Historical Urbanism

Shaping Cities Through Historical Research

Case Study: Derry

Derry-Londonderry is situated on the north-western extremity of Northern Ireland. The city borders the Republic of Ireland and is the largest conurbation in the region. Derry’s rapid industrialisation in the nineteenth century brought about significant population growth as migrants from neighbouring rural counties sought employment in the city’s mills, factories and docks.

The city’s working-class population settled in tightly packed residential communities outside of the walled commercial centre. The Victorian built environment remained substantially unaltered until the 1960s when large-scale redevelopment levelled many of these streets. Historical Urbanism’s Derry case study uses archive material and oral history to examine the legacies of post-war urban redevelopment and subsequently utilise this material to inform current urban regeneration projects in the city.

Housing and housing conditions

The type and quality of housing constructed in Derry’s working-class districts during the nineteenth century conformed to a typical pattern evident across industrialised areas of the UK and Ireland. The majority of dwellings were two-storey back-to-back terrace houses, with the front door leading directly into the street. Other dwelling types included multiple-occupancy tenement buildings and single-story ‘cabin’ houses with sleeping areas in the roof space. Multiple occupancy of a single house by different generations of the same family was commonplace.

View nineteenth century housing plans and drawings here

Built Architectural Heritage Project
View of the Bogside neighbourhood prior to major redevelopment. Construction is beginning on the first modern housing development in the area on the top left of the photo.

Prior to the 1970s the vast majority of working-class housing stock was owned by private landlords.[1] Oral testimony suggests that many landlords were ‘absentee’ and failed to invest in anything but emergency repairs. Evidence of this can also be found in archival documents. Writing to the Ministry of Health and Local Government, one resident of Well Street Terrace, disgruntled at the lack of displacement compensation, argued that ‘the landlord hasn’t done any indoor repairs for 16 years’.[2] Another resident, Mrs McLaughlin of 17 Lecky Road, asserted that ‘no landlords ever bothered … it was the poor tenants who had to … pay for all to keep them right and comfortable. It is just a disgrace to overlook the cost that tenants had to lay out on them and landlords to reap all the benefit and making the money all these years’.[3] Of the 625 homes in the Lecky Road/Rossville Street area inspected by the Ministry in 1962-3, only thirteen were found to be ‘well maintained’ and eligible for demolition compensation. Vocal opposition later increased this figure to 119.[4]

Map of the Rossville Street / Lecky Road Redevelopment Area showing houses deemed unfit in red. (PRONI HLG/6/18/4)

Political forces were also at play. The Unionist-controlled Londonderry Corporation repeatedly opposed the extension of the city boundary to accommodate new housing schemes. Gerald McSheffrey, an urban planner tasked with re-designing the city in the 1960s, argued that whilst ‘there was no scarcity of sites close to the city’ there existed ‘a politically motivated lack of will to deal with the problem’.[5] The log-jam was removed with the abolition of Londonderry Corporation in 1969. Londonderry Development Commission superseded the Corporation and ‘moved swiftly to remove political roadblocks to housing development and to promote industrial development’.[6] The New Towns Act (Northern Ireland) 1965, gave the government powers to establish such development commissions which also took over the municipal functions of the relevant local authority.[7] The Londonderry Development Commission was tasked with developing the city under the Act for a period of three years, using the Londonderry Area Plan (1968) as a guide. While the Commission had a remit to develop infrastructure and industry, as well as housing, it oversaw the delivery of 2,631 public housing units between 1969 and 1972, making a significant dent in the waiting lists.[8] The Development Commission was actioned largely in response to the civil unrest of the late 1960s and campaigns for fair allocation of housing and jobs, particularly in Derry where charges of discrimination were strongest. The appointment of those from unionist and nationalist backgrounds to run the Development Commission gave it an independent image, but increasing violence and political crises between 1969 and 1972 meant it carried out its work in extremely difficult circumstances.

Planning, redevelopment and power

Derry’s housing situation after the Second World War was, to quote the Assistant Secretary at the Ministry of Health and Local Government, ‘appalling’.[9] Decades of underinvestment and continued population growth placed immense stress on the local housing market. Perhaps most indicative of Derry’s housing crisis was the decision by a number of families to move into vacated military huts at Belmont and Springtown camps. By June 1947 ‘saturation point had been reached at Springtown’ where ‘141 squatter families were now occupying 104 huts’ without heating or electric light.[10] A total of 150 ‘prefab’ concrete houses and 168 aluminium bungalows were also built after the war as temporary solutions to the housing crisis.[11] Springtown Camp remained open until 1967 and aluminium bungalows were occupied (in the Glen estate) as late as the 2000s.

