6th February 2016, Girdwood Community Hub

How often do you pause to notice what is around you? Do you travel to your destination as quickly as possible, the journey being no more than a means to an end? How much do you know about the streets of your city?

These were some of the questions posed by the panel of four during “Listening to the city” on Saturday afternoon at Girdwood Community Hub. Girdwood is not an easy place to find, due largely to the fact that, having opened only three weeks ago, it does not appear on a map. However, with modern facilities provided in a shared community space, it is a place that is worth finding.

The panel consisted of Susan Mansfield, founder of The Passion Walk in Belfast; Garrett Carr, lecturer and creator of alternative maps; Allan Leonard, managing director of community organisation, the Northern Ireland Foundation; and Kate Trenerry, traveller, photographer and writer, who joined us via Skype.

Each of these panelists had something to say about psychogeography, that is, the effect of the geographical environment on emotions or behaviour. While Susan was planning The Passion Walk, an Easter walk around Belfast with an accompanying audio guide, she made several observations: Belfast is a city that has transformed hugely in the past few years, but still has echoes of the past in high walls and a lack of green space. She noticed that it is a city of clear divisions, marked by flags and paving stones.

Garrett curated “Mapping Alternative Ulster”, an exhibition that started in the Ulster Museum, displaying a variety of maps showing unconventional ways of looking at our nation and seeing it as more than a site of conflict. Allan has seen many divided cities, having been in Berlin at the end of communism and visiting Nicosia in Cyprus, the last divided city in Europe. He made the contrast between the Mitrovica Bridge in Kosovo, the purpose of which is to divide, and the Peace Bridge in Derry/Londonderry, built to improve access and relations between opposing sides of the community.

Kate has made walls her business for her project, Walking Walls. She walked the walls between Israel and Palestine, walls between Greek and Turkish occupied Cyprus, and the Peace Walls between Protestant and Catholic areas throughout Northern Ireland. In comparing these places, she noted that in Israel/Palestine and Cyprus, the walls are dominating and intimidating, their physical presence keeping people apart, whereas in Northern Ireland, they are less imposing, much easier to cross, but still seem to generate a power that becomes internalised, continuing to keep people apart.

Though coming from different positions and experiences, the panel all agreed that we need to take more notice of what is around us. The physical geography of Belfast is fascinating, story-telling, history-whispering, surprising and hope-bringing, if only we take the time to see it.

Words by Pip McCracken (@pipmccracken)