Beyond the Peace Lines: Conceptualising Representations of Parks as Inclusionary Spaces in Belfast, Northern Ireland

By Mell, Ian | The Town Planning Review, March 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Peace Lines: Conceptualising Representations of Parks as Inclusionary Spaces in Belfast, Northern Ireland


Mell, Ian, The Town Planning Review


Introduction

Urban parks are valued assets to city authorities, communities and businesses. They provide locations for social interaction, promote biodiversity, enable engagement with nature and help generate income. However, within urban planning discussions, and specifically those focused on place making, parks, as multi-functional urban spaces, are often downplayed compared to other elements of the built environment (CABE Space, 2005). Moreover, in cities where socio-economic change or political uncertainty exists, essential infrastructure is given priority, with 'landscape' as a public asset marginalised (Rybczynski, 1999). Academic and practitioner literature argues that parks play a crucial role in understanding urban liveability (Tate, 2015). These benefits include providing ecosystem services to address climate change, supporting increased real-estate values, and acting as locations that promote health and social inclusion. Unfortunately, in some locations - for instance Belfast, Detroit and Jerusalem - local governments' ability to balance changing demographics and infrastructure provision with the management of high-quality parks is fraught (Bollens, 2018).

Developing a more nuanced understanding of parks' role in promoting inclusivity, this paper evaluates two key aspects of urban planning. First, it discusses whether a consensus exists in existent literature regarding how parks are valued as spaces that promote inclusivity. Second, it presents a novel conceptual framing for parks to aid our appreciation of how physical space influences behaviour and use simultaneously. This analysis is presented through examining four articulations of spatial understanding, which are used to question assumptions of the inclusivity/ exclusivity of parks. Specifically, Newman's (1973) defensible-space thesis, Lynch's (1960) social signifiers, Lefebvre's (1991) differentiation of production and representations of space, and Foucault's (1991) discussion of disciplinary architecture. Each has been used independently to evaluate the meanings ascribed to urban spaces, and to a lesser extent parks, but not collectively to facilitate a more holistic understanding of the interaction of physical space with psychological and/or sociocultural meanings placed on parks. This promotes the creation of a set of additional considerations that can be used to debate the utility of parks currently being employed in policy and practice-based thinking. Staeheli and Mitchell (2008) argue that inclusion/exclusion are not absolute terms, but are located within wider discussions of power, practice and institutions - issues that permeate urban planning discourses in contested locations (Bollens, 2018). Plans and policies thus provide an overarching approach to parks' management, and subsequent use, but in many places the contested nature of public space is less well defined, meaning that the deeper social value of parks is excluded from decision making.

To investigate whether parks are socially and/or communally inclusive, the following reflects upon how spatial configuration - the physical/structural infrastructure, the behavioural and societal use of amenities, and the perceptions of park design and amenities for different ages and abilities - can be reconsidered from a more abstract, and conceptual, standpoint. Grounded in a debate of inclusivity, physical space and interpretations of 'landscape', this is not a discussion of a citywide parks survey or a design typology for new parks. Rather, discussion is applied to a case study of Belfast, a city where normative understandings of urban development are of a city that is culturally segregated, which uses its spatial form to isolate communities from amenities to the exclusion of many residents.

To illustrate the utility of this conceptual debate, the paper is structured as follows. The first section outlines a discussion of why parks are often marginalised, specifically in cities where 'landscape' is a politicised concept. …

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