Planning and Building: Divisive Infrastructure in Belfast

By: Gregor Wittrick


First things first, a little auto-ethnography, as they call it. I’m not from Belfast and I have no first-hand experience of the troubles. The thoughts and comments below come from a five day trip to Belfast with the History of Design course, during which we met and toured the city with several architects, researchers and geographers. Their comments, insights and suggestions for reading on the planning and building of recent developments in and around Belfast raised a few questions and concerns about the city, its centre and suburbs, its population and communities.

My thoughts started during a walk around the city with Dr Andrew Molloy. His tour, based on research from his PhD, guided us from PLACE (Lower Garfield street) to St Joseph Church in Sailortown, to the north of the city centre. Along the way we walked past City Hall, Castle Court, cut down narrow alleys and under scaffolds in the shadow of the great yellow boxes preventing the remnants of the Banks Buildings from falling outward onto the surrounding streets, stopping in a sprawling carpark with a noisy motorway overhead. During the tour and under the underpass, Andrew called the construction of the Westlink motorway an ‘act of civic violence’. He stressed that this was not hyperbole. I didn’t think much more of it at the time. The tour continued.

A few walking tours later, we were guided by Aisling Rusk down one of the few remaining wide terraced streets to the North West of the city, where Divis street meets College Avenue, opposite Belfast Metropolitan College. A hundred yards down the road, we cross the Westlink again and stop on the narrow bridge overlooking the motorway. This is one of a small number of connections between the city centre and the North Western areas of the city, Shankhill and the Falls, amongst others. Standing on the bridge with a four-lane motorway beneath it, looking to the Falls, with the city centre behind me, Andrews reference to acts of civic violence became clear. Westlink, the only built section of Belfast Urban Motorway plan from 1964, creates an imposing physical boundary between the areas to the North and West of the city. Communities are cut off from easy access to their city centre, as the motorway restricts passage to a handful of designated points of connection.

The Belfast Urban Motorway was planned following the Matthew Report of 1964 which attempted to increase the housing stock to meet the forecast population increase of the post-war period. The proposal advised the creation of several ‘centres for growth’ on the outskirts of the city and suggested transport infrastructure – motorways and bypass roads – to connect the city to its periphery. A motorway encircling the whole of Belfast was planned, but only the section now called Westlink was built. Construction took place throughout the 1970s and Westlink first opened in 1981. After some debate in academic publications regarding the involvement of security forces in the planning of the road, declassified documents assessed by Tim Cunningham have recently demonstrated that ‘the planning system within Northern Ireland was successfully harnessed to achieve the key military objective of spatially isolating large sections of North and West Belfast’ (1). Cunningham adds that ‘given that the north and west of the city are overwhelmingly Catholic, there is the effect of ghettoizing and concentrating the spatial disadvantage of that community’. 

The Westlink is only one example of architecture and planning which voluntarily physically divides the city and socially separates catholic and protestant communities. Other such structures, which the planners and security forces disturbingly referred to as ‘natural divisions between difficult areas’ took the form of industrial estates, dual carriageways, care homes for the elderly and children’s playgrounds. The reluctance to confront the issue of separation and to favour more open policies of inclusion was ‘underpinned by a contention that any such discussion would be ‘unlikely to be actively supported by the army and the police who seem to find it easier to control violence in areas where community boundaries are clearly defined’ (2).

Barriers separate communities and act as physical reminders of the divisions. In the form of high fences, gates, barricades, or ‘concealed’ as roads, playgrounds, or infrastructure, these divisions create defined areas which reinforce feelings of discomfort. Citizens from certain areas may feel uncomfortable, and sometimes unsafe, in other areas of the city they inhabit.

Despite its lack of barriers now, one such space is the city centre. Formerly enclosed in the ‘ring of steel’ with different levels of police control enforced in different concentric zones, the centre is now open to locals and visitors alike. However, in trying to return to being a space for everybody, the centre now seems like a space for nobody. The violence of the troubles and the planning and architecture which responded to it has displaced its inhabitants and left the city centre devoid of a stable residential population. This exodus, in turn, has left the centre open to development which neither includes nor looks to welcome those who have left. With the population diminished, the public spaces, green spaces, parks and communal amenities to serve them have also disappeared. To satisfy any urge for open space you have to venture a little further afield, out towards the university, or across the river to Ormeau Park. Instead of these communal spaces, car parks appear in odd and unexpected places to accommodate the vast numbers of commuters. While they occupy the centre during daylight, those who live on the outskirts vacate the city at night and leave it wanting for life and activity.

