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  • "Shared Space":A Belfast Soundscape Study
  • Julia C. Obert

In recent years, a surprisingly wide range of scholars—including environmental and architectural phenomenologists, affect theorists, humanist geographers, postcolonial theorists, and urban morphologists—have preoccupied themselves with the question, What does it mean to feel at home? Whether we call the relationship between one's body and one's environment belonging, topophilia, a sense of place, or even a "poetics of space," intimacy with the lived landscape is often crucial to an everyday "politics of good feeling."1 Put simply, if I feel at ease in my surroundings—rather than threatened, disoriented, or dislocated—I can perhaps grasp what Christian Norberg-Schulz calls an "existential foothold" in my corner of the world, a sense of rootedness or deep dwelling that serves as the source of my bodily security and supports my political claims to place.2 Conversely, populations' embodied relationships to lived space are often strategically disrupted in service of broader power structures. Colonial conquest, foreign military intervention, and forced migration seek to unsettle, and so to dominate, local subjects, turning "home" into a source of vulnerability, even of liability. Homi Bhabha has famously argued that when native landscapes are subject to "the imposition of [the] 'foreign' ideas [and] cultural representations" that accompany imperial rule, a once-stable sense of belonging can give way to "unhomeliness"—a wrenching feeling of dispossession and discontinuity.3 Colonial powers, in other words, literally shift the ground beneath locals' feet; the processes of mapping and building can reshape and redirect lived experience, making familiar space seem uncannily foreign and revealing belonging as anxiously precarious.

Belfast is in many ways one such precarious place. Even today, more than [End Page 13-29] four hundred years after the Plantation of Ulster and nearly a century beyond Partition, the scars of the city's "unhomely" colonial history are abundantly on display. These scars were violently re-inscribed over the course of the "Troubles," the thirty-year period of intense intercommunal conflict in Northern Ireland conventionally dated between about 1966 and 1998. The "Troubles" left Belfast deeply siloized; following long-established patterns of residential segregation, much of the city was carved up during the conflict into sectarian outposts, enclaves marked as "no-go zones" for the "other side." These enclaves were typically signaled by insistent sectarian symbols—flags, political murals, paramilitary graffiti, painted curbstones declaring allegiance to either the Tricolor or the Union Jack, and so on—that repelled comfortable belonging and conciliatory community-building at every turn.

Moreover, in an effort to defuse violence in some of Belfast's "interface" areas—the incendiary border zones where Catholic and Protestant communities collide—so-called "Peace Walls" were erected throughout the city, most of which remain intact today. (According to the Belfast Interface Project, there were ninety-nine defensive barriers in total in the city as of 2012, with a full third of these having been built since the 1994 ceasefires.)4 These walls amount to massive, menacing barriers, some climbing as high as thirteen meters, that sever shared spaces (including a public park) and curtail former pedestrian travel patterns.5 They also lend the city the air of a fortress rather than a "homeplace," obscuring previously clear views of the surrounding mountains and coercively commanding the eye's attention.

There have been many improvements in terms of the patterns of pedestrian mobility in Belfast since the 1998 Peace Agreement brought the "Troubles" to a close, if not to a neat resolution. Today, the city center is vibrant and integrated, and there are many mixed-use middle-class housing developments springing up in the south of the city and in the "new Titanic Quarter. Nevertheless, many of the conflict's far-from-welcoming architectural marks are still painfully prominent, and residential segregation in Belfast is at an all-time high. In fact, 68 percent of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds in the city report that they have never had a meaningful conversation with anyone from the "other" community. This statistic can be attributed, in part, to Belfast's reciprocally alienating spaces.6 This sense of wary separateness remains especially strong in workingclass interface neighborhoods, where defensive barriers and sectarian...


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