Critical Legal Conference 2013

Reconciling Space: The Role and Design of the Urban Environment

Stream Organisers: Tim Cunningham (Transitional Justice Institute/University of Ulster) and Aisling Shannon (School of Planning, Architecture, and Civil Engineering, Queen’s University Belfast)

The city of Belfast is in many ways a very different space from that which played host to the last CLC conference 24 years ago. Security barriers forming a “ring of steel” around the city centre, and military checkpoints, have given way to waterfront developments, with a requisite concert hall, and boutique shopping centre, while parts of Belfast’s former shipyard have been reconstructed as the Titanic Quarter, offering industrial and heritage tourism as well as high-end offices and apartment buildings.

The physical transformation exemplified by these new developments is however located within a space which is very much separate from the Belfast which still bears the scars of conflict. Away from the mainstream commercial and tourist trail, examples of other less-celebrated forms of construction over the last 24 years are also evident.  The number of interfaces and “peace walls” (physical and mental barriers between the two communities in Northern Ireland) in inner-city residential areas have greatly increased in recent decades, to a total of 99 in 2012 (Belfast Interfaces: Security Barriers and Defensive Use of Space. Belfast: Belfast Interface Project; 2012).  Heavily fortified police stations and military bases remain a continuing presence. Moreover, Belfast, in common with many other urban centres across the world has also witnessed the rise of phenomena such as “gated communities”, surveillance mechanisms and the privatisation of public space in a global reconfiguration of the public realm which has drawn critical attention from scholars, the media and anti-capitalist networks such as the Occupy movement.

The decrease in security infrastructure, post-conflict, that Belfast city centre appears, at first sight, to have experienced is not one which can be said to be widespread across urban centres more generally, where security infrastructure has proliferated following the events of 9/11. Airports, financial institutions, and government buildings in particular have adopted an increasing range of new technologies in recent years, as weapons of security in their “war on terror”. In this context, it would seem that the reduction in securitization that appears to have occurred within Belfast, following the peace process in Northern Ireland, could more accurately be described as a transformation from Troubles fortifications to the increased securitization that the “war on terror” has normalised in this and other urban centres around the globe.

The aim of this stream is to consider ways in which critical thinking can contribute to wider conceptions about the construction and design of urban space, and what this means for processes of societal reconciliation and reconstruction. The stream seeks to engage with questions such as the following:

  • To what extent might the global urban environment embody the built fruition of Foucault’s warnings about panopticism? 
  • With widespread privatisation of the public realm, to what extent might modern urban centres represent a return to the kind of
    eighteenth-century values, which led E.P. Thompson to conclude that the greatest crime against property was to have none?
  • How can modern urban design processes be transformed and renewed to deliver what Lefebvre proclaimed as a true “right to the city”?
  • What impact does a divided built environment have on the lives and identities of its inhabitants?
  • Is the very concept of “reconstruction” problematic within divided cities whose pasts are contested? Or could the concept of “critical reconstruction”, exemplified by German architect Josef Paul Kleihues in West Berlin provide a conceivable model for cities such as Belfast? 

This stream is aimed particularly at those working within disciplines such as urban planning, sociology, architecture, politics, and law, who are interested in examining the extent to which processes of the shaping of space can assist, or indeed impede, wider societal reconciliation and cohesion.

Please send paper abstracts abstract of 300 words to either Tim Cunningham (Cunningham-T4@email.ulster.ac.uk) or Aisling Shannon (ashannon14@qub.ac.uk) before the 15 June 2013 deadline.

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QUB Lanyon Building

Belfast City Hall

Photo of H&W cranes
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Stormont Building

Beacon of Hope Sculpture