Imagine the Belfast of your dreams @ImagineBelfast
by Eilish BOSCHERT for Northern Ireland Foundation
21 March 2017

Open University hosted ‘Imagine the Belfast of your Dreams’ as one of the first events of the weeklong Imagine Belfast Festival of Politics and Ideas.

Professors at Open University, Dr Philipp Horn, Dr Belinda Wu, Dr Julius Mugwagwa, and Dr Charlotte Cross, facilitated the event, introducing the participants to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda.

Agenda 2030 replaces the Millennium Development Goals, striving to achieve their vision by the year 2030. This agenda is a wish list – ideas toward making the world a better place. They include objectives such as sustainable cities and communities; quality education; and peace, justice, and strong institutions.

Each of these objectives has universal application, making it relevant in any metropolitan area. The agenda promotes the notion that urban residents should be involved in the construction, rehabilitation, or preservation of their communities. Development, Dr Horn asserted, must be people-centred and inclusive.

True to the theme of the festival, the event invited the participants to brainstorm their ideas for a Belfast that would speak to this New Urban Agenda. The participants were split into small groups and given 20 minutes to collaborate with one another to create a visual representation of the Belfast of their dreams.

A wide variety of issues were presented by each group to the room at large, but many had overlapping themes: shared space, accessibility, and cooperation. Participants reflected that even as a transitional society, Belfast preserves echoes of its past in city life. Early closing hours, public transport inaccessibility, and lack of non-monetised, public, shared spaces hampers Belfast’s potential to reach all of its communities.

The groups provided potential solutions for these problems: rerouting of buses to cross-community boundaries; extending hours on entertainment licenses; creating shared, open spaces for people from various backgrounds to mingle. One woman argued for “regeneration, not gentrification”, through the development of city suburbs that would invite a diverse population within the city to create new communities.

The groups all envisioned a Belfast transformed into a bright, vibrant, and affordable city, appealing not only to tourists, but to its citizens as well.

However, with large, civic agendas come the fear of political agendas undermining or superseding the original community objectives. When communities are marginalised, they become disenfranchised, which can lead to the danger of apathy. As citizens, how can we combat institutions that say one thing, but do another? Where’s the accountability?

One participant, who had spent his career working with youth in Northern Ireland, reflected that the best way to create active citizens is to engage individuals in a way that makes them feel good about themselves and their communities. In order to generate change, the entire population must be taken forward. The abandonment of any one community restricts the potential for the society as a whole.

Ultimately, the participants concluded that much of urban development is determined by economic factors. In order to make a change, ordinary urban residents must get involved. Belfast is missing a strong, community voice to shape and inspire the city.

Dr Charlotte Cross encouraged the group to explore some of Open University’s free, online courses that uncover and analyse international development and cities in transition. These sources allow the general population to understand and engage with strategic research in inclusive innovation, here in Belfast and around the world.

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