Building recovery case study: Belfast Urban Childhoods

35% of Belfast’s population is aged 25 or under. With support from the Resilient Cities Network (previously 100 Resilient Cities), Arup’s award-winning Belfast Urban Childhoods Masterplan was created with and for Belfast City Council to support their aspirations to make the city centre attractive for families and young people. The Masterplan – winner of the Landscape Institute Awards 2020 ‘Excellence in Place Regeneration’ category – sets out a design framework and strategy to create a healthy, inclusive and child-friendly city centre, while addressing resilience challenges like prevalence of car use and air pollutionAs cities begin the long journey of post-Covid recovery, we take a look at how a child-friendly approach delivers benefits for all and can lead to more resilient, sustainable and inclusive cities. 

Credit: Arup

Background

In August 2018, a devastating fire broke out at Bank Buildings – one of Belfast’s most prominent historic buildings – leaving over a dozen businesses unable to trade for months. A cordon set up near the site saw a 60% drop in footfall in the city centre a year on from the incident. Faced with the need to close roads, alter transport routes and redirect pedestrians, Belfast City Council seized the opportunity to redesign and animate open space and bring people back into the city in an inclusive and accessible way. 

Prior to the fire, the area faced several challenges, particularly affecting young people and families. These included: 

  • A poor mix of uses – lots of retail but little open space and few options for other activities  
  • A car dominated city centre – lacking safe circulation for pedestrians between places and attractions 
  • People feeling unsafe  
Credit: Arup

As part of their City Resilience Strategy , Belfast City Council wanted to take a more strategic approach to transform the city centre and address the above challenges through play following the success of a pop-up park at Castle Place, which prompted calls for more family-friendly open spaces. They brought Arup on board to help them create open and connected spaces in a city where historically, hard infrastructure has reinforced the division of communities and excluded them from the heart of the city. The outcome was a framework and design strategy for a more healthy, inclusive and child-friendly city centre supported by the Urban Childhoods Design Toolkit – a resource that provides practitioners, local government and communities with tools and practical templates to guide their design processes. 

Good design for children is good design for all 

But why design for children? The approach reverses the idea that child-friendly spaces should be discreet and excluded from other parts of the public realm. It brings together principles of resilience and sustainability, with positive outcomes for all.  

“Children are indicator species for cities: if they work for kids, they work for everyone. The converse is also true: cities that do not work for children are not working for anyone.”

Enrique Peñalosa, Former Mayor of Bogotá

“Designing a city for children is designing a city for all” explained Dima Zogheib, Associate Director, Arup “taking a child’s lens helps you tackle a lot of challenges.” Far from designing from a purely play perspective, child-friendly urban planning factors in issues like safety, air quality and accessibility. This benefits everyone, but especially groups like wheelchair users, older people, caregivers and women whose needs are often not prioritised in design but are the people who serve to benefit most from building a fair and inclusive post-Covid recovery in our cities. 

The approach reflects Belfast’s Resilience Strategy, responding to objectives such as improving independent mobility and creating healthy environments and inviting places. It also supports the city’s first community plan, The Belfast Agenda, which aims to make Belfast a well-connected, culturally vibrant, prosperous and sustainable city, free from the legacy of conflict. With ambitious targets to deliver 46,000 additional jobs and 66,000 new homes by 2035, one of the biggest challenges faced is how to make the city centre attractive for families. From a young person’s perspective, it is currently designed to suit the retail needs of adults, a common feature in town and city centres globally. Adopting this approach could help reimagine cities to improve the lives of all citizens.  

New perspectives 

To better understand young people’s aspirations for their city five workshops were run with 43 citizens aged 6-18 years.

Belfast City Council and youth workers facilitated the sessions, guided by tools provided by ArupThey took place in communities on the fringes of the city centre, which were purposefully cut off from the space by roads during the Northern Irish conflict. Young people said they felt familiar with the city centre but did not feel a connection to it. They had lots of ideas on ways they could reconnect – by making public space more fun, creating play routes and increasing street activity to improve perceptions of safety. 

The Urban Childhoods Toolkit 

The result of this engagement work is the Urban Childhoods Toolkit, launched in 2020, featuring a menu of tools, replicable design ideas and interventions aimed at addressing existing constraints across Belfast. One important feature is the flexibility that design ideas offer for reaction to both current and future needs. Covid has shown us how rapidly things can change and the need to design spaces that are adaptable. The Toolkit offers ideas that can be tested through meanwhile interventions – trying out different ways to activate spaces going through change, before implementing permanently (or not).  

It provides resources to support local governments and communities to initiate design processes by assessing, prioritising and proposing child- and family-friendly interventions based on principles of: 

  • Utilising empty plots – creating facilities for children and making space more inclusive 
  • Stitching the urban fabric together – analysing walking routes and improving connections
  • Activating open spaces- through permanent or temporary interventions 

Small-scale interventions have already been trailed using the framework including a pop-up play park designed by children in an area previously known for anti-social behaviour. The meanwhile intervention was originally planned to remain in place for two years, but the park’s success as a welcome outdoor family space during lockdown has prompted calls to make it permanent. 

Key learnings 

Designing for children challenges the status quo; it is provocative and promotes a different and more inclusive way of thinking. The pandemic has been a good catalyst for changing the way things are done, and we know from research conducted with our network that those in the built environment are focusing on reducing inequalities post-pandemic. Recovery lends itself to innovation, and as a sector we could take advantage of this by using a child-led design approach.   

Arup and Belfast City Council shared key learnings from their experience:  

  • Flexibility – designing through a child’s lens can help create spaces that are adaptable and can change over time – like children!  
  • Experimentation – testing ideas doesn’t just need to happen at the drawing board. Experimenting with meanwhile uses is a good place to start 
  • Outcomes over outputs – designers tend to be trained to consider outputs not outcomes. Using a child’s lens can help us think more about outcome-led design so that design delivers for people typically excluded from our city centres and reduce inequalities.  

The masterplanning toolkit Arup has created for Belfast is all about doing things differently and thinking beyond the norm – a child’s imagination knows no bounds! If we keep doing things the same way, the outcomes will remain the same. By taking a different approach we will hear from a mix of voices and can come up with creative solutions to urban inequalities. Creating replicable design frameworks using toolkits like Arup’s Urban Childhoods Toolkit means we can embed a forward-thinking strategy into all our design processes, with fairer outcomes for all.