Candidate: Cathedral Quarter
Location: Belfast, UK
Category: The Great Neighbourhood Award
1. The collective vision for the Cathedral Quarter has evolved over a long period of time and been driven by committed stakeholders across sectors who believed in the area’s potential as a cultural quarter and link to the city centre
2. CQSG puts into practice the principles of place-shaping by engaging local people on a range of key issues and harnessing their expertise and acting as the catalyst to bring together local stakeholders to take stock of progress, analyse successes and failures, and propose solutions
3. A shared city centre space, the Cathedral Quarter offers many opportunities to participate in civic and cultural life, particularly for youth, and participation in city centre activities is shown to help marginalised communities and individuals feel connected and included – building ties between local communities and the city centre can contribute to a sense of civic pride and identity
4. The Cathedral Quarter is a highly networked area through years of working together on projects and events, campaigning and lobbying, and responding to crises. More recently, the CQSG stakeholder-led initiative to draft the new strategy has galvanised the community
5. Many businesses and creative and cultural organisations in Cathedral Quarter offer opportunities for employment, skill-sharing and mentoring. The Merchant Hotel offers a variety of training and development opportunities throughout the company and commits to supporting employees in achieving their career aspirations.
The evidence of the visit suggests a healthy approach to engagement and inclusivity and the Cathedral Quarter (CQ) Steering Group has a clear strategic vision and is working towards the establishment of CQ Management Trust to strengthen relationships, provide stewardship of the area and promote new ways of working.
Governance considerations in this location need to be assessed against the City’s history of sectarian conflict which for 40 years has distorted labour markets, impaired the delivery of key services, undermined the use of communal facilities, and deterred investment with the inevitable outcomes of physical blight and dereliction. Against this background what has been achieved in Belfast in general and the Cathedral Quarter in particular provides an outstanding example of civic leadership and community buy-in.
The trauma of the Troubles has here led to a clarity of purpose and an imperative for collective action on a common agenda which is without parallel. The four themes of the Belfast Peace and Reconciliation Action Plan 2011-2013 viz Building Shared City Space; Transforming Contested Space; Building Shared Cultural Space; and Building Shared Organisational Space emphasise the sharpness of focus on areas which in other cities are often taken for granted yet which are critical to the Academy’s vision of successful places.
There is strong agency and municipal leadership in place but this is not so dominant as to overwhelm the many formal and informal, business, faith, other and third sector interests, whose ambitions and energies are creating the dynamism, rhythm and colour which characterises the Cathedral Quarter. However there is a fear that the enlargement of cultural and other creative grass roots initiatives may be stifled by narrow commercial interests, as has happened in Dublin’s Temple Bar or by ill conceived large scale retail development as occurred with Manchester’s Arndale Centre.
There is ample spatial and physical evidence of the neighbourhood’s rich history, its cultural importance and the significance of its location connecting Laganside with the City centre. CQSG members see the CQ as a place of friendship and hopefulness and an oasis of sectarian neutrality. The scale and character of recent developments complements the prevailing ambience with its alternate squares and intimate streets and alleyways, an ambience likely to be greatly enhanced by the opening of the Metropolitan Arts Centre in the recently developed St Anne’s Square with its colonnades and active frontages.
There was evidence of well established leisure and employment activity, a strong third sector offer and an emerging residential element. There are well established and more recent destinations in parts of the area that combine with the massing of buildings and layout and varied dimensions of the streets and squares to occasion a welcoming intensity of use at particular times of day and night though derelict frontages on Donegall Street and North Street sadly detract from what is otherwise a pleasant experience. Nonetheless the evidence of our visit and discussions with workers and visitors revealed a profound affection and attachment to the CQ.
Many businesses appear fragile but flourishing. The question is whether confidence is rapidly reinforced by early resolution of blight, the student effect and MAC and Royal Exchange realisation delivering increased footfall and business patronage? However the example of the huge entrepreneurial investment in the development of the impressive Merchant Hotel will encourage similar interventions so long as a light touch development regime is complemented by enhanced influence and stewardship by local stakeholders over the pace and character of change.
Community cohesion is a central aim of the agencies and municipality and the CQ presents a good example of how that is coming together in Belfast. A high level of environmental consciousness was displayed by stakeholders. The robustness of many of the buildings has supported new and varied uses and whilst the cultural quarter aspirations for the neighbourhood are still only part realised there are numerous examples of successful adaptation. The CQ’s green ambitions are not yet matched by a convincing neighbourhood strategy, programme of action and performance metrics however.
The CQ benefits from its juxtaposition with the City centre and offers ready access for pedestrians to bus transport and taxis. However blight and dereliction are negative features in particular streets and blighted frontages act as a deterrent to the fullest exploitation of the areas permeability. Notwithstanding this the balance of uses achieved so far is impressive and the constraints on the scale and design of the residential component is understood and whilst this may remain limited, the hotel uses will augment overlooking of the streets. The neighbourhood is yet half finished and there is ample scope to enhance the extent of active frontages which at present are somewhat limited.
The CQ provides excellent opportunities for place based learning and there is an evident enthusiasm for learning from place across a range of agencies and interests. The CQ offers a valuable demonstration of how the need for knowledge about the impact of beneficial urban change elsewhere is driving a learning imperative across a range of agencies and interests. Further and higher education sectors appear predominant but there is also a strong school student element in evidence.