Our towns and cities can be whatever we want them to be

24 Aug 2022 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 24 Aug 2022

Commercial Court, just off Hill Street, in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter (photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash)
Commercial Court, just off Hill Street, in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter (photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash)

Northern Ireland’s urban spaces are designed to suit cars. We could tinker with this – or transform it entirely.


Hill Street, in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, is home to some popular bars and restaurants.

In May 2020, then Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon announced plans to pedestrianise the street. This move was effectively a pilot for broader changes that reflect modern urban thinking.

A year ago, the minister was forced to state that Hill Street was still a pedestrian zone – despite cars freely using it as a thoroughfare.

Damian Corr, Manager of the Cathedral Quarter BID (Business Improvement District), said at that time that there had been little or no consultation on these changes, the local business community was split on the strategy, and: “It seemed unlikely to us that full pedestrianisation would get agreement in the foreseeable future.”

Now, it’s back to the drawing board, with more or less the same plan. According to new Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd, a consultation is in the works to gauge the views of Cathedral Quarter businesses.

DUP MLA Phillip Brett criticised this as “dither and delay”, saying there had been no real progress on “something relatively small such as the pedestrianisation of Hill Street”.

Mr Brett’s criticism seems fair – as does his description of this proposal as something modest.

Elsewhere in the world, big changes are afoot. Cities are transforming themselves to meet a huge number of modern challenges and take advantage of new opportunities.

Sustainability and adaption to climate change. An appreciation of how retail has changed in the online age. Encouragement for active travel.

Trying to reignite the social role that city centres can and should play.


Cars are just tools to help us get on with our lives. And they do that pretty well. Certainly, if all the cars in Northern Ireland vanished and nothing else changed, it would be a disaster. But cars are not the only tool – it’s just that we are saturated with them:

  • Congestion costs 2–5% of global GDP annually in lost time, wasted fuel, and increased cost of doing business.
  • As much as 50% of European inner-city land is devoted to roads and parking; but, even in rush hour, cars use only 10% of urban roads.
  • On average, European cars are parked 92% of the time and when in use only 1.5 out of 5 seats are occupied.
  • A fifth of average European and US households’ gross income is spent on car ownership.
  • Urban transport accounts for 20–50% of cities’ final energy consumption (excluding industry) and this proportion is set to grow.

These figures come from a March 2019 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, published on the EU’s European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform.

Circular Economy in Cities – Urban Mobility System is filled with details that show how our cities and towns are built around cars.

Of course, not all vehicles are cars. Buses or trams could play a key role in transformed urban spaces. If city centres are still going to be social, cultural and commercial hubs then they will need to take deliveries – but, right now, freight accounts for only about 20% of urban traffic (and a proportion of that will just be passing through).

The report is filled with ideas about how modernising and improving how cities are designed and built, and how they work in practice, could bring huge positives to people’s lives, both directly through improving cities as social experiences and by helping make businesses more efficient, reducing pollution, and more.

Unfortunately, it is a leaden document, weighed down by jargon.

“Current linear practices in urban mobility, such as a high dependence on individual car ownership and fossil fuels, have created high levels of congestion leading to wasted time and lost productivity, as well as pollution, noise, heat-island effects, and the depletion of finite resources.

“Dependence on individual cars in cities can also be a strain on household budgets and can lead to high amounts of urban land devoted to parking. With urbanisation and the demand for urban freight rapidly increasing, the need for more effective urban mobility solutions are pressing.

“Given this, circular economy principles to design out waste and pollution, keep materials in use and at value, and regenerate natural systems provide the much-needed solution.”

Better future

Wade through the muddy prose - where buses and trams are “shared mobility options” and walking and cycling are “active mobility options” - and you can find transformative ideas.

The point of “circular urban mobility systems” is to focus on “on effectively accommodating the user’s mobility needs by diversifying modes of transport.”

The report says: “As urbanisation rapidly increases, urban mobility systems are under increased pressure and without a change of approach, will result in more costly congestion, and health issues.

“By harnessing and combining opportunities such as compact urban development, digital optimisation of mobility services, new manufacturing and construction techniques, new business models, and developments such as remote working, a new urban mobility system can be shaped that supports the overall economic, environmental, and social prosperity of the city”

In simpler terms: cars are not the only tool and, by using all the tools we have appropriately, we can build cities that work better.

But what is the end goal of these changes? What exactly is the modern urban landscape?


Copenhagen provides a great example. More walking, more bikes – as well as more support for electric vehicles and mass transit. Overall, more sustainability. Less focus on cars, less CO2, less pollution in general.

Those are just the transport changes – which dovetail with other shifts in building design, for both homes and business use.

Nordhavn is a former shipyard on the city’s northern edge which, according to Bloomberg, is an area designed “as a “five-minute city,” a term that means that it’s possible to reach shops, institutions, workplaces, cultural facilities, and public transport within five minutes’ walk from any point in the 3.6-million-square-meter district…

“There are harbor baths and waterside wooden decks, performance spaces and cinemas; in the coming years, the area’s decommissioned fabrication yard will be converted into a massive cultural space spanning nearly three square miles called the Tunnel Factory. It will have open-air performance spaces, a sculpture park, artist ateliers, maker studios with boutiques, high-design playgrounds for kids, and a spate of “climate-conscious” restaurants, according to design plans, all focusing on construction styles and artistic disciplines that leverage upcycled materials.

“But Nordhavn isn’t just an example of innovative and highly livable urban planning. It’s also a trailblazer for urban greening, with master plans that rival any city in the world for their sustainability ambitions. If those plans are carried out as intended—and they have been so far—Nordhavn will receive the highest certification from the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB), recognized as the standard-setter in sustainability auditing…

“Already, Nordhavn’s initiatives have pricked the ears of leaders around the world. Prior to the pandemic in October 2019, Nordhavn hosted the C40 summit on sustainable development, which was attended by mayors from 40 of the world’s largest cities. In May 2019, it also played host to a group of mayors and technical advisers from IDB Cities Network, representing 16 cities throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Their shared goal was to get a master class in sustainable urban planning and to identify long-term solutions to common problems such as traffic management and overdevelopment.”

Back home

Back to Northern Ireland, and Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, and a cobbled street that’s a couple of hundred metres long and which we’ve tried and failed to pedestrianise.

Hill Street is not the only part of the city centre that could do with changes – but perhaps a piecemeal approach is not the way forward.

Instead, it’s worth considering something much more transformative: a complete reappraisal of the purpose of urban spaces, and how they can and should work in the modern world.

Yeah, it’s a lot of work, but if Copenhagen is improving itself, why not us?

Paris, a much bigger and busier city than Belfast, added hundreds of kilometres of cycle lanes during the pandemic. Mayor Anne Hidalgo sees this as one step on the journey towards a more sustainable city and, while her project has not all been plain sailing, it’s still moving forwards.

There’s nothing wrong with ambition.

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