The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of urban parks as vital shared spaces which can benefit both mental and physical health.
However, sometimes this sharing of space comes with complications. This is the case for Belfast in Northern Ireland, a city with a history of political and societal division.
Our research investigated how space is shared in parks in Belfast. The use of parks could be seen as a microcosm of the wider debates surrounding the use of space in the city, but also highlight that the amenities offered by places like parks is starting to change the ways in which Belfast’s residents use their city.
For 30 years, Belfast was a key location in the conflict known as the Troubles (1968-1998), during which more than 3,600 people were killed.
The Troubles focused on the perceived legality or illegality of British rule in Northern Ireland. Unionist Protestant communities wished for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, whilst republican Catholic communities demanded a return to a unified Irish state. In Belfast, this division was reflected in the city’s geography, which was split along Catholic and Protestant lines.
In 1998, conflict in the city ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. This installed a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and laid the foundations for international cross-border relations with the Republic of Ireland.
The city’s council has led a drive to promote a more inclusive city and encourage a shared understanding of the city’s landscape. However, the legacy of the Troubles is still felt in the city – and this includes how Belfast’s parks are used.
Within Belfast the west of the city is predominately Catholic, east Belfast is largely Protestant, the south of the city is more mixed, and north Belfast is a patchwork of Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods.
We found that the everyday use of parks in west and north Belfast was often focused on local facilities – within a 10-minute walk. People are prepared to travel for specific activities, such as weekly sports or community activities, but maintain a more frequent relationship with local spaces which act as community hubs.
Remnants of The Troubles remain in Belfast. Distrust of Belfast City Council and the Police Service Northern Ireland, as well as communities from different parts of the city, persists. Some residents stay in their local area as it provides a sense of ownership and safety that they may not feel elsewhere.
In some cases, these boundaries exist within parks themselves, such as in the Waterworks Park in north Belfast. A park user told us that:
Park users do stick to their “side” or area in terms of park use – they don’t always venture across visible/invisible boundaries.
In addition, parks can hold physical marks of division. In north Belfast, the “peace wall” in Alexandra Park was erected in 1994 in an attempt to limit violence between Catholic and Protestant communities. In 2011 a gate was added to the centre of the wall to allow free movement between the northern and southern areas of the park. The wall is seen as a symbol of preserving specific community identities for some, but as a reminder of exclusion by others.
The promotion of a shared use of space – as well as a collective identity – in the city remains challenging. One park user said:
In the past, a Protestant couldn’t come here [to Falls Park]. Even now, I can’t see a Protestant coming here, unless he was playing football with the League, just like I wouldn’t go to Woodvale Park. But the younger generation doesn’t care, thank God.
There are signs from park users that some entrenched views are starting to be broken down. Placed in a wider context, parks are viewed differently to other areas in the city.
Markers in Belfast still reinforce perceived ownership over space. The presence of the Irish tricolour flag on the Falls Road, or British flags on the Shankill Road – both in the west of the city – are clear signs of community identity and show who is welcome in those areas.
Murals commemorating soldiers, and painted curbstones (red, white and blue in loyalist areas, and green and orange in republican areas) are further signs of territorial boundaries. Parks, though, are considered to be more inclusive. As one user said:
People are more neutral [in parks] because they are not where they live, and divisions here are about where people live. Look around here, you can’t tell where people are from. It’s a neutral place.
The development of the Connswater Greenway in east Belfast, the promotion of cycling along the Lagan River, and the high quality management of parks in west and north Belfast sets a inclusionary tone. The amenities these parks offer encourage people to use them as shared spaces.
Parks are not the single answer to the complex and lasting socio-political divisions in Belfast. They may, though, be part of a solution that requires buy-in from communities and the city, and which establishes parks as shared community spaces.