Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Derry - a resilient city

The Academy of Urbanism (AoU) had its annual Congress in Derry this year.  
In his introduction to the first AoU Journal, the Academy chairman Kevin Murray argues that “better places tend to be more tolerant of a diversity of people and backgrounds, making people feel comfortable and providing them with positive stimuli for creativity and collaboration”. This hardly sounds like the Derry of the popular imagination, but the Congress provided an opportunity to explore the new and infinitely complex reality.

Aerial view 1970s

Shipquay Street (Mark Lusby)

In his brilliant book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson calls the city a “great engine of supercreativity”, a crucible of innovation and creativity.[i]  No one could describe Derry as an engine of supercreativity, although it is generating a few sparks. Even the ever-optimistic ONE Regeneration Plan for Derry – Londonderry acknowledges that the city has a small, fragile economy, heavily dependent on the public and third sectors.  The same document contains a “Summary of Key Inequalities” which reveals that, in the most deprived parts of the city, the mortality rate is exceptionally high; the economic activity rate is alarmingly low (below 50% in places); about three-quarters of the adult population have no educational qualifications; and more than half of all primary school children qualify for free school meals. This is depressing, although hardly unique: much the same might be said about parts of Grimsby, Dundee or Oldham.
One might argue that, even a generation after the worst of the Troubles, Derry is in many ways the antithesis of the ideal city. It is too small to pack an economic punch, its traditional industries have collapsed, the private sector is weak, there is a low-skilled workforce (despite some great schools) and poverty is endemic.  It is hard to imagine a modern European city that is less diverse, and Derry remains segregated by religion and obsessed with its dual identity and its contested history. In some parts of the city, rough justice is administered by armed terrorist gangs, and one Congress delegate challenged official self-congratulation by highlighting the risks still faced by young people who choose to cross the community divide.

Above: The Fountain, below: Bogside

The Derry-based Nerve Centre is leading the Divided We Stand project which uses GPS technology to track the movements of school children in Northern Ireland as they go about their daily lives. Provisional findings suggest that religion continues to have a profound impact on the geography of everyday life for young people in Derry. The city centre appears to be more or less neutral territory, but the home, school and social life of young Catholics and young Protestants is often confined to mutually exclusive territories. Indeed, the subtext of the ONE Plan is an apparent acceptance of separate development. There is much talk of equality of opportunity, respect, cooperation and coordination but the inevitable Wordle diagram of key terms and phrases doesn’t mention integration.

So is Derry a model of good urbanism? Scarcely. The riverside, once a busy port and a centre of industry, is utterly miserable. Crass developments like the Foyleside Centre and the Millennium Forum have trashed the scale and character of the historic city; much of the rich industrial heritage has been allowed to wither away.  The regeneration model posited by the ONE Plan is based on heroically optimistic demand projections, and the Congress was given a glimpse of a laughably awful “masterplan” for the Fort George site.

But, for all these disappointments and challenges, Derry survives, albeit by the skin of its teeth. In a 1961 essay, the great Ian Nairn celebrated the city’s “fighting spirit...Derry is one of the proudest places I have ever been”.[ii]  Fifty years on, after decades of conflict and tragedy, the theme of the AoU Congress was resilience, and it could not have been more appropriate. 

The ONE Plan may be a series of clunking clichés (“Derry-Londonderry’s key assets remain the place and its people”) framed in fractured syntax (”...a compelling and exciting opportunity for delivering transformation for regeneration through sustainability”) but what matters is the fact that it was written at all, and that so many people were engaged in the process. Thankfully, the new Peace Bridge isn’t a crass “iconic” gesture, but an elegant structure which makes crossing the river Foyle a real pleasure; by linking a divided city it has created something of practical as well as symbolic value. The restoration of the Ebrington Barracks will raise the quality bar, although it is not entirely clear where the demand for the new spaces, indoor and outdoor, will come from. The city’s cultural renaissance is real, as exemplified by the Playhouse, the Nerve Centre and the Gaelic cultural centre Cultúrlann - though it is heavily dependent on the subsidised sector and the creative economy remains small and fragile. The winning 2013 City of Culture bid was an unqualified triumph which provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to attract new investors and high-spending visitors. The latter will be delighted by a place that is thrillingly distinctive, despite the indignities inflicted on it by bombers, planners and developers, and the welcome will be warm and generous.

Above: Peace Bridge, below: Ebrington

If the purpose of the Academy of Urbanism is to learn from place, Derry was an outstanding choice for the 2012 Congress. Difficult, ambiguous, admirable and infuriating in equal measure, the city falls short of the European benchmark for good urbanism in all kinds of ways. But Derry has triumphed over adversity to become a better, happier and more optimistic place than it was ten years ago. It is salutary to read the account of the city in the 1979 Buildings of Ireland volume, with the walls occupied as a military camp and the bombers – and planners – wreaking daily damage on the urban fabric.[iii] Derry is still a difficult and troubled place and the wounds of the recent past are, understandably, still raw but it has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Now the city needs to translate its proven resilience into a credible plan for sustainable prosperity. It will be a huge challenge but Derry has made a brave start.

[i]         Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of innovation, Allen Lane, London, 2010
[ii]        Ian Nairn, “Proud Derry”, The Listener, 21 December 1961
[iii]       Alistair Rowan, The Buildings of Ireland: North West Ulster, Penguin, London, 1979