Rosalind Skillen: Belfast city centre can be regenerated, but it’ll take a bit of vision

 A brownfield site in Belfast city centre has been regenerated. Photo courtesy Blink!

A brownfield site in Belfast city centre has been regenerated. Photo courtesy Blink!

Last weekend marked the summer solstice, the longest day in the calendar.

This time of year has always seemed like a point of renewal. As Nick Carraway says in The Great Gatsby: “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”

There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about the state of Belfast city centre and what can be done to regenerate it.

At the weekend, I saw what can be done, given enough time, money and will.

For years, a brownfield site opposite the Sunflower pub had been left derelict. Littered with debris and framed by facades of dilapidated buildings, the site had become a symbol of urban neglect and poor planning.

But Brink!, a social enterprise based in the city, has transformed the plot to grow food.

They’ve brought potential back into a once abandoned and disused space in a bid to demonstrate what can be achieved when we look at our city centre differently.

Brink! founder, Gawain Morrison, said the aim of the group is to “poke people, provoke people and bring people together”.

“We bring people together under the headline of ‘what should this city do?’ as we need desperately to be doing better,” he said.

“We’ve approached this from a place of: it’s pointless talking about climate for climate’s sake. It has to relate to people.

“We’ve been engaging with different groups and different workshops over the last year under our six different themes: we eat, we live, we wear, we waste, we power, we travel.

“Each of these six things are things we do daily. Some people can’t afford to do them all, like pay their energy bills as they need to eat.”

Brink! held a special event to mark the solstice - one of many they have lined up for this year.

The event brought people together to discuss how to create a fairer, more sustainable future for communities in Northern Ireland.

Organisations like Grow NI and Social Farms and Gardens delivered talks on food growing and horticulture. RenewableNI spoke about energy transition.

“This is our first weekender,” Mr Morrison said.

“All our events kind of fall in the planet’s lunar cycle. It’s explicit and it’s implicit. If you want to pay attention to the way our planet works and its lunar cycles, brilliant. If you don’t and it’s just a nice sunny day, that’s also fine.”

Environmental activist Rosalind Skillen

Environmental activist Rosalind Skillen

Mindful of the amount of waste generated by summer festivals, Mr Morrison said Brink! were trying to do things differently.

“We have no plastic on the site, we’re only using aluminium cans to drink out of,” he said.

“Bryson (a recycling company) has come on board with us for cash for cans so we can earn a couple of quid for us recycling our cans. Any of our cups and teacups are fully compostable so we can compost them on site.”

In setting up the site, Mr Morrison said Brink! had benefited from “a lot of good will from companies”.

The solstice event was powered by energy from the nearby Sunflower pub, and doors and windows used in shipping containers on the site were donated by Camden group.

As the general election looms, Mr Morrison said he was “unsure how the momentum from the event will translate into political will”.

But he said he remains hopeful.

“Pretty much every political party is keen to see Brink! succeed and they all agree on the effective use of brownfield sites that are derelict,” he said.

He added: “We invite the world and its mother to be part of our events and they bring all their friends.

“Hopefully we invite enough people to make a difference.”

For more information on Brink! visit

Rosalind Skillen is an environmental activist and writer @rosalindskillen

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