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On A Road to Nowhere? Military Urbanism and the Architecture of Segregation

Comparing the experiences of Belfast, Northern Ireland, with the United States, Tim Cunningham shows how physical barriers, especially roads, can precipitate the dismembering of targeted communities from the wider city ecosystem, in turn accentuating patterns of spatial inequality and deprivation.

By the late 1960s, Belfast was experiencing many of the secular challenges that afflicted industrial cities across western Europe and the US at that time (Bryan 2012). Economic crises precipitated by the decline in traditional sectors such as shipbuilding, engineering, and textiles were compounded by a political crisis brought about by rising demands from the civil-rights movement to address anti-Catholic discrimination in the allocation of jobs, housing, and political representation (Stewart 1977). Failure on the part of the Unionist government of Northern Ireland to address legitimate grievances, and the violent backlash that the civil-rights campaign encountered from state and non-state actors within the Protestant community, led to further public disorder and the emergence of a younger, more militant element in the Catholic community that aimed to end British rule and create a united Ireland. By the late 1960s, violence in the region had reached such a point that the UK government in London deployed the British Army to the region to restore order.

One of the characteristics of the disorder that erupted in Belfast in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the widespread intimidation of people from their homes due to sectarian violence (Shuttleworth and Anderson 2011). Many commentators have viewed these disturbances as a prelude to the political conflict that was to consume Northern Ireland for the next 30 years (Doherty and Poole 1997). A more nuanced understanding of the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s is provided by considering how sectarian violence was a feature of life in the city over the previous 150 years. Historians have noted that an important characteristic of Belfast from the early part of the 19th century was significant levels of inter-communal conflict that derived from attempts by the growing Catholic population to assert their right of access to the city’s housing stock along with collective attempts by Protestants to contain them (Hepburn 1994). From the early 19th century, the Catholic community in Belfast was contained within discrete territorial boundaries by a combination of local-government policies that determined the planning, siting, and allocation of housing backed up by discrimination in the sale and rental of accommodation. Periodically, especially at times of acute economic hardship, the presence of Catholics in areas that had traditionally been considered the preserve of the Protestant community would precipitate violence that was aimed at driving perceived interlopers back to their “own territory.” Such violence was often supported, or at least tolerated, by the overwhelmingly Protestant security forces (Shirlow 2008). One of the consequences of efforts to contain Belfast Catholics within discrete territorial boundaries was that they were gradually able to establish political representation given that Catholic voters were concentrated within certain wards and not spread evenly around the city. The existence of residential enclaves also meant that Catholic communities in the city tended to be more economically and socially diverse than average since middle-class Catholics had fewer options available to them should they wish to escape their traditional heartlands (Bardon 2001). Those determined to move out of established enclaves frequently did, but they were especially vulnerable to attack and often paid a “premium” that reflected the more limited options available to them.

Urban scholars will recognize close similarities between these practices and the experiences of African Americans, who were corralled within similar territorial boundaries in cities across the US from the end of the Civil War through the 20th century. Racial zoning laws, redlining, restrictive covenants, overt discrimination in the sale and rental of property, underpinned by state-sanctioned violence, ensured that commitments to equal rights enshrined in the US Constitution failed to materialize on the streets of Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Atlanta, or Miami for African American communities (Schindler 2015). One feature of urban policy in the US in the 20th century is the way in which road design and highway planning emerged as a popular instrument for perpetuating racial segregation around the same time that courts struck down some of the more egregious racial zoning laws (Archer 2020). In some cases, highway routes in US cities were deliberately designed to mirror older racial zoning boundaries and were constructed to achieve the same purpose. In other instances, highways were used to deliberately destroy African American communities to allow for alternative land uses that benefited white elites, including corporate headquarters, civic centers, hospitals, and university campuses (Rothstein 2017). My scholarship considers how the US experience of racially segregating cities through urban renewal and highway design was a precursor for similar practices that emerged in Belfast in the early 1970s as the British Army sought to use planning and architecture as part of their counter-insurgency strategy to contain “suspect” communities.

Segregation by design in Belfast

By the late 1960s, Catholics had carved out living space in large sections of west Belfast and smaller areas in the north of the city. [1] The British Army, arriving in the city in August 1969, faced significant levels of violence from both the Catholic and Protestant communities, and were afforded substantial powers by the UK government to restore order (Farrell 1976). Documentary sources from the period show that in the early 1970s the British Army embarked upon a large-scale program to reconfigure the architecture and planning of Belfast under the auspices of a “joint working party” that recommended that the redevelopment of Belfast should provide for the “maximum natural separation between opposing areas” (Government of Northern Ireland 1971). In particular, the joint working party recommended that the Belfast Urban Motorway, construction of which had already begun, be used as a “physical cordon sanitaire […] creating a cleared belt up to 100 yards wide to the west side of the city centre” (Government of Northern Ireland 1971).

