Historical Urbanism

Shaping Cities Through Historical Research

Project Outline

Historical Urbanism is an interdisciplinary research project that aims to understand how urban design influenced by historical and heritage data can be used to address issues such as ethnic/religious/class segregation in cities, as well as contributing to environmental sustainability and better public health. The project team is made up of academic researchers from Ulster University with interests in history, policy, architecture and design, planning, psychology, and peace and conflict studies. They are joined by project partners in local government departments of planning, regeneration and the environment; partners in the museums and heritage sector, and creative social entrepreneurs who provide digital fabrication skills to people living in an area of high unemployment and low educational attainment.

The project begins from the premise that good urban design should be cognisant of the needs of the people who live in, and use, the space in question. Therefore, urban design and regeneration projects should build from and be respectful of emotional connections to space and place formation. We explore these connections through a historical prism by focusing on emotional memory and the connections people feel to the spaces in which they have lived, worked and socialised throughout their lives. The resultant research data is then used to facilitate collaborative work between the researchers, case study area residents, local stakeholders, and planners, designers and architects.

Derry/Londonderry serves as the initial case study city and provides the ideal setting for the research and dissemination process. Residential segregation has been a reality in the city for centuries, and this became much more pronounced after 1969, due in large part to the violent conflict commonly known as the Troubles. A series of large scale urban regeneration projects took place before and during the early years of the conflict, completely changing the urban fabric of the city at a time when the lives of residents were upended by war and conflict. These processes contributed to heightened senses of loss felt for the places of the past, despite the very real difficulties associated with the slum like conditions endured by people prior to regeneration. This is usually bound up with dearly held (sometimes nostalgic) memories of tightly-knit working class communities, experiencing a shared poverty in densely populated areas made up of grid-form terraced streets. The clearance of this housing, the rebuilding of modern, lower density housing in new street patterns, and the dispersal of surplus population to suburban housing estates and further afield, are all lamented, though often with a hardened realism that much of the process was necessary. Conversely, emotional connections were made with the ‘new’ places created by regeneration. Some of these are positive, but many are negative and associated with violent conflict.

The Fountain neighbourhood of Derry-Londonderry, pre-regeneration

The research focuses on a specific case study area in the city. The Bogside, Bishop Street and Fountain are three distinct, adjoining neighbourhoods that have undergone significant regeneration since the 1950s. They also experienced some of the worst violence associated with the Troubles. With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the ending of the worst of the violence, an associated peace dividend was expected. For neighbourhoods like those in the case study area, this dividend never materialised. The neighbourhoods remain segregated along religious lines and experience some of the highest levels of deprivation in the UK. The Northern Ireland Executive Office has ring-fenced the area for significant investment in the coming years through its Urban Villages programme. This strategy is designed ‘to improve good relations outcomes and develop thriving places where there has been a history of deprivation and community tension’. One particular aim of the strategy is to improve the physical environment.

The project partnership between Ulster University and Derry City and Strabane District Council will ensure that the research feeds into proposed public realm and other urban design projects in the case study area, particularly those coming under the Urban Villages programme. In order to ensure this works effectively, a multi-stage approach to the research and dissemination was taken. The first stage saw the collection of over 30 oral history interviews with current and former residents of the case study area. These interviews take a life story approach, but focus mainly on the relationship between people and the built environment over time. The interviews (which are archived and available on this website) have confirmed that there is a deep sense of personal connection between the past and the present, which is also manifested in the built environment. Archival, photographic and secondary literature research also took place. The second phase of the project saw detailed analysis of the data take place, while the third phase sees the ongoing dissemination of the research through various platforms such as this website, an exhibition, a computer game, public and policy engagement events, and academic research papers.

The Covid-19 pandemic had a significant disruptive effect on the project in 2020. Oral history interviews were conducted remotely, walking interviews were suspended, and other face-to-face research and engagement activities were postposed or cancelled. Walking interviews will take place in early 2021, as will a series of digital fabrication workshops, where residents will learn new skills and create 3D ‘neighbourhoods of the future’ models based on the historical research data. A VR experience, which was designed to form part of the exhibition and place the user within the case study area, had to be cancelled outright. Sharing something as personal as an immersive headset in a public exhibition in 2020-2021 seemed irresponsible and unlikely to have much uptake from users. The VR experience was replaced with a 3D video game, which will be launched for PC in early 2021.

A public exhibition takes place at the Tower Museum in Derry from January to April 2021. It will be available for installation in other venues thereafter and a virtual version will be available to view on this website soon.

A series of collaborative design seminars will take place in 2021, bringing together the researchers, residents, stakeholders, local government representatives, architects, and planners to discuss and co-author a ‘collaborative design statement’. This will set out a roadmap for the physical development of the case study area in the immediate future. A symposium and other engagement events will also take place in 2021, either in Derry/Londonderry, or online.

It has been the ultimate intention of the research team to refine and test the Historical Urbanism approach in Derry/Londonderry, and then begin to suggest it as a methodology for collaborative planning in cities with a history of conflict and division internationally. Preliminary work has already begun in the city of Saint John, New Brunswick, and more cities will be identified in the months and years to come.

Historical Urbanism is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as the ‘Divided Pasts – Design Futures’ project.

Project Reference: AH/S000062/1

More Information available on ‘Gateway to Research’

© 2024 Historical Urbanism

Historical Urbanism is funded by The AHRC