The Take Back the City coalition is made up of families in housing need supported by experts in architecture, urban planning, housing policy, technology, finance, communications, permaculture, human rights and equality. We believe we can work together to help build a better Belfast - a city that’s not divided by walls, where everyone has a home and the things that really matter are society’s priorities - family, community, environment, health and happiness.
Through community organising and participation, Take Back The City is changing the ‘business as usual’ approach to delivering social housing, which has so drastically failed so many. Rather than following a top-down decision making process, our approach is rooted in a human rights based, community led design process, completely independent of political influence and government funding or control. It is a ground-breaking prototype for a more sustainable future rooted in a commitment to human rights and equality, and one which can provide a valuable model for communities all over the island of Ireland and further afield.
In 2015, homeless families in the coalition began working to find and map public land in Belfast which could be used for homes. At 13 hectares, the Mackie’s site is the largest expanse of publicly owned land in the city, and was quickly identified as offering a huge amount of untapped potential for addressing the housing crisis.
Since then, as a coalition we have worked hard to build support for a new community at the site and develop principles for its transformation: co-creation in design, promotion of local employment and skills, a healthy place, an inclusive place, a sustainable place and self-managed community. These are each intended to respond to the pressing needs created by climate, housing and cost of living crises, but also as a contrast as to a profit driven development industry and a paralysed political system.
The work so far has culminated in the launch of an international urban design competition in 2022. The winning design, by London- based architectural firm Matthew Lloyd, addresses the principles set out by families in our coalition and also promotes connectivity, links between communities, sustainability and habitability. As its primary objective, the design aims to create desperately needed social housing for hundreds of families on the waiting list, including through providing accessible homes for older and disabled people. But our ambition is so much greater - not just that families should have homes, but that in a place so long divided, we should be able to live together, in a city without walls.
We want to create a community at the site; not just by being neighbours but by operating a community housing model, which would enable people to live in the homes as long as they need them but also ensure that the homes to remain available to address housing need over the years. Coalition members the Town and Country Planning Association have worked to develop our thinking on which models might be applicable to the site, learning from other parts of the UK and Ireland, including co-housing, community land trusts, co-operative housing, self-help housing and community self-build.
Belfast City Council’s freshly-minted Local Development Plan aligns with our coalition’s focus on healthy and sustainable places. Matthew Lloyd’s design includes all the elements which the Development Plan requires, including access to public transport, safe walking and cycling routes, energy efficiency and passive design and green infrastructure.
“We now ask officials, elected representatives and departments to back our vision and rezone this land for homes. Because the questions remain: “If not now, when? If not at Mackie’s, then where?”
Mackie’s also has the advantage of avoiding ‘climate-related hazards’ such as flood risk which the LDP warns about. Our plan incorporates an emphasis on increasing biodiversity and community activity through providing extensive gardens and allotments, with benefits for people’s mental and physical health.
We, a group of homeless families with almost no resources and experts working on our own time, have together drafted a sustainable and radical solution for Belfast’s future and consulted more widely than any statutory authority. We now ask officials, elected representatives and departments to back our vision and rezone this land for homes. Because the questions remain: “If not now, when? If not at Mackie’s, then where?”