An act of imagining

Tribeca’s banal vision of Belfast, says Stephen Baker, should rouse us to imagine something better.

Screenshot from a slick promo website

The news that Belfast City Council’s planning committee has approved Castlebrooke Investments’ proposals to develop ten acres of the city between Royal Avenue and the Cathedral Quarter has been greeted with dismay by campaigners who argue that the plans are a disaster for the city centre.

The objections of opponents to the so-called Tribeca development are on the grounds that it will damage the architectural heritage of the city; it lacks provision for much needed social housing; and it will lead to a loss of public space. Indeed, the project’s mix of offices, retail space and residential schemes – all proposed in a pre-COVID world – assume ‘business as usual’ in the future.

The Save CQ campaign, described the Tribeca proposal as “fundamentally flawed” and went on: “We raised a number of planning policy violations and misrepresentations of key information in planning reports in our deputation to the committee, but it seems that higher political priorities were at work here.

“The current scheme relies heavily on Grade A offices and one bedroomed residential accommodation – the former which is likely to go the same way as the retail sector and the latter which is unsustainable if we want to create a resilient city.”

In short, the city is being sold from beneath the people who live and work there, and shaped in ways they have little say in.

Proponents of the Castlebrooke’s plans argue that the £500m investment will create 600 jobs during construction and a further 1,600 when it is finished. But this is speculative, and dependent upon a move back into the city on the part of workers and their employers, who may decide post-COVID that supporting coffee chains and bistros is not a good enough reason to concentrate their operations in urban centres with high rents and health risks.

But Tribeca was always a dubious proposal, part of a process of urban privatisation and gentrification that claims space for affluent users. Its very name is an attempt to establish a positive association with the Tribeca area in New York, a place once associated with industrial buildings and labour, now transformed into one of hip loft-living, trendy boutiques and restaurants. The Castlebrooke film, shared on social media, promoting the Tribeca proposals gives the game away. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth looking at.

Constructed as a sort of ‘day in the life if a city’, the film is a montage of dynamic urban images that stand for thriving, contemporary lifestyles, associated with residential living, working and leisure. Its overarching theme is the convergence of the global and the local, communicated in the concluding line of the voice-over – ‘You are international heart: you are Belfast soul’, a line delivered by northern Irish-born actor Jamie Dornan, as an international celebrity, emblematic of Belfast’s global reach. On the surface it’s a vibrant and attractive vision of a future city. But look closer, because the devil is in the detail, and what lies there is the imagining of an explicit set of class relations – cheerful locals whose job it is to service an affluent, global professional class; and an urban milieu in which that class can work, play and live, seemingly spared bland globalisation by the provision of local ‘colour’.

This is obvious in the conspicuous references to Guinness, Belfast baps, Ulster fries and the craic. On the other hand, conspicuous by their absence, there are no children or elderly people – for they serve no economic purpose.

Indeed, any notion of dependency and infirmity would require the inclusion of public services or civic amenities, such as health care, education or welfare, but none of this fits into the corporate vision of servile locals, bustling commercial life and middle class affluence and mobility.

It is a corporate fantasy version of Belfast cleansed of its history, culture and politics, or as Harcourt Developments, the company behind the Titanic Quarter put it, Belfast is ‘a pleasingly blank canvas’ for redevelopment. It is a dire way to conceive of any place in which generations have lived, worked, loved and fought over. Effectively, Belfast City Council has outsourced the job of imagining the city to greedy, grasping corporate interests.

The question, then, is whether collectively we can see our way to a better Belfast; an alternative to the corporate craving to reduce us all to the most culturally banal, politically anodyne and atomised versions of ourselves. Can we conceive of a city built on class solidarity; on reciprocity; cooperativeness; social and environmental sustainability; open and generous in its temper; as politically passionate as it is principled?

This is, first of all, an act of imagining. But that’s how we make a start.

Stephen Baker

4 September 2020