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Belfast bolsters resilience with one million trees

It is one of 30 projects in the city’s Resilience Strategy that is focused on climate change and mitigation and developing a connected, zero-emissions economy within a generation.

Belfast will spend £1.4 billion over the next 12 years on modernising infrastructure
Belfast will spend £1.4 billion over the next 12 years on modernising infrastructure

Resilient Cities Network was a contributing partner for this article.


When Belfast has one million new trees planted across its city, it will have its citizens to thank for it.


Last year the Northern Irish capital’s Metropolitan Residents Group, an umbrella agency for community groups across the city, suggested to the council that the streets should be considerably greener. This led to the One Million Trees initiative, which plans to have that number of trees planted by 2035.

It is one project that is among the 30 in Belfast’s Resilience Strategy. It takes a three-pronged approach – concentrating on climate change and mitigation, developing a connected, zero-emissions economy within a generation, and ensuring the participation of children and young people.


The strategy was launched with the warning that the city is suffering economically, environmentally and demographically thanks to an ageing population and net emigration. Ageing and carbon reliant infrastructure, underfunded public housing – it requires £3 billion during the next five years just to stay still – and inequality are just three of the city’s “shocks and stresses”.

Grainia Long, the former commissioner for resilience at Belfast City Council who oversaw the strategy, says the multi-faceted nature of the project was a means of getting to grips with the problems Belfast faces. “I’m a big fan of get the structures right, get the systems right and understand the problem you’re trying to solve,” she says.


The goal was to stop the challenges from overwhelming policymakers and ensuring each new project was economically resilient, at least not adding to a city’s carbon footprint and at best reducing it.


Water pressure


Belfast is a port city with the River Lagan snaking through from the Irish Sea some 50 miles into the south of Northern Ireland. Its sewage networks date back to the 19th century in some parts of the city and wastewater systems are either at or near capacity. The threat from flooding and extreme weather is stark – five of the highest tidal surges in Belfast’s history have happened since 1994.

The city is set to spend £1.4 billion over the next 12 years on modernising the infrastructure. Long says moving forward quickly to deal with the stresses and shocks Belfast could face will be vital to embed resilience.


She says: “All too often it’s easy to move on to the next priority and just go right we’ve done that now. But actually we haven’t done it, what we’ve done is the strategy. But strategy is just pointing out the problem and pointing out what needs to be done, but it’s not going to solve it.”

This is one reason why the city has opened itself up to citizen involvement in the resilience strategy. Long says it was important not to assume the city was starting with a blank sheet of paper, as she puts it, and discover existing projects that could be incorporated into the resilience strategy. She says: “What we found was a city whereby a huge, huge amount of work was ongoing. Some of it was really quite targeted and focused on either adaptation or mitigation [of climate change].”

“What I would say is to arrive at zero emissions, all of the evidence shows that cities and regions cannot do this themselves”

In addition to the ground up One Million Trees project, another example is the city working with the University of Ulster on resilient buildings. Architects for Change will train and educate students on how to design low carbon or net zero buildings.


Long says: “The students themselves will design, develop and train business leaders in the city on climate resilience. What we’re trying to do is to turn on our heads this idea that city leaders know it all.” The city’s Resilience and Sustainability board brings together Northern Ireland’s public transport agency, the major utilities and the public housing executive (where Long was recently appointed as chief executive).

Other partners include the Resilient Cities Network, which acted as an advisor on Belfast’s strategy. Long says partnerships such as that gave it access to technical expertise and advice from other cities’ commissioners on their own successes. Lina Liakou, global director, engagement and knowledge, head of Europe and Middle East at Resilient Cities Network, describes Belfast’s strategy as “data-driven, inclusive and forward-looking”. She says: “It takes a very honest look at the challenges the city and its communities face while showing a new pathway towards building a carbon neutral economy that benefits everyone.”


Political will


Inclusion is a particularly charged word in Belfast and across Northern Ireland. The country is still largely segregated along sectarian lines, a legacy of the conflict dubbed “The Troubles”, which lasted almost 30 years. Almost all of the nation’s political parties are also split down sectarian lines and its devolved government collapsed and lay dormant for almost three years until January 2020 following the fall-out over a scandal regarding renewable energy subsidies.

Long says she is “very optimistic” about the political will to achieve these projects and says the strategy’s data-focused approach means it is difficult to argue against. However, she warns: “It is really important that we keep a focus on urgency. 2050 is the point at which we will arrive at net zero but for some people 2050 feels so far away so there’s the sense of maybe the false expectation that we could start to work on this in 2040. All of the data shows that we have to start the trajectory and ramp it up this decade. If we shoot after that, we will miss the target.”

“But strategy is just pointing out the problem and pointing out what needs to be done, but it’s not going to solve it”

Another factor is Brexit. The UK’s departure from the European Union has left a complex customs’ system down the Irish Sea in order to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This has led to disruption in trade, food supplies and post, and port staff have also been threatened.

The Resilience Strategy has classified Brexit as “dramatically impacting the economic landscape of NI”. Long says it is impossible to quantify the exact impact Brexit will have on Belfast’s resilience strategy beyond the fact it will have an impact. Sifting through the implications will take time.


She adds: “What I would say is to arrive at zero emissions, all of the evidence shows that cities and regions cannot do this themselves. It is going to require unbelievable levels of cooperation, north south [between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland] and east west [between the island of Ireland and Great Britain]. And I have to say I see that happening and I see it continuing.”

Belfast in data

Population: 343,542 (mid-2019 estimate)
33 per cent aged 25 or under
City accounts for almost 30 per cent of jobs in NI
44 per cent of household waste is recycled and composted
68 per cent of households have access to one or more cars
53 per cent of all journeys are taken by car, 29 per cent are taken by foot and two per cent journeys per person are taken by bike (all journey data pre Covid)

Source: Belfast City Council

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