Divided Pasts - Design Futures

Lead Research Organisation: University of Ulster
Department Name: Sch of Architecture and Design


This multidisciplinary project aims to understand how urban design influenced by historical and heritage data can be used to address issues such as environmental sustainability, public health, and ethic/religious/class segregation in cities. The research brings a team of academic investigators (history, architecture, peace and conflict studies) together with local government officials (planning, environment, museums and heritage service) and social enterprise (design, digital fabrication) to collect a wide array of data that will then be used to aid the design of a multi-million pound public landscaping project in the city of Derry/Londonderry.

Research by the World Heart Federation (Smith et al, 2012) has established a strong link between urbanisation and cardiovascular disease, while also identifying urban design as an essential pillar in its recommendations for improving public health in cities. In particular, the engaged development of infrastructure, parks and green corridors were outlined as an essential part of a strategy to improve public health along with public information campaigns, access to healthcare, and stakeholder engagement.

Working from the premise that urban design can contribute to not only an improvement in public health, but also to environmental sustainability and community cohesion in divided cities, the project intends to build a bank of historical and heritage data that can be used to ensure that future urban design projects will reflect the cultural and architectural heritage of the area under development. In so doing, the community ownership and use of such projects and facilities can be increased through the formation of a partnership between academic researchers, local government officials, community activists, and residents.

The city of Derry/Londonderry has a history of violent division stretching back hundreds of years and urban design has been at the centre of attempts to both divide and integrate from the erection of the city walls in the seventeenth century to the construction of the pedestrian Peace Bridge linking the unionist east to the nationalist west of the city in 2011. The project combines methods from history and historical anthropology (oral history interviews, archival and statistical research), geography (GIS mapping), design (digital fabrication), and the wider social sciences (walking interviews) to collate data relating to space and place, and how people have interacted with a changing built environment over time in a divided city with a violent past. Borrowing from the thinking behind the emerging discipline of design anthropology, in which ethnographic engagement leads to better design solutions for products and services, the research attempts to harness history, cultural/architectural heritage and social memory to help provide urban design solutions that are more reflective of people and their often dearly held personal and environmental histories.

An official partnership between the project investigators and Derry City and Strabane District Council will result in the research data being used to inform large-scale landscape and urban design projects to be developed during the lifetime of the research project as part of the Northern Ireland Executive's Urban Villages scheme. A similar partnership with the Nerve Centre FabLab (a community based digital fabrication centre) will result in the grassroots production of 3D city model plans that will be exhibited in the Tower Museum and be further used to inform the projects due to be developed in the city in the coming years.

The project will also contribute to the developing historiography of the Troubles through the production of a co-authored book and journal articles on the history of how people in the city of Derry/Londonderry interacted with their built and environmental surroundings before and since the implementation of the Londonderry Development Plan (1968) and the onset of violence at the same time.

Planned Impact

The project is designed to achieve maximum impact, particularly through community and policy engagement facilitated by project partnerships with local government departments and third sector bodies. Derry City and Strabane District Council (DCSDC) have committed to playing a central role in the development of the research and its dissemination. Staff from the Environment section of the council will meet with the project team on a quarterly basis. The purpose of these meetings will be to utilise the ongoing research findings to inform the development of a proposed £5 million urban regeneration project in Derry/Londonderry. The research will also impact on the DCSDC Strategic Growth Plan and Local Community Plans as a result of the regular meetings. The project investigators and researcher, along with DCSDC staff and interested research participants will co-author a 'Collaborative Design Statement' that will be used as a guide in the roll out of the proposed urban regeneration project, and in the council's strategic growth and community plans.

The Nerve Centre FabLab (digital fabrication suite) will allow for the implementation of a creative dissemination process with a high impact. Research participants will harness the historical and heritage information gathered by the project to design and build 3D models of the city they wish to see. Young people from the case study area will contribute by listening to extracts of the oral history interviews and designing cityscapes based on this information using the popular computer game Minecraft. The electronic cities in Minecraft will then be given physical form as 3D models using digital fabrication technology. This process will provide local people with skills in digital fabrication and provide a means to utilise cultural and architectural heritage in the design process. The 3D city models will then form part of an exhibition to be held in the Tower Museum, Derry/Londonderry in late 2020. This award winning museum welcomed 22,749 visitors from around the world in 2015. The exhibition will also feature some of the oral history recordings, photos and videos collected as part of the project, and representations of historic drawings and plans of parks, residences and public buildings in the city.

The interactive project website will feature streaming audio of oral history interviews and animated videos based on the audio, photography and GPS tracking of walking interviews. The latter will include drone footage, virtual reality video and archival photographs and documents, which will ensure the research is accessed by a wide variety of audiences. The website will also include interactive historic maps, showing change over time. The oral history interviews will also be available on the Accounts of the Conflict digital archive so that they can reach a wider audience and contribute to the existing role played by personal narrative in dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. A seminar in 2020 will bring together academics, designers, heritage professionals, local government officials, and case study residents to discuss how the research can be best used to develop policy, influence design, and create cohesive and sustainable communities in urban areas suffering from societal division.

The research team will apply to present a paper at the Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series during the 2020-21 session. This series is a collaboration between UU, Queen's University Belfast and the Open University, and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Academic research papers are presented to civil servants, MLAs and advisors around broad themes on a monthly basis. The team will also take advantage of the expected public interest in books, articles, broadcasts, talks, lectures, and other events related to the 50th anniversary of events from the late 1960s onwards in Northern Ireland.


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Description Dobbin Atlantic Scholarship (Ireland Canada University Foundation)
Amount € 4,400 (EUR)
Organisation Ireland Canada University Foundation 
Sector Academic/University
Country Ireland
Start 05/2020 
End 06/2020
Description Collaboration with NI Executive Office 
Organisation Government of Northern Ireland
Department Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMdFM)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution A number of meeting have been held with Executive Office (Urban Villages) staff. Agreement reached that an external urban design consultant would be appointed via project partner Derry City and Strabane District Council to produce design concept for strategic capital investment in case study area. The research team will develop and package data for use by the external consultant, who will then base concept on data and a series of collaborative design workshops led by the research team and partners.
Collaborator Contribution Urban Villages have agreed to fund the cost of external design consultants to work up a conceptual plan based on the research data. This is estimated to the value of £50,000. The resulting concept will feed into plans for a multi million pound capital investment in the case study area.
Impact Ongoing. No outputs or outcomes to list yet. Disciplines include history, architecture, urban design, planning.
Start Year 2019
Description Walking Tour for visiting conference delegation 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Around 30 individuals belonging to the BuildPeace organisation visited the city of Derry. The PI and Co-I Hamber led a walking tour of the city with a focus on urban regeneration and its interaction with civil conflict and peacebuilding. Many of the participants noted that this was a new angle in terms of understanding the conflict for them and comparisons were made with American cities and conflict cities globally.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019