Springtown Camp in the mid 1960s

The first major modern urban redevelopment in Derry can be traced to the late 1940s. The Northern Ireland Housing Trust (NIHT) was created by the Government of Northern Ireland in 1945.[12] Its objective was the construction of new high-quality housing estates in urban areas suffering from poor housing stock and overcrowding. NIHT started work on the Creggan estate in 1947. The much-coveted houses were quickly occupied and by the end of 1953 over 800 families had moved into Creggan.[13] This was followed by a major redevelopment of the Rossville Street/Lecky Road area of the city in the early 1960s. The 1956 Housing Act required each local authority in Northern Ireland to prepare plans for dealing with houses deemed unfit for human habitation, resulting in a massive slum clearance programme that radically transformed the built environment of the wider Bogside area.[14]

Alterations to the built environment also changed how people moved around the city. Key design interventions – namely the Lecky Road flyover and Rossville flats – changed pedestrian walking routes into the city centre from the Bogside. The new ten-story block facing Fahan Street was used by people to ‘come through high flats, up lift, along 5th floor and into city, thus missing climb in side street’.[15] The flyover, completed in 1974, turned the Lecky Road into a four-lane arterial route and significantly increased traffic flow. Much of the Long Tower area – with the exception of the church – was swept away during building work.

Taking its cue from Belfast’s Matthew Plan, the Northern Ireland Government hired James Munce & Associates to develop a blueprint for urban redevelopment in Derry.[16] The Londonderry Area Plan (published 1968) was a comprehensive analysis of the city’s urban problems and offered a series of bold planning recommendations, including elevated roads, a large riverside housing estate and a second road crossing of the River Foyle.

Community engagement in the planning process was limited. ‘In the sixties’, wrote Gerald McSheffrey, ‘most planners at least hoped, if they did not believe, that social goals could be achieved by sensitive planning of the built environment’.[17] Social engineering could, in this view, be achieved through rational architectural planning. The result – in Derry and other parts of the UK – was often far removed from desired outcomes. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Planning later placed on record its wish ‘to avoid a repetition of the tragic mistakes of Meenan Park’ where houses ‘were erected without neighbourhood or open space and community buildings’ during the Rossville/Lecky redevelopment project of the early 1960s.[18]

Artist’s impression of a potential riverside housing estate on Foyle Road (from the 1968 Londonderry Area Plan)

Oral testimony reveals the extent of community disenfranchisement from the planning process. Redevelopment occurred with minimal input from the very people that it affected most. One small – though highly symbolic – success was the retention of Free Derry wall on the gable end of what was formerly 33 Lecky Road. Urban planners also later acceded ‘to the weight of local opinion’ and agreed to ‘no further building of high flats’.[19] In the Fountain, 72% of survey respondents interviewed in 1970 desired ‘a replica building’ – with 65% requesting to stay within the area. The report noted the ‘rare but precious element of local identity’ evident in the Fountain and that only 8% of respondents wished to be relocated to the Waterside.[20] Fountain residents were subsequently re-housed in maisonette buildings or dispersed to estates across the Foyle.

Community change and nostalgia

Older housing stock in the Long Tower, Bogside and Brandywell areas was demolished from 1967 onwards. The Fountain area was redeveloped between 1971 and 1978. By 1980 few traces remained of the old street networks and the communities they sustained. New houses were built at a lower density requiring the displacement of some families to new estates further afield. Of the 419 families affected by the Lecky Road/Rossville Street redevelopment ‘only 190 could be re-housed within the redevelopment area, leaving 229 families to be rehoused elsewhere’.[21] The majority went to new developments at Shantallow on the outskirts of the city. Infrequent bus services and lack of amenities in the new suburban estates heightened the sense of isolation felt by many residents.

Nostalgia is a complex, critical – indeed contradictory – phenomenon and does not represent rosy one-dimensional recollections of the past. The social memory of redevelopment oscillates between candid appraisal of poverty conditions and a sense of deep affection for these vanished communities. In Derry, the upheaval caused by redevelopment played out in tandem with civil conflict and militarisation of the built environment. Social memory of redeveloped neighbourhoods can, therefore, be tinged with a sense of yearning for pre-Troubles tranquillity.

