Mackies: If not now, when? If not here, where? This was the question for decision makers, political leaders and the people of Belfast during the ‘City of the Future 2022’.
Beautiful photos, films and media reports do some justice to the two-day event, blessed with glorious sunshine, at the Mackie’s site. The fun, food, skills, ideas – the hope – were products of a decade of campaigning for rights and land justice in this divided city.
International visitors were overwhelmed by the contrasts: positive cooperation by people of all faiths and none, imagining a brighter future – set on a sectarian interface with forty-foot dividing walls.
The news is not as grim as some would have us believe. Against a backdrop of climate collapse, spiralling cost of living, rising homelessness and a peace process which is on life support, City of the Future brought architects and urban planners from all over the world together with local people, around a vision for a new community at the Mackie’s site. This was the latest stage in years of quiet talking, organising and engaging with diverse groups along Belfast’s interfaces, the areas most harmed during the conflict and most neglected since.
Consultations, workshops, webinars, art exhibitions, film making, protests, occupations, meetings, digital tool-kits, community gardening, pizza making and wood whittling have been part of a lengthy democratic, participatory city-shaping process. These activities are a world apart from the usual tick-box community consultation exercises that ignore and exclude so many while privileging the perspectives of the powerful.
This unique community-led, rights-based process is bypassing divisive politics and undermining extractive economics. It began simply, with women and children in homeless hostels looking at vacant land and asking ‘Why?’. Now, more than 50 architects from 6 continents are inspired to put their skills and imagination to work to design a place for a peaceful, sustainable and equitable future.
As one of the architects participating in the design competition remarked…, “When we look at a place like this, all we see is the potential”.
Their participation reconfirms that anything is possible at Mackie’s – a site ¼ the size of Belfast city centre, owned by the public and nominally stewarded by the state, in the area of greatest poverty and housing need in the city. It is a gem in the rough, left derelict for two decades by dysfunctional city planning and development processes.
As one of the architects participating in the design competition remarked (after being led onto the site by a veteran homelessness campaigner to throw a sunflower seed bomb), “When we look at a place like this, all we see is the potential”.
For the Take Back The City coalition, the emerging designs are important – they debunk the nay-sayers. But the open, transparent, collaborative and inclusive process is even more so.
Until now, decisions about Mackie’s have been made behind closed doors, by officials, politicians and select ‘community representatives’ setting the terms of what’s possible from within their own narrow frame of reference. This is business as usual, and the reason why Belfast City Council’s current plan is incapable of envisaging a community managing itself without peace lines and cooperating to deliver homes, jobs, food, services and energy.
This old politics from a bygone age has left Stormont stagnant while people go hungry and struggle to keep a roof over their heads. It is a politics which has failed to put a dent in segregation, poverty and homelessness and has forced a bad plan for Mackie’s through Council’s planning committee not once, not twice, but three times, despite the intervention of the courts.
The outcome, either by accident or design, is a plan for a ‘green-washed’ interface at Mackie’s between the two big historic communities, Catholics and Protestants. It suits only those who draw their power from division.
Change is needed now, and can’t wait on politicians, the private sector and paramilitaries to get on board. Mackie’s has been at the epicentre of conflict in Belfast for over fifty years: in that time the communities around the site have seen conflict, segregation, imprisonment, peace, stagnation, a financial collapse and a pandemic alongside constant poverty, homelessness and trauma. But those same people have made lives for their families. They have helped their neighbours and have built up their communities, transforming their space with the tools they have. The people of north and west Belfast have all of the skills and grit required to transform the Mackie’s site into a sustainable and inclusive community.
Imagine what the next fifty years could look like if their efforts were matched by the people in power?
What do you think? During October everyone will have opportunities to engage with the final designs for Mackie’s in community meetings, art exhibitions and online, to help shape a master-plan for the site. The designs will be judged by an international panel of experts who will select the top 5 based on the 6 vision principles developed through the community co-creation and design process. A winner will be selected by a family in acute housing need.
We would encourage everyone in Belfast – in particular North and West Belfast, including the many thousands of families on waiting lists, or struggling with rent and the cost of living – to engage. Share your thoughts and concerns – they matter. Help shape a new community and a new way of doing things in Belfast.
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