‘I stick to this side of the park’: Parks as shared spaces in contemporary Belfast

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This paper presents the results of the ‘Beyond the Peace Walls’ pilot project, which examined the role of urban parks in Belfast, a city marked by a history of sectarianism. It explores the interface of culture, inclusivity and belonging through the concept of ‘shared spaces’ following the rationale that has guided policy-making in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. By examining the alternative narratives of the historical role of public parks, as spaces of community making, alongside recent efforts to overcome sectarianism, it investigates how the lived experience of parks articulated through the concept of ‘shared spaces’ is understood by policy-makers and local communities. The research draws on material collected in conversations with park goers framed by comparative analysis of research undertaken in other segregated cities to explore the extent to which urban design curbs or reinforces segregation. Findings reveal ongoing tensions between the neutralisation and the signification of space underlying place restructuring in Belfast rejecting the claim that parks are ‘neutral’ compared to other ‘interface’ locations. We argue that parks are not neutral spaces: people have very clear understandings of the demarcation of space within parks, even if the markers are not visible for all to see. Signifiers are perceived through gestures, language, names and activities, while shared spaces embody historically informed values and constraints. We also suggest that formal planning and management of shared spaces in Belfast need to be constantly evolving to meet the fluid needs and aspirations of the city’s population, while taking into account the historical and affective relevance of physical and ethno-political segregation.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEnvironment and Planning E: Nature and Space
Early online date16 Apr 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Apr 2020


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