Making the most of Derry’s Walls

An Italian tourist enjoys a quiet moment at Church Bastion on Derry's walls. Photo: George Sweeney.
An Italian tourist enjoys a quiet moment at Church Bastion on Derry's walls. Photo: George Sweeney.

Derry’s walls are the largest scheduled monument in State care in Northern Ireland, one of the North’s five signature tourism destinations and the only intact city walls in Ireland. In both their physical form and the history they represent, they make Derry genuinely different – the crown jewels within our growing tourist offering. In short, Derry’s Walls are both the city’s soul and its major meal ticket.

However, we do not always treat our city’s golden goose with the respect that she deserves. The news that a prominent building on a corner of Shipquay Street may be turned into a gaming arcade – offering a vista of blacked-out windows to those touring the Walls - is just the latest indignity to befall our key monument. And it raises the question of what role we want the ‘walled city’ to perform for the good of Derry as a whole. Should it be left as it currently is – a once-prosperous retail and office district that has fallen on hard times and is a ghost town after 6 pm? Or do we need a more imaginative vision to re-invent the ‘walled city’ as a thriving contributor to Derry’s economy and a clear strategy for how we can get there ?

Tomorrow is ‘Derry Walls Day.’ To mark that occasion, here are four suggestions on how we could make more of our walled city and put the sparkle back into Derry’s crown jewels.

Pedestrianisation

The streets inside Derry’s Walls are not essential to the city’s road network.

The historic Diamond, in particular, suffers from through traffic and has been reduced to the role of a roundabout and car park.

A few quieter streets within the walls were pedestrianised decades ago, but vehicles can still enter most of its roads. Streets that should form part of a world-class destination for people and entertainment must instead be kept clear 24/7 for a relatively small number of vehicles to pass through. Few cities would allow their historic core to be treated with such contempt.

It is time for our ‘walled city’ to be shown the respect it deserves. Over a specified period, the streets within the walls should be gradually pedestrianised – providing access only for emergency & disabled vehicles and for deliveries within strict hours. That would enable the majority of road space within the walls to be re-allocated for activities that would bring the area to life and make it a genuine day and night destination – e.g. outdoor bars and restaurants, performance space, parklets, ampitheatres. If New York can turn a large portion of Times Square into a new pedestrian plaza, it should be easy to make the walled city of Derry a space primarily for people.

Bringing the walled city to life

Derry city centre becomes a ghost town after 6pm. Few people live within the walls, there is little to attract people there in the evenings except a handful of bars and the area lacks restaurants and entertainment outlets. The walled city should be a thriving destination in its own right - a buzzing hub for visitors and locals alike. That would require cafes, restaurants and shops inside the walls that stay open late, as well as turning the vacant upper parts of buildings into residential accommodation. The excellent ‘Open Coffee’ initiative launched by the ‘Your Derry’ web forum has shown that people want something to do in the city centre at night other than sit in a bar. The gradual pedestrianisation of the area inside the walls would provide a catalyst for new businesses to open up to take advantage of an improved people-centred environment there.

Pedestrianisation will take time, however, and some may be nervous about its impact. So here’s an easy way to test the idea whilst making the walled city a better place right now. Sunday afternoons are particularly quiet within the city centre, offering an ideal time to test traffic-free uses for its streets. The giant water slide installed on Shipquay Street for a charity event a couple of years ago showed what can be done if we turn a road into a place for people. Imagine if we had an activity like that each month inside the walled city? So how about the first Sunday of every month becomes Derry’s ‘Sunday Funday,’ where we ban vehicles from one or more of the main streets within the walls for an afternoon so they can be used for family events and entertainment instead. The possible uses are endless - open air music, a huge walled city market, a food festival, or even the creation of Derry beach in the summer. And yes - let’s bring back the water slide too. All would help to make the city centre buzz at its quietest time, create a new monthly visitor attraction and test pedestrianisation so the huge benefits it would bring become clear.

A Platform for Art

Derry has a growing reputation as a centre for arts and culture, yet apart from murals, our streets contain little public art. The walled city would be an ideal arena in which to help change this. An art trail could be created in and around the walls, with a guide produced to encourage people to visit the various installations created for it. We already have an Anthony Gormley statue on the walls that would make a good start. Or how about we give Derry it’s own equivalent of the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square - a prominent place to display major pieces of art on a changing basis? Walker’s Plinth would be a secure and very visible place to do this and installations there would look fantastic lit up at night.

‘Daylighting’ the Walls

Over the centuries many properties have been built, that back onto Derry’s Walls. Some have become an important part of the city’s built heritage, e.g., Waterloo Street and Fountain Street. Other more recent structures are frankly carbuncles that obscure the walls, e.g., the City Library and the former bank building in Waterloo Place. In the opinion of the Ulster Architectural Society, that latter structure (called Waterloo Buildings) “represents the city at its lowest architectural ebb.” It sat empty after the Ulster Bank vacated the building in 2007 and in a city with surplus office space it is now occupied by public bodies. In 2013, £1.9m of public money was spent re-cladding its facade, despite the fact that the building’s owner was seeking a buyer at the time for only £2m. At the rear of the building is an entire section of the city’s walls that have been blocked from public access for centuries. Would that public money not have been better used to purchase and demolish the building entirely – opening up another section of the walls and enabling the creation of a new public square in the heart of the city ? The Scheduled Monument designation for Derry’s walls covers not just the Walls themselves, but also the adjoining land and property. There is therefore a strong argument for the city to have a policy of enabling as much of the walls as possible to be exposed to public view (i.e.’daylighting’ them). This should only be done through the gradual removal of structures which detract from the setting of the walls, however, and not those that contribute positively. We should be making our walls more visible and accessible, not obscuring them behind ugly facades.

As the above suggestions show, there is much that could be done to make more of Derry’s walled city. An essential first step should be for the powers-that-be to develop a clear vision for what role we want the walled city to fulfil in our city’s future, and a strategy to ensure that it can be delivered. As we approach the 400th anniversary of our most important civic asset, it’s the very least that the old lady deserves.

Steve Bradley is a native of Derry who works as a regeneration consultant in England. He can be followed on Twitter at @bradley_steve