Sir Brian Morton, Chairman of the Londonderry Development Commission, standing by the Free Derry gable wall, which was retained after a successful campaign by local residents

The effect of sectarian conflict had a significant impact on working-class communities in Derry. August 1969 marked a sudden escalation of tensions and the arrival of the British Army to relieve pressure on the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Communal violence had a polarising effect and many mixed Catholic/Protestant communities dispersed. Between 1969 and 1975 the housing allocation system in Derry was stretched to breaking point, with some families choosing to circumvent established practices by squatting and arranging informal house swaps. Incidents of intimidation and violence motivated some of this activity, but Development Commission staff were of the opinion that ‘in the majority of cases families have taken advantage of the present conditions to improve their own particular housing conditions’.[22]

The urban environment in Derry became highly territorialised during the Troubles. Spatial barriers were both psychological – evidenced by a ‘mental map’ of safe routes – and physical, in the form of barricades, checkpoints and peace walls. Despite the de-escalation of sectarian conflict and removal (or softening) of military infrastructure, the avoidance of certain routes and spaces remained ‘naturalised’ and ‘an embedded part’ of navigating the city.[23] There is evidence to suggest that this territorial awareness pre-dated the Troubles and that the conflict merely served to render existing boundaries in sharper focus.[24]

Victoria Street in the Fountain, prior to redevelopment
The Fountain in 1975. The estate is one of the oldest inhabited parts of the city and abuts the seventeenth century city walls and St Columb’s Cathedral

The built environment can act as a ‘storehouse of memory’ and trigger place-based remembering.[25] Few physical traces remain of old street networks, houses and shops in working-class areas of Derry. Online forums, local history books and Facebook groups have proliferated in recent years – a virtual ‘storehouse’ compensating for the lack of physical remnants. Online ‘memoryscapes’ also function as a ‘mechanism of resistance’ reminding audiences of past injustice.[26] Contributions tend to be highly critical of urban redevelopment. One author branded planners responsible for redeveloping the Bogside as ‘vandals’ who ‘should be charged in court as highly specialised criminals’.[27]

Oral accounts describing what was lost through redevelopment tend to orbit around rather intangible, yet keenly ‘felt’, themes such as neighbourliness and family loyalty. One account of pre-redevelopment Bogside described it as ‘an area of considerable poverty and social deprivation. And yet, it was also an area of enormous human warmth … the characters are gone, the schools have moved with the population and the sense of familial relationship has all but disappeared. In its place we were given a set of three high-rise flats in Rossville Street, a flyover which benefits no-one in the area, a dual-carriageway, closely confined mazes of flats and maisonettes – and a community centre’.[28] Former residents of the Rossville flats (demolished 1986-89) narrate their experiences of living there in similarly complex terms. Many former Rossville residents simultaneously – and seemingly without contradiction – praise and denigrate the flats and living conditions.[29]

The Rossville Flats in 1986 (Photo: Prof. Miles Glendinning)

Historical Urbanism in Derry

Urban redevelopment and changes to the built environment in Northern Ireland have tended to be interpreted through the lens of the Troubles. By using Derry as a case study for research into how intangible heritage and social memory of place can positively influence collaborative urban design, we have been able to extend our focus beyond the conflict. This has had the two-fold effect of first collating a comprehensive database of oral testimony, archival documentation, and visual materials that is currently being curated for use by an urban design team working on a public realm regeneration project for the city. Secondly, the research we’ve conducted in Derry will make a significant contribution to the historiography by focusing on the social impact of redevelopment, suburbanisation, and working-class community change since the 1950s. Much of this is inevitably bound up with the history of the conflict and current divisions in the city. However, a comprehensive history of the late twentieth century in the north of Ireland will only emerge when the conflict is deeply considered alongside the social and environmental context within which it occurred. We see the research discussed here as part of a call for such an approach to this history to begin in earnest.

