Page last updated at 13:19 GMT, Monday, 2 November 2009

Where the streets are to blame?

peace line
Over the years Belfast's peace line has become higher, but in recent times murals have softened its appearance

Belfast's buildings are partly to blame for a hardening in some of its people's bitter sectarian attitudes, a new study suggests.

Fences, parks, footbridges and even a playground can influence intense and bitter conflict between Catholics and Protestants, Dr Ralf Brand, a lecturer from the University of Manchester, has found.

But he also uncovered examples of architecture that could help heal the wounds of the Troubles.

His project spanned trouble spots from Beirut to Berlin.

In Belfast, he handed out disposable cameras to local people and asked them to picture places of conflict.

What he found was that a city's man-made landscape has powers to hurt and to heal.

"In Belfast, a fence can be tempting to throw a stone over, simply to prove how tough you are and that can trigger a sort of arms race," he said.

"Some of the heavily fortified structures, such as police stations and some peace walls - though needed - can reinforce tensions by their mere appearance. It is obviously simplistic to just dismantle them."

The study found that where there is conflict, there are few neutral features and architecture can make things worse.

Alexandra Park
The peace line runs through Alexandra Park in north Belfast

But if the study pointed to the divisions, it also highlighted the success stories like the design of a west Belfast community centre.

The study picked out the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project as a particular example of how to create a place of peaceful coexistence. A corridor in the building gives equal access from both sides to both communities.

Offices are identically shaped and sized.

"Through the efforts of a group of courageous people - mostly women meeting secretly at first - the tension and crime in this area has dropped significantly," Dr Brand said.

"It may seem to outsiders that there is little need to consult about seemingly mundane features such as a corridor or the shape of an office.

"But in areas of conflict, that is exactly the sort of initiative which is required and the results are very heartening.

"The building has never been attacked and there is hardly any graffiti; a pretty important indicator in Belfast."

An exhibition featuring photographs from the study will be held from 6 - 28 November at the Place Architecture and Built Environment Centre at Fountain Street, Belfast.

The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.



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