“How Urban Design Affects Ethnic or Religious Tensions
Building a new, improved pedestrian bridge between a Catholic neighborhood and a Protestant one in Belfast, Northern Ireland, must have seemed like a good idea back in 2007. But the designers were from out of town, with no connection to the community. The bridge was configured without consulting nearby residents. High elevations at both ends provided a perfect vantage point for troublemakers. The bridge quickly became a flashpoint for sectarian violence.
“There was a complete ignorance of the local situation,” says Dr. Ralf Brand of the University of Manchester. “It allowed youth to use the bridgeheads as launching pads for throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. They opened the bridge, and rioting ensued.”
Brand has been doing research into the ways the urban landscape can escalate social polarization and radicalization, or alternatively, work to bring divided communities together peacefully. With his colleague Dr. Sara Fregonese, he conducted fieldwork in four cities with histories of religious or political violence: Belfast, Beirut, Berlin, and Amsterdam.
What they documented, after hundreds of interviews and weeks of observation, is that urban design can raise tensions in cities where ethnic or religious conflicts are endemic. At the same time, design that is sensitive to local concerns and conditions can have a healing effect.
Sometimes cities build barriers with the express purpose of separating groups in conflict. In the case of Belfast, dozens of “peace walls” still separate Catholic and Protestant communities. They have been there, some of them, for more than 40 years. But such physical divisions can sometimes reinforce social divisions, entrenching a sense of separation and “otherness.”
Via: The Atlantic Cities
Photo: Flickr/Frans Schouwenburg
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