The methodology applied in the Derry case study is easily adaptable for use in cities that seek to use heritage as a central component of the regeneration process. It is particularly relevant to cities emerging from violent conflict, or cities experiencing acute social division based on race, class or ethnicity, for example. Heritage-led regeneration and place-making in renewed urban space have become central pillars in the rejuvenation of twenty-first century urban centres. In most cases, the presentation of heritage and history fits neatly with the current image of the neo-liberal city and the aesthetic aspirations of potential visitors and users. This can result in a commodification of heritage typified by the ‘rescue’ of industrial buildings through conversion to office or high-end residential units. Usually missing from such transformations are the desires, memories and heritage of the people and communities who currently live in, or have been displaced from, such spaces. One of the major benefits of the Historical Urbanism approach is the unearthing and utilisation of an experiential history of the city that forms a crucial part of urban heritage. Feeding this more rounded understanding of heritage into urban regeneration processes is, we argue, crucial for the creation of sustainable places and the consequent long-term success of cities.


[1] Niall O Dochartaigh, ‘Housing and conflict: social change and collective action in Derry in the 1960s’ in Gerard O’Brien (ed.), Derry & Londonderry history and society: interdisciplinary essays on the history of an Irish county (Dublin, 1999), p. 628.

[2] PRONI. DEV/9/56. Samuel Brown, 2 Well Street Terrace, Londonderry, to Ministry of Health and Local Government, 15 March 1963. 

[3] PRONI. DEV/9/56. Mrs E. McLaughlin, 17 Lecky Road, to Ministry of Health and Local Government, 22 April, 1963

[4] PRONI. DEV/9/56. Well maintained payments. 28 October 1963.

[5] Gerald McSheffrey, Planning Derry: planning and politics in Northern Ireland (Liverpool, 2000), p. 44.

[6] McSheffrey, Planning Derry, p. 98.

[7] New Towns Act (Northern Ireland) 1965 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/apni/1965/13/contents

[8] Londonderry Development Commission, Fourth Annual Report for the year ended 31st March, 1972.

[9] PRONI. FIN/19/24/45. Letter from Ronald Green, Ministry of Health and Local Government, to M.D. Clark, Admiralty Surveyor of Lands, 28th December, 1945. 

[10] PRONI. FIN/19/24/45. Civil servant briefing on Springtown Camp, 7th June, 1947.

[11] Alan Robinson, A social geography of the City of Londonderry (MA thesis, Queen’s University Belfast, 1967), p. 187.

[12] Martin Melaugh, Majority minority review 3: housing and religion in Northern Ireland (Coleraine, 1994), p. 5.

[13] Phillip Cunningham, Derry memories (Derry, 2007), p. 15.

[14] PRONI. DEV/9/51. Circular from Ministry of Health and Local Government to all housing authorities in Northern Ireland, 18 February 1957.

[15] PRONI. CREL/5/6/45. Memo written by Community Relations Department on High Flats Tenants Association, 12 January 1972.

[16] McSheffrey, Planning Derry, p. 19.

[17] McSheffrey, Planning Derry, p. 117.

[18] W.F. Mitchell, Londonderry Area Plan Public Inquiry (H.M.S.O., 1975), p. 122.

[19] Mitchell, Londonderry Area Plan Public Inquiry, p. 7.

[20] James Munce Partnership, Fountain redevelopment study (Belfast, 1971).

[21] Minutes of Meeting of the Londonderry Development Commission held in the Council Chamber, Guildhall, on Tuesday, 19 May, 1970.

[22] PRONI. DC/3/2/1/1/59A. E.G. Drayson, Acting Housing Manager, to Londonderry Development Commission, 23 September 1971. 

[23] Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto-Arponen, Our places – their spaces: urban territoriality in the Northern Irish conflict (Tampere, 2003), p. 50.

[24] Kevin McCafferty, Ethnicity and language change: English in (London)Derry, Northern Ireland (Philadelphia, 2001), p. 90.

[25] Dolores Hayden, The power of place: urban landscapes as public history (Cambridge, 1995), p. 9.

[26] Lachlan MacKinnon, ‘Post-industrial memoryscapes: combatting working-class erasure in North America and Europe’ in Sarah De Nardi, Hilary Orange, Steven High and Eerika Koskinen-Koivisto (eds), The Routledge handbook of memory and place (Abingdon, 2020), p. 181.

[27] Ted Bradley, Origins of Bogside (Derry, no date), p. 74.

[28] PRONI. CENT/1/15/11A. Dove House Community Resource Centre, Central Information booklet [No date, circa 1987]. 

[29] See Jim Collins, Rossville flats: the rise and fall (Derry, 2019).

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