Redefining the Mental Image of Derry/Londonderry
DERRY/LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland – This city is changing the mental image that its residents, visitors, and others had of a declining industrial city where the spark that ignited Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” was lit. Today, this city is the birthplace of a lasting peace and of the seeds for a thriving post-industrial city.
I am interested in how small and medium sized cities recover from disruptive changes. Smaller cities share many challenges with larger cities, but they can also have greater challenges accessing capital, resources, and national attention than their larger brethren.
Derry/Londonderry is focusing on both post-industrial and post-Troubles recovery. By the numbers, this city has many of the plagues that negatively impact post-industrial and post-traumatic cities, including high unemployment, high poverty, low educational achievement, and other aspects of what the British refer to as deprivations. Its sectarian and political divisions create a residential physical segregation as strong as the racial and ethnic segregation present in many U.S. cities, but are even more pervasive across the entire urban area.
Planners typically focus on rebuilding communities with a focus on the three E’s of sustainability: economy, environment, and equity. Strategies are as diverse as identifying and capitalizing on local unique opportunities, education and job training, building entrepreneurial spirit, access to capital, redeveloping catalytic sites, economic gardening, supporting community and neighborhood development, focusing on health and social inequities, ensuring government is a strong partner, supporting healthy city and commercial centers with able housing, creating a strong sense of identity, and building a shared sense of goals and momentum.
Derry/Londonderry has taken an all of the above approach working across all scales. At the large scale, three complementary aspects of its approach are especially interesting.
First, the construction of the pedestrian Peace Bridge across the River Foyle is a transformational project. Prior to the bridge, the city was literally divided between the mostly Protestant east bank and the old walled city/downtown and mostly Catholic areas on the west bank of the river. There were few opportunities and relatively few reasons to cross, resulting in relatively little mixing between the two communities. It also meant that much of the Protestant retail spending leaked out of the city to other communities. The bridge literally changed the mental map of residents, building a community vision of being one unified city and, as an added bonus, keeping far more retail and entertainment dollars in the city. All too often communities put all their eggs in a single project, a single building, casino, sports stadium, or museum, hoping to win the lottery for the next Bilbao effect. The Peace Bridge, however, with a million crossings a year, pencils out on any economic or social calculation.
The second aspect of the redevelopment focused on the former Ebrington Barracks on the east bank of the river, which was directly connected to downtown via the new Peace Bridge. A heavily fortified military base that no longer has a place in the city and a symbol of the military approach to policing during the Troubles, it will be redeveloped to provide opportunities for government and private sector offices, and will include incubator-type spaces to serve the needs of a young creative industries hub.
Finally, when Derry/Londonderry hosted the UK City of Culture 2013, it was only partially to honor the rich culture of the city and to host events to serve residents and visitors alike. More exciting was the involvement of all areas of the city and on all sides of the sectarian divide in participatory planning and as both creators and consumers of culture. Although further legacy funding has been cut off, the event has already left behind a rich physical and social legacy. Whereas the heavily developed and well accessed Belfast to Dublin corridor will most likely be the more traditionally successful area, Derry can capitalize on both its artistic and creative richness as sparks that can move its economy forward.
We know from experience elsewhere that both post-industrial and post-traumatic transformations take years, decades in fact, to solve problems that took generations to create. Planting those seeds, identifying the plan, and building momentum, however, are the most important early steps.
Prominent in the city’s night skyline is “A Stitch in Time” LED sign on a former shirt factory. The sign is a double entrendre reflecting the city’s evolution from shirt manufacturing to a post-industrial city and of the effort to mend the fabric of the torn city.
The Peace Bridge and the reuse of the former Ebrington Barracks have literally helped reknit that torn fabric.
Wayne Feiden is the director of planning and sustainability for the city of Northampton, Massachusetts. He is currently researching revitalization efforts in smaller European legacy cities as a 2014 Urban and Regional Policy Fellow, focusing on Vejle, Denmark, York, United Kingdom, and Londonderry/Derry, United Kingdom. This is the first of several blog posts on his travel and research.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.