It is 25 years – a full generation – since the Berlin Wall came down. It was an incredible moment in the history of Europe and I remember hoping that it wouldn’t be long before our walls came down as well.
As we wait to see whether the Northern Ireland political parties can deliver a deal from the current talks process, I am increasingly of the belief that what our remaining tough issues require, is some creative and lateral thinking coupled with wisdom and compassion. Take the so-called ‘Peace Walls’ that divide many parts of Belfast – and continue to be fortified even a quarter-century after the other great dividing wall in Europe came down.
I am not for a second suggesting that the issue of physical barriers dividing (mostly) Belfast can be resolved by a sprinkling of creativity – rather I am suggesting that dealing with tough questions like flags, parades, the rights of victims of the conflict and the physical divisions in our city cannot be left to politicians alone. We should not expect that politicians on their own will come up with creative, meaningful and lasting solutions. To do so will require new ways of thinking, planning, engaging, and a good dose of vision and courage.
In 2011 I had the privilege to visit the High Line in New York for the first time. My old friend Jack Patterson – former head of the Quaker Mission at the UN in New York, invited me to go with him for a walk along the High Line, and a drink in one the bars that sit beneath it. It is one of the most extraordinary public spaces I have experienced.
The High Line began life in 1934 as an industrial railway line – built on high stilts, and weaving between the sky scrapers of lower west Manhattan. By the 1980’s trucking had made the railway redundant and it wasted away. There were attempts to demolish it, but these were resisted by local residents. In 2002 a design competition was launched to find new uses for the High Line – and by 2006, the railway is handed over to the City and work began on its restoration and redesign. Just a few weeks ago, the third section has opened, and New Yorkers and visitors to the city can now walk for 2 miles day and night. The redesign was based on the natural process that overtook the line after the trains stopped – wild flowers and grasses are planted along its length. Both my visits to date have been at night time when the flora is lit up creating a wonderful atmosphere.
The line is maintained by local volunteers and there are regular events such as musical recitals and craft fares along its length. At night it feels like you are walking through a strange forest – with the tall buildings feeling like giant trees. The line is not just a beautiful space in its own right – it has transformed the space around it – bringing property values up sharply and bringing new life to a formerly desolate area of the city.
A few years before I visited the High Line for the first time, I had a conversation with a young Romanian Architect friend about the ‘Peace Walls’ of Belfast. I asked her about how architecture might play a role in creating spaces which bring people together instead of dividing them. We imagined taking pieces of the wall and twisting them through space so that people could climb over or under the structure. We imagined putting the huge blocks that make up the walls of aquaria into the wall so that people could see each other through the wall, or having communication tubes (such as they used to have on ships) so that people could talk to those on the other side of the wall. I was recently talking to a designer who told me about a tube station installation, where people on each side of the tracks pulled leavers to make a giant chime work – but they had to pull in harmony to make it work.
These might seem like bizarre suggestions for a structure whose purpose is to protect property and potentially lives – but my argument is that keeping the walls up or taking them down, are not the only options. With the right levels of creativity, vision and engagement with local communities, these structures could be redesigned in ways which bring people into the areas and encourage collaboration and engagement. They would also serve as a reminder that to future generations of the importance of shared space, and the need to guard against dividing our city ever again. The High Line had over 4,000,000 visitors last year – and a place that was desolate is now a place which brings people from all over the world together.