Written by Anna Skoura
Belfast hosted the fourth and final urban room pilot in the Community Consultation for Quality of Life research between the 5 and 27 September 2022.
Each of the four pilots explored different urban room versions over the period of eight months. Reading tested the shopfront approach in Reading Broad Street Mall, Cardiff had its urban room in a community centre, while Edinburgh combined a city centre room with pop-up exhibitions in two local neighbourhoods. Learning from the previous pilots and trying to cater for Belfast’s context, we took another different approach, setting our “Your City Your Voice Belfast” Urban Room in a public building owned by Belfast City Council with a shared programme.
Belfast still bears the traces of its ethnonational conflict and features a large number of highly segregated neighbourhoods and contested spaces. To ensure a neutral basis for our research, it was vital that the location and programme of our urban room was not linked to a specific community, but was shared and inclusive. Hence, we focused on the city centre both spatially and thematically. We partnered up with the Council taking up residency in 2 Royal Avenue (2RA), a listed building in the heart of Belfast, and used the Quality of Life (QOL) themes to explore the city centre’s current condition and future potential.
Image 1: The building at 2 Royal Avenue. Photo by Saul Golden
Built c.1869, 2RA was originally designed as the head office of the Provincial Bank of Ireland by the well-known Irish architect W.J. Barre. Since then, the building has hosted different uses, the last being part of a supermarket franchise. The supermarket closed during the Covid-19 pandemic and the Belfast City Council bought it in 2020, aiming to repurpose it as a public cultural hub.
2RA’s central location and imposing High Victorian architecture make it a popular venue for locals and tourists alike. For over a year now, an events management company, MayWe Events, runs 2RA and facilitates a rich and diverse programme. When the Council offered to include our urban room in 2RA, Your City Your Voice Belfast became part of the building’s shared space and programme, allowing for us to test yet another urban room approach.
Sharing 2RA brought significant benefits to the urban room model. MayWe facilitated a safe space with a diverse programme of events that ensured a regular footfall, while the building staff effectively became ambassadors for the urban room signposting people to our exhibition and surveys.
Following the example from the other urban rooms, we offered free hot drinks through the café for completed surveys. We thus partnered with Yallaa CIC, a social enterprise supporting Arab Culture in Northern Ireland, operating the café in 2RA and they too became effective urban room ambassadors.
Last but not least, being able to operate the space rent free, allowed us to use that budget to partner with arts organisations and local businesses to experiment with collaborative installations and cultural activities.
For all of these benefits to work, we collaborated very closely with the managing company as well as the social enterprise café operating in 2RA, negotiating our events programme and the space we occupied.
Our urban room had to be flexible, able to contract and expand depending on anything else happening in the building on any given date. While our exhibition remained in place for the entire duration of the urban room, there were days we could take over more than half of the building and others when we had to confine our activities to a single desk. These conditions steered us towards a curated program of events that were all closely related to the scope and themes of Your City Your Voice Belfast and to ‘design’ our installations to be as lightweight and mobile as possible.
Image 2: Chinese culture event in the Belfast Urban Room taking over most of the back space of 2RA. Photo by Emmet Donaghey
Image 3: Our student ambassadors confined to a single desk for the day as a big external exhibition is set up at the back. Photo by Saul Golden
Our preliminary findings suggest that the central location, dynamic and shared space of the building succeeded in extending the reach of the urban room to people who would not otherwise engage in a consultation.
Indeed, almost 80% of those participating in our survey responded that they had never been asked to participate in a consultation before. This figure contrasts the pre-room feedback that city centre and surrounding neighbourhood groups suffer from consultation fatigue or didn’t see much value in visiting a new space in the city.
Whether it was the draw of the space itself or the mix of activities, the urban room provided a platform to engage in conversations with people who participated in our events, wandered over to our exhibits, or just stopped by for a free sandwich and coffee.
Furthermore, the Quality of Life themes, like the 2RA space itself, provided an unexpected flexibility to link discussions across many topics and development challenges for Belfast City Centre. These observations, still to be tested, suggest how a future iteration of the urban room as a neutral place of co-learning, could help address the wider challenges of building trust in Belfast beyond the city centre.