics. This should and will be addressed in a separate article, but here is a summary of the issues:
- Affects greatly impaired people (namely people with impairments in vision, e.g blindness).
- People won’t be able to walk or cycle wherever they feel like. Cars are bigger, stronger and people will always give way to them, simply to prevent any accident.
- Cycling is generally disregarded as a mode of transport and what will happen is what’s happening with regular roads. Confident cyclists will cycle in the street while not so confident will share the pavement with pedestrians.
- Reports in the Netherlands show that there is an increase in KSI as result of accidents, due to the change of a place to a shared space.
Remaining Vision Points
I feel the other points in the vision point to the right direction the in terms of what can be done about the public realm and social and economical growth. Just two points to note:
- If night life is intended to be increase, then there should be a primary focus area within the quarter. With the already existing and established pubs in the area near the Transport Hub I would suggest that to be a primary target. However, there needs to be understanding of all the businesses that are already established in that zone (e.g. hotels, among others).
- There are areas that should be more day life and other more lively during evenings/night. That depends on the businesses around each zone within the quarter. There is no need to make the entire quarter suitable to a 24 hour life style.
- Building height should have a limit. Belfast should not aim to a New York wannabe with Hobbit sized sky scrappers. Unfortunately, there already is a very ugly and tall building in the area
I feel the consultation is moving in the right direction, but there’s not enough bluntness to request higher standards for the vulnerable users. We should design roads with the higher standards for the vulnerable users, as those are the actually the ones that spend more with local business. Then, we start to go down the ladder to the remaining road users and businesses. Or are we aiming for a quarter where people don’t dwell?