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Study blames architecture for Belfast sectarian unrest

"The stubborn persistence of sectarian attitudes in Belfast can be partially blamed on everyday urban features which would be uncontroversial in cities less blighted by conflict", a study conducted by Dr Ralf Brand of the University of Manchester reports.

The Doctor's study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, suggests that buildings, fences, parks, footbridges and even a playground can influence the location, intensity and duration of bitter conflict between Catholics and Protestants. However, Dr Brand’s study also found examples of where architecture can help to heal the wounds of the Troubles.

As part of the study, Dr Brand handed out disposable cameras to community workers, teachers and others locals to photograph areas which they felt were trouble spots – giving a revealing picture of the city’s problems.

The project also examined the architecture of Beirut, Amsterdam and Berlin. Its results will be presented at an exhibition in the PLACE Centre for Architecture and the Built Environment in Belfast, this week. Dr Brand, who is based at the School of Environment and Development, said: “There’s no doubt that great strides have been made in Northern Ireland, politically, but in terms of the urban fabric, considerable problems remain.

“Our study shows that in areas of conflict, there are very few neutral features in a city. In other words, we have seen many examples of how architecture can inadvertently make things worse. But the good news is that architecture can also make an important contribution to the resolution of conflict.

“This doesn't mean there’s a quick fix to the problem, but professionals from planners to engineers need to be more aware of the importance of architecture to urban conflict...Consultation really matters a lot. You cannot design in meaning to an object.”

He added: “Every city is different with different problems and solutions...But in Belfast, a fence can be tempting to throw a stone over it simply to prove how tough you are and that can trigger a sort of arms race.

“Some of the heavily fortified structures, such as police stations and some peace walls - though needed - can reinforce tensions by their mere appearance. It’s obviously too simplistic to just dismantle them. “We even found a park in north Belfast which had been divided with a wall, mainly to separate young people from the two adjacent neighbourhoods.”

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