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Located in the center of Belfast, Cathedral Gardens plays an integral role in the city. It’s bounded by listed buildings and a university campus, and with its surrounding transportation links it forms part of an area of High Public Transport Accessibility. In 1975, it was vested for use as open space.

Since December 2020, global design practice Hassell has been working with the Belfast City Council to redesign this important—but previously neglected—civic space. The 4,570 m2 site can be accessed by public transport, foot and bike via key city center streets, linking inwards to civic and commercial destinations, and outwards to more residential neighborhoods.

The heart of the project brief called for the design process to be focused on public benefit in order to create a place with diverse spaces that enriches the experience of international and local visitors while improving accessibility and public amenities for the wider community.

We quickly discovered that Cathedral Gardens is an example of a place that cannot—and should not—be contained within its formal boundaries. By pushing initial thoughts for the plan, the design team felt like this project had a wider opportunity, not just for this site but for the city as well.

As outlined in the recent Belfast Agenda, the city is aiming to deliver significant inclusive growth and opportunity by 2035, meaning it will be home to an additional 66,000 people and at the same time create 46,000 additional jobs and 31,600 homes. By working closely with the Belfast City Council and external stakeholders, the Cathedral Gardens Master Plan was designed to better connect the city and offer a new place for people to gather, relax and play.

The precinct adjacent to and surrounding Cathedral Gardens is home to a rich history of fabrication and Irish cultural identity. It’s a district in the process of evolution through a mixture of commercial, educational and housing developments, which are transforming this part of Belfast into a new and vibrant mixed-use neighborhood for the city.

Cathedral Gardens proposed concept master plan. Image courtesy Hassell
Cathedral Gardens proposed concept master plan. Image courtesy Hassell

Conscious of urban growth and the additional pressure this will place on the city’s existing open space network, the plan ensures that the existing public space is protected and future provisions will meet the needs of the growing population.

We started by looking at all the things normally found in separate urban planning documents: the neighborhood’s transport, networks, parking areas, crime statistics, tree planting strategy, street art, and more, which led us towards a more evidence-based solution. By understanding how a place is impacted —and impacts—everything and everyone around it the design process is elevated from a matter of opinion to a realization of what matters.

The design provides a hierarchy of spaces based on movement, relaxation, memory, discovery, and play. The secondary and tertiary spaces are located off the primary civic space area, with the raised lawn for outdoor dining areas, the urban forest and forest rooms, and shaded Academy Street and the Ulster University stairs.

By reinvigorating the civic space, integrating landscape and urban forestry, building in exemplary gray-to-green infrastructure, and incorporating water features, public artworks and event spaces, the proposed master plan creates opportunities for a broad range of activities and uses. These will be as varied as open-air jazz concerts, weekend events, student exhibitions, market stalls and busking, as well as simple pleasures such as playful engagement through water, garden spaces and light. Improved awareness of pedestrian, cycle and public transport connections, as well as considerations for safety will make it easier for people to access this city precinct, importantly building and reinforcing strong civic connections to Ulster University, St. Anne’s Cathedral and the Belfast Destination Hub.

The Cathedral Gardens Master Plan process has been a rare opportunity to engage in the reinvigoration of a major piece of public realm within the heart of Belfast—a unique urban setting that is to be reinvented through thoughtful reuse of space, new insertions, careful historic overlays and an engaging programmatic public realm. We are truly grateful for having been allowed to be involved and entrusted to help craft and curate the next steps for this special site as we move into the concept design phase and public consultation.

What has been most exciting about the process has been the sheer scale of importance that the Belfast City Council, and all internal and external stakeholders have placed on not only the physical space but the wish list of activities and exemplar city scale moves that the site is to be used for and/or to showcase. Cathedral Gardens has the potential to be the key transformative setting for the provision of a vibrant, human scale, intimate, and welcoming public realm destination.

Main image: The future vision for public realm improvements to Cathedral Gardens and the surrounding neighborhood and streetscapes. Image courtesy Hassell

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