Hope Street and Posnett Street are the locations of two large vacant sites in South Belfast. Their owners embarked upon a process of creative consultation to engage with residents and other stakeholders to understand how they feel about the sites and to reach a degree of consensus over their future development.
The question over how to develop these prominent inner city sites has vexed their owners (Northern Ireland Housing Executive) and the people of Belfast for many years. Since being cleared of terraced housing in the 1990s, both have been the subject of numerous plans that have failed to materialise.
This project sought to undertake a thorough process of consultation with local communities, businesses, officials, politicians and others to determine how the sites should be developed. Early in the process the limitations of ‘traditional’ consultation approaches were recognised, leading to the adoption of an ambitious and imaginative engagement process.
Located between the city centre and inner city neighbourhoods of Sandy Row and Donegall Pass, both sites are the source of great interest to local communities and prospective developers alike. Yet having lain vacant for so long, they are also a source of frustration amongst residents, faced with visual blight and antisocial behaviour.
The two sites are also set within a context of fear. As seen in many other inner city neighbourhoods, real concern exists that the pressures of city centre growth and rising land values pose a direct threat to the future of the community. Sadly this mistrust has been accentuated by poorly planned and conducted consultation exercises in the local area, including one that took place at the same time as this project.
At the outset of the project the consultation strategy was based on one-to-one interviews and drop-in consultation events in the vicinity of each site. Yet based on recent experience and the advice of local community workers, there was uncertainty that this would generate sufficient interest at a local level, nor engage with the wide cross section of people with an interest in the sites.
It was therefore proposed to add to these techniques and to ‘go creative’, taking inspiration from projects featured in this toolkit. Engagement events were planned to take place on the sites themselves.
Eye catching marquees were set up at highly visible points at each site. Bouncy castles, local street performers and urban sports teams helped to draw a crowd, while community groups provided a free barbecue to the public. This helped generate the necessary interest and footfall for a host of imaginative consultation techniques including iPad questionnaires, photographed statements, large floor maps, hanging mobiles and giant land-use and housing tenure jigsaw games.
The events succeed in their stated goal of raising awareness (creating a buzz); engaging with a wider audience; demonstrating potential, particularly for meanwhile uses; and directly contributing to regeneration of the sites and surrounding area.
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