Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe. The last ten years of peace have displaced the follies of “troubles” with a tight urban fabric of shops, bars, restaurants, hotels and very friendly people.
As a natural crossing place of the river, Belfast has always been confined within the Lagan Valley and the hills on either side. Today, the city still does not stray too far from the bottom of that valley and clever planning has created long view corridors for the visitor to appreciate the green hills over the roofs of the architecture, most of which is still under 7 storeys and created during Belfast’s growth in Georgian and Victorian times.
But, the most exciting surprise greeting my return to Belfast after 35 years was the Belfast Metro tee-shirt given to me and my family by the Architect, Arthur Acheson. Yes, a Metro, an Underground, a Subway, under the streets of Belfast. First thoughts were, “No way! Belfast is too compact! What about the sleech? Is traffic really that bad?”
I forgot who I was talking to. Arthur Acheson is one of those rare souls who sees every question as a way to create an answer; every problem as a way to stimulate a solution. I swear, if Arthur had been around at other times in history, he would have been the one to invent electricity or perhaps the jet engine. A latter day Ben Franklin, he is thinking, thinking, thinking all the time. We went to school together so I knew enough to sit back and let Arthur answer my doubting questions.
Arthur Acheson’s plan to build a Metro system under Belfast could be the blueprint for all cities interested in preparing for the future. To get my initial questions out of the way in short order I was told:
“Belfast too compact? Less Metro to build and open sooner!”
“What about the sleech, a soupy sub-soil that has always affected Belfast structures? Other cities planned around rivers, such as London and Paris, have subway systems.”
“Is traffic that bad? Just wait, it will be. The new Titanic Quarter seems to have one way in and no way out. A traffic nightmare waiting for all the residents to move in.”
The real magic about the Belfast Metro is how Arthur proposes the financing for the $600 million scheme. He suggests bartering development rights with developers to allow them greater density if they pay for the leg before and the leg after their planned developments. This is not a new idea. Quite a few large North American cities ask developers to foot the bill for subterranean transportation so that people can move around in the severe winters. Arthur was a professor at McGill University in Montreal. Coincidence, I think not. In fact to look over the skyline of Toronto, identifies the RT stations as clusters of growth.
Belfast hasn’t yet bought into the Metro proposal. Very few cities would until the traffic situation gets so bad that an irate public demands it. However, the opportunity of using development to put the infrastructure in place cannot happen early enough because surface traffic, with its associated pollution, traffic jams, lost time and tempers simply cannot compare to the clean and quiet way people move around with new, clean technology; Singapore would be a great point of reference.
I will be wearing my new Belfast Metro tee-shirt with pride and in the hope that 100 years from now, for more than any other reason Belfast will be remembered for showing the World the way to leap forward in clean transportation.