Belfast’s hidden barriers and architecture of fear

Figure 2: Inter-community hidden barrier: Dual carriageway on the site of a former shared space between Areema and Twinbrook. (c) David COYLE et al @UlsterUni

Belfast’s hidden barriers and architecture of fear
by Raquel GOMEZ for Shared Future News
20 June 2018

Northern Ireland has lived with the legacy of the Troubles for 20 years. Segregation and division remain — peace walls are a physical indicator of that. But beyond peace walls, there is a wider architectural legacy that conflict has left behind and forms part of everyday life.

Hidden Barriers and Divisive Architecture: The Case of Belfast is a three-year multidisciplinary academic research project led by Mr David Coyles, Professor Brandon Hamber, and Dr Adrian Grant, which identifies an extensive range of “hidden barriers”. The research was presented as part of the Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series 2017/18 (KESS), a forum that encourages debate on a wide range of research findings.

Taking the form of everyday elements of the environment, hidden barriers are rather different from peace walls and associated interfaces. They are elements that can go unnoticed — footpaths, warehouses, and roads. Such barriers control vehicular and pedestrian movement, and were formulated as a mechanism to limit inter-community violence. Identifying and cataloging these barriers, in addition to visible barriers, is fundamental to creating spaces in which communities can feel safe and comfortable using or passing through.

The report suggests three different types of hidden barriers that support and promote division in different ways and scales: (1) inter-community barriers; (2) intra-community barriers; (3) and hidden boundaries.

Inter-community barriers are being used on a large scale to separate two communities that were formerly connected, according to the report. Generally, these barriers are situated in residential areas with high levels of sectarian confrontation. Carriageways in the middle of two communities that used to be one are one example of an inter-community barrier.

Intra-community barriers have been established within single-identity communities and have been created a “patchwork of small, disconnected housing clusters, creating a spatial environment that is extremely fragmented and difficult to navigate”. These barriers are a mixture of cul-de-sacs, residential courtyards with a single entry-exit point, and dead-end streets as a result of redevelopment proposals. The elimination of traffic and limited pedestrian areas benefited security planning contemplated during the conflict.

The findings of the report suggest that “for some, these changes offer perceptions of safety, privacy and promote feelings of community cohesion. To others, they encourage feelings of isolation of being constantly watched by neighbors. Both outcomes are shaped by a dense environment of hidden barriers that mitigates against the free movement of these residents and limits connectivity with other areas, and ultimately promotes a sense of insularity.”

Finally, hidden boundaries were established as an indirect consequence of physical divisions promoted by inter-community barriers. They tend to surface in public spaces between two single-identity communities. The research identified three kinds of hidden boundaries:

  1. Everyday elements of the built environment, recognised locally as defining the inter-community boundary
  2. Streets that residents will not travel on, as they are perceived to belong to another community and deemed not safe to use
  3. Bus routes that are not used, as they are perceived to belong to another community and deemed not safe to use

The report concludes with different recommendations for addressing attitudes and behaviors that keep people divided and segregated.

For example, engaging with local communities as well as building trust and good community relations will be essential, as physical barriers will be removed with consent of the local communities. Documenting and cataloging hidden barriers is fundamental, according to the report, to develop regeneration plans.

In addition, the report recommends establishing a “10-year connectivity programme”, to remove or transform ten hidden barriers and re-establish physical connections between places that have been separated.

Peace walls are very visible ways of displaying division, but one it must take into account the many hidden barriers that stay under the radar.

In Northern Ireland, architecture continues to promote division. This “architecture of fear” must be identified, in order to take a step forward to a shared and integrated future.



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