In denying great swathes of the city’s population easy access to their city’s centre, the boundaries and borders created by the ‘natural barriers’ prevent the affected parts of the community from their having a strong voice in the rebuilding of their city. In excluding the local population, the city risks being rebuilt with no unifying voice and result a city which lack cohesion and which does not ‘work’ for the people who live in it.

Clearly the infrastructure built by security forces has had dreadful consequences for the city. Though this is easy to say in hindsight, especially for someone who has not been affected by the troubles, I wonder how future planning could help rebuild the city for the benefit its population? How should the spatial organisation of Belfast be reconsidered to improve community relations rather than enforce separation, to promote cohesion and inclusion, rather than segregation? How should the planning authorities and the people of Belfast plan more effectively to reduce sectarian violence without permanently scarring the city with physical boundaries and immutable divisions?

If there is anything to learn from these ‘natural barriers’, it is surely that planning and construction of new structures should take into account the future ramifications of their changes to the layout of the city, even (if not especially) those made in times of crisis. During periods of conflict and inter-population tension, gauging a common ground in the wills and wishes of a community is clearly an incredibly difficult task. But these permanent structures leave marks beyond their physical presence in the city. As Tim Cunningham noted, if the planners can work with security forces to promote separation in the city, surely the planners and the people can now work together to build a city that works for those who live in it.

Despite the great sadness caused by the fire in the Banks buildings, street closures for cars due to the reconstruction work have prompted the city to install temporary green (Astroturf) spaces, populated with benches and giant wooden snails and insects to sit on. After all the binary oppositions in Belfast, the burning of a building which meant so much to many people may be a very small step have towards uniting people in a common grief and interest in the city. Hopefully, the plans for the Banks Building and its surrounding streets, which remain closed following the fire, will prompt a renewed interest in the city centre and engage those who live in nearby areas to become involved in its reconstruction and voice their opinions on its future.

Belfast provides a clear and upsetting example of the ways the built environment can affect the people who inhabit it. Building divisive barriers and boundaries works against the promotion of values which allow peaceful cohabitation of different communities. The city is a good example of a space planned under difficult circumstances and without recourse to a representative diversity of voices and opinions of the people living within and around it. In decades to come, I’m interested to see how the city develops around the physical and imagined boundaries which have been cemented (sometimes literally) into a local understanding and navigation of the city. Hopefully, as well as teaching us to plan and build with prescience and consideration for different eventual futures, Belfast will teach us how to work around and overcome built boundaries and bring a socially and physically divided city together in years to come.


Thankfully, there are several groups who care deeply about the city, its architecture and current and future developments. Amongst others, the aforementioned PLACE, Belfast Interface Project, Future Belfast, and the sadly now defunct Forum for Alternative Belfast are working against exclusive development in the city. Their involvement with local groups and communities encourages people to become more active in planning their own city’s centre and gives hope for the future of the city and its residents.

1.) Tim Cunningham, ‘Changing Direction: Defensive Planning in a Post-Conflict City’ in City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action, Vol.18, Iss 4-5 (2014) pp.455-462, p.1

2.) David Coyles, Brandon Hamber, Adrian Grant, ‘Hidden Barriers and Divisive Architecture: The Case of Belfast’, Paper presented at Northern Ireland Assembly: Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series (KESS), 2018, p.2



-Alan Murie, ‘Planning in Northern Ireland: A Survey’, in The Town Planning Review, Vol.44, No.4 (Oct., 1973), pp.337-358. Available at <>

-David Coyles, Brandon Hamber, Adrian Grant, ‘Hidden Barriers and Divisive Architecture: The Case of Belfast’, Paper presented at Northern Ireland Assembly: Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series (KESS), 2018. Available at <>

-Fionola Meredith, ‘Another Belfast is Imagined’, The Irish Times, <>

-Tim Cunningham, ‘Changing Direction: Defensive Planning in a Post-Conflict City’ in City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action, Vol.18, Iss 4-5 (2014) pp.455-462. Available at <>

-Belfast Interface Project <>

-Forum for Alternative Belfast <>


-Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City (London, Penguin, 2018).‘Urban’, The

-Digital Human, BBC Radio 4, <>

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