A regular feature in the business news headlines over the last number of years has been the launch of a range of development and regeneration projects across Northern Ireland, concentrated mainly in Belfast. Projects of various scale including the Ulster University Belfast Campus development; Waterside at Sirocco works; and the controversial Tribeca are all seeking to add to the significant investment which has been made in the city over the last 20 years. These investments have seen Belfast emerge as a 21st century city, which is attractive to visitors, investors and talent, with the concept of ‘placemaking’ underpinning this emergence.
Placemaking is defined as the practice of creating or enhancing a community’s assets to improve its overall attractiveness and liveability. It has evolved from being used by planners to being much more at the core of economic development of cities and towns. Creating places where workers, entrepreneurs, and businesses want to locate, invest, and expand is vital to staying competitive in the 21st century global economy.
A core element of placemaking is capitalising on existing strengths. Ensuring the investment in place aligns with the character of the location and the local economy is fundamental to its long-term success. The most successful developments build on the local assets, complement the local industrial structure, and draw from the local skills base. They have minimal displacement impacts, and are enablers for further investment.
In Belfast today, we have modern office accommodation which sits alongside the docks constructed during the Napoleonic wars. Law firms and technology companies now buffer a working harbour, and a modern service sector integrates with a place whose development was initially for a primarily maritime purpose. This physical regeneration and investment in office stock has enabled a shift towards a more knowledge and service based economy. Belfast’s post troubles regeneration has, in the main, successfully built on its heritage, giving the city an authentic and unique quality of life offer.
With our local councils now benefiting from a devolved planning authority, coupled with additional economic development powers, they have an enhanced role in shaping our cities and towns, and the places in them. Having supported a range of public and private sector clients in establishing the viability of their projects and developing the economic case for their proposals, Grant Thornton’s Economic Advisory team has seen councils use these powers first-hand. Isolated impacts and the shifting of economic activity will no longer cut it; local councils are looking for the placemaking elements of proposals, with a focus on how projects fit with and enhance the socio-economic baseline both locally and regionally.
With further developments in the pipeline, and in Belfast in particular, ambitious targets around population and job growth requiring densification, this focus on placemaking is likely to be even sharper going forward.