OPINION: What is the plan for Derry’s Walled City? 12 ways to transform it

The Walled City of Derry is a unique asset, with the potential to become an economic ‘golden goose’ for this area. And despite the fact they were originally built to keep the native Irish at bay, our city walls have managed to become a cherished cross-community symbol of this town. Derry folk love the fact that we have ancient walls, and we’re usually quick to brag about them.

Like any key asset, our Walled City needs careful and sensitive management to maximise its appeal for locals and visitors and ensure it can fulfil its potential. I have yet to meet anyone, however, who believes that we currently make the best use of the area within the walls. In reality, a number of fundamental challenges prevent the neighbourhood from being the significant economic, cultural and civic contributor that it otherwise could be.

By day, the Walled City’s streets are dominated by vehicles - with The Diamond in particular (Derry’s heart for over four centuries) reduced to little more than a roundabout and carpark. By evening the area inside the walls is largely a ghost town - with few places open except pubs, and row-upon-row of shuttered shopfronts making its streets feel unwelcoming. This sense of nocturnal desertion is further amplified by the fact that few people live within the Walled City, despite vacant and under-utilised space being plentiful above its buildings. All these factors combine to create an environment that is not conducive to people spending much time or money within the Walled City. And that leaves many of its businesses struggling to survive in an era of internet and out-of-town shopping, with charity outlets and gaming arcades often the only contenders to fill vacant shops as they arise. Whilst any other city would put its ‘Old Town’ at the literal and symbolic heart of its life, our’s is largely somewhere we avoid at night and hurry through by day (often in a car).

Despite such challenges and the widespread belief that our Walled City could be so much better, bafflingly there is no plan in place to improve it. This represents a huge missed opportunity - as without high-level planning and investment, it won’t be transformed into the welcoming destination that it could and should be (a place where people want to spend quality time at the very heart of our city). Whilst Stormont invests hundreds of thousands of pounds each year into enhancing comparable historic structures like Dunluce Castle, it allocates nothing at all to improving Derry’s Walls (NI’s largest monument in state care). And all of the £210m City Deal funding secured for Derry is being spent on the riverfront and Magee expansion there, with nothing allocated to our Walled City. This stands in stark contrast to Belfast, which is investing millions from its City Deal into Carrickfergus’s Castle and Old Town. It feels like Stormont and Derry-Strabane Council have largely turned their backs on our Walled City, and are content to leave it to its own devices. And we all know what happens when you start neglecting your golden goose.

Shipquay Street. DER2126GS - 041

This Summer did see some minor but welcome improvements within the Walled City - with Ferryquay Street made one-way for vehicles, and its roadway narrowed to create more space for pedestrians. This was continued on into the corner of The Diamond in front of the Austins building, where a car-free area was created with wooden tables. These were relatively minor changes to the nature of the Walled City, and in truth could probably have been done better. It is also important to note that they are only temporary measures to facilitate social distancing during Covid. But they were important nonetheless to show that public space can be redesigned in a positive way within the Walled City (and without the world coming to an end). The biggest problem with these changes, however, is that they were neither the first step in nor an integral part of a wider plan for improving the Walled City. Because again, no such plan actually exists.

It is therefore high time that there was a credible, ambitious and deliverable 5-to-10 year enhancement and investment strategy to completely transform Derry’s Walled City. A plan that maps out in detail what role we want the Walled City to fulfil as a high quality destination in the future, and what changes are required to deliver that - including what improvements should happen, where and when, how they should be funded, and who should deliver them. The development of such a plan should be a multi-partner initiative involving key stakeholders - like Stormont departments, tourism agencies, key landowners within the walls (the Inner City Trust and The Martin Group), businesses, and experts with good knowledge of what has worked in similar historic cities elsewhere. There should also be a role for ordinary citizens within the process (and not just a token survey near the end). The lack of such a plan for Derry’s historic core represents an absence of leadership and planning for our most important, unique and historic asset. And it should no longer be deemed acceptable.

Below are twelve suggestions of ambitious ways the Walled City could be improved. Let us know your ideas and thoughts via social media :

TWELVE WAYS TO TRANSFORM THE WALLED CITY

Steve Bradley.

1. Gradually pedestrianise everywhere within the walls over a five year period.

2. Transform ‘The Diamond’ into a new city centre public garden (as it was at the start of the 20th Century) - with cafes, bars and restaurants encouraged in the buildings that front onto it (complete with outdoor seating).

3. Open the two large vaults underneath The Diamond to the public (remnants from the old Corporation Hall that was located there until 1903).

4. Secure a landmark future for the former Austins Building (e.g. a hotel, arts centre).

Derry Girls mural. DER2126GS - 034

5. Convert the 180 space Bishop’s Street car park into a new park and event space (it was originally the garden for the Bishop’s Palace).

6. Create a grand tree-lined pedestrian promenade through the Walled City, Connecting the new Bishop’s Street park to the revitalised riverfront and Peace Bridge - via Diamond Gardens, Shipquay Street and Shipquay Place.

7. Designate the Walled City as a time-limited ‘Business and Heritage Development Zone’, with incentives to encourage private investment (e.g. Business Rates discount/waiver to attract certain facilities).

8. Create a ‘Walled City Interpretative Centre’ to tell the story of four centuries of life within Derry Old Town. Located in a landmark building within the walls (e.g. the former Cathedral School on London Street, old bank at bottom of Shipquay Street).

Grand Parade, Derry Walls. DER2126GS - 061

9. Redesign the exterior of the Richmond Centre to soften its facade. Remodel its ground floor to enable it to stay open as a thoroughfare 24hrs a day (reinstating the former Richmond Street). Convert the Richmond Chambers offices into flats.

10. Explore reinstating the section of walls under the road in Newmarket Street, to make Derry’s walls fully intact/ complete again.

11. Ban the installation of new external security shutters on buildings inside the walls, and incentivise removal of existing ones.

12. Use modern technology to solve the mystery of whether there are tunnels beneath the Walled City, and open any which are suitable for public access.

*Steve Bradley is a Regeneration Consultant. He can be followed on Twitter at @Bradley_Steve