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From civic boosterism to shared spaces: Belfast

You'd need to be a prize curmudgeon not to be impressed by Titanic Belfast. As a building it's a worthy addition to a city that seeks to celebrate its skills and achievements. 

Titanic Belfast, seen from across the river
As a visitor attraction it strikes the right note, avoiding the mawkishness that tends to accompany the Titanic story and providing plenty of information and context (though as this review by Jenny Muir points out, not everything).
But can it change the city that hosts it and help broadcast the message of a restored and revived Belfast to the world? I was there last week for a 'state of the city' debate organised by Belfast City Council and, inevitably, there were mixed views. 
To understand Titanic Belfast you have to see it in context. There's the obvious historical context, 100 years after Titanic's launch and demise. It's a story that's recognised globally and Belfast deserves to benefit from that interest. 
There's an emotional context too: drama, the family connections of the people who built the ship, travelled on her, died or survived. There's the sense of pride and attachment: 100,000 people turned out to watch Titanic's launch in 1912 and four times that number are expected to buy tickets to Titanic Belfast every year.
The physical context is one many visitors may miss. Titanic Belfast is part of the Titanic Quarter (Belfast, neatly, has four quarters, though some ambitious ones accumulate more – Sheffield stopped at 11). It's a major redevelopment project on the site of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, an attempt to create an extension of the city centre on a 185-acre derelict site.
In context: Titanic Quarter apartments
There are already 400-plus apartments on site, the new home of Belfast metropolitan college, the Odyssey arena, the Paint Hall studios where Game of Thrones was filmed, and the offices of Citibank. Mike Smith, chief executive of Titanic Quarter Ltd, reckons the quarter has already brought an extra 2,000 jobs to the city (much needed at a time when the construction industry is struggling, tourism has slipped from its peak years in the mid-2000s and banks have stopped lending). Predictions for the number of jobs expected ultimately range from 25,000 to 35,000 to a highly speculative 60,000.
So is this an old-fashioned bit of civic boosterism, pumping public money into big ticket projects in the hope that the benefits will eventually trickle down to the locals? Clearly some think so: as several remarked at last week's debate, you can see Titanic Belfast from many parts of the city but that doesn't mean those parts of the city feel connected to it. 
To some extent this is the 'what have the Romans ever done for us?' argument you often hear from a city's taxi drivers (though less so in Belfast - in a bit of smart footwork, the Titanic Quarter's operators gave taxi drivers a sneak preview of the new attraction). It's an argument that deserves a response, especially when you look at the poverty and deprivation that persist in many parts of the city. 
Parkside: still waiting
Take Parkside, for instance. These terraced streets, near Alexandra Park in the north of the city, are like the worst of the housing you'll find in parts of Liverpool or east Lancashire's mill towns: a few hardy residents hanging on to their homes while those around are abandoned and boarded up, roofs gaping as they await a regeneration project that never seems to happen. 
Alexandra Park itself is also a poignant symbol of a past the city is trying to put behind it. A gorgeous Victorian park, it's bisected by an 'interface' that prevents residents from one community crossing to the other. Despite recent efforts to open the fence at certain times, it is a depressing reminder than some communities only feel safe when others are kept away.
In such a context, what use is the Titanic Quarter? A better question, perhaps, is how useful can it become?
Just a few streets away from the Parkside terraces
By itself it certainly won't regenerate the city. Trickle down economics involves a double bind. The benefits of success are received disproportionately by the better off, and hardly at all by those at the margins of society. The consequence of failure is that the whole city is poorer, and the impact is felt most by those who have least. 
This is why we need 'trickle up' as much as the headline-grabbing schemes: investment in actions at local level that enable people to build their own economic capacity and quality of life. But just as the big investments can't be isolated from their context, neither can action at a neighbourhood level be divorced from the city as a whole.
Belfast council has tried to bridge this gap in its draft investment strategy for the next few years. Its first underpinning principle is 'good relations and equality' - a phrase that might be public relations flannel in some cities but has many layers of meaning in Belfast.
As the investment strategy acknowledges, 'many of our citizens continue to live parallel lives, with some communities still separated by physical barriers'. It goes on: 'It is no coincidence that the poorest neighbourhoods in Belfast continue to be those located in and around interfaces and flashpoint areas.'
Joining all this up is no easy task. It doesn't happen by itself, or by writing strategies. Those with resources, whether political, financial or cultural, have to be intentional in their actions, deliberately seeking ways to build bridges and create opportunities. 
Alexandra Park: parallel lives
In a city like Belfast (but not only there – think of Liverpool, Luton, parts of London) it's also particularly important to create spaces of shared experience and identity. Titanic Quarter offers an opportunity to do this, building a place that feels connected to the city centre as a place for everyone, and not just one that is open to all but where everyone is encouraged to and express and develop themselves, create and make new stories.
Mike Smith described Titanic Quarter as a 'neutral place' where people could gather and mix without cultural or political baggage; taking issue with that, local councillor Christopher Stalford said it had to benefit the local community in East Belfast. It does need to provide local benefits, but not only for East Belfast: all communities need to feel they have access to it and can gain from it. In that sense neutrality is not just an absence of conflict: it's a positive move towards building commonality.
New Lodge mural
Cities are complex and contested places and politics is not something you can or should massage away. But neither should it stand in the way of people using and enjoying civic space as they would in any other city - being grown-up enough to have . Creating connectedness, as Belfast Interface Project has shown, is a long haul. If public investment can make new spaces that enable people to connect and celebrate together, that is a benefit of at least as great a value as the spending power of the tourists who come to enjoy Belfast's hospitality.
A senior council officer told me his hope was for a city that is shared, not just shared out. That view should strike a chord in many cities whose divisions have been less public, but are no less real.