Examination of the contemporary road network in Belfast shows how these “natural barriers” were woven into the urban fabric of the city over subsequent decades. For example, the “Westlink” section of highway, which forms a physical “cordon sanitaire” alongside west Belfast, significantly reduced connectivity to the city center and cut off the natural linkages between homes, shops, leisure facilities and workplaces that had previously characterized this area. Sources show that the original plans for a ground-level road were altered to ensure that the structure was depressed, in some places up to 30 meters (100 feet), to heighten its barrier effect and restrict movement (Figure 1) (Gehl 2011).

Figure 1. Belfast urban motorway at Clifton Street


Photograph by Tim Cunningham, July 2015.

Jane Jacobs directed much of her ire at the capacity of road networks to eviscerate cities, likening the communities around them to “amputated areas typically developing galloping gangrene” (Jacobs 1993 [1961], p. 6). In the case of Belfast, as with many US cities, the amputation of certain districts from the city ecosystem was targeted, deliberate, and designed to enhance segregation in a way that had hitherto not been experienced—just as “official housing and highway policies, taken together, helped to produce the much more intensely concentrated and racially segregated landscapes of contemporary urban America” (Mohl 2000, p. 229), what Hirsch (1998) characterized as “the second ghetto.” [2] The same pattern emerged in Belfast, where informal, and hitherto more variable and porous, sectarian boundaries became frozen in concrete. This was a point made by local churches, who pointed out that planners and architects were in fact increasing sectarian polarization and territoriality in the city by “putting into fixed molds, and in physical molds, and in physical form, segregated areas of the city […] for the next one hundred years at least” (Rutherford 1973).

Lessons from Belfast and beyond

Reflecting on the transatlantic experiences of defensive design and infrastructural exclusion, several conclusions can be drawn. First, the documentary sources from Belfast considered here provide irrefutable evidence of the existence of a high-level strategy to segregate and divide the city through architecture and design practices over several decades that closely resembles the experience of US cities from the middle part of the 20th century. An important question arises, therefore, as to whether the resemblance is one of causation or correlation.

The first point to note is that the original plan for the redevelopment of Belfast, drawn up by Sir Robert Matthew in the early 1960s and which predated the outbreak of conflict, did not arrive in a vacuum. Prior to turning his sights on Belfast, Matthew provided the blueprint for “renewing” a host of British cities and followed the same Anglo-modernist planning paradigm beloved by figures like Robert Moses in the US (Kynaston 2014). Other, more direct US influences on Belfast planning in this period are evidenced by the visit of officials working on the Belfast Urban Motorway to several US cities in 1963 (including New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco) to gain expertise in highway design (Johnston 2014). The transatlantic trade in ideas about how cities should be “renewed” was a prominent feature of mid‑20th‑century planning and was the subject of much criticism from, among others, Jane Jacobs, who blamed the ideas that emanated from planners in the British garden city movement in the early 20th century for much of the destruction and decline that she witnessed in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

There is no documentary evidence that the British Army copied directly from US experience in formulating the proposals put forward by the joint working party in the early 1970s. The senior British military personnel arriving in Belfast in the early 1970s had served previously in the colonial conflicts that swept the British Empire from the end of the Second World War. It is likely, therefore, that military thinking on defensive planning and architecture deployed in Belfast was honed by experiences in Cyprus, Kenya, and the Middle East rather than by figures like Robert Moses in the US. The “Green Line,” which serves as a cordon sanitaire dividing the city of Nicosia, was established by the British Army in Cyprus in 1963. The British Army was by no means the only colonial power to appreciate the military value of road design and urban planning—from Algeria to South Africa, the entire African continent provided a canvas for defensive architecture and design practices throughout the 20th century (Henni 2018). Kader Asmal, Minister of Water and Forests in the first African National Congress government in South Africa, described the “forced cleavages” that characterized the racial geography of his country. “Forced cleavage” describes very effectively how structures like the M1 motorway in Belfast (Figure 2) and the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago serve to segregate and divide their respective cities.

Figure 2. Canyon effect of the Westlink at Divis Street
Photograph by Tim Cunningham, July 2015.

The military value of road design and urban planning goes back to antiquity and is evident in modern European history with Baron Haussmann’s redesign of Paris under Napoleon III, when wide boulevards replaced the compact streets favored by protesters and insurrectionists (Scott 1999). Hitler’s autobahns were designed not for private car use (there were very few private cars in Germany in the 1930s) but for the efficient transportation of troops and matériel. General Eisenhower was so impressed by the autobahn system during his time as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during the Second World War that he championed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 when he became President. It is often forgotten that the US highway program had, as the full title suggests, a clear military purpose that reflected the Cold War anxieties of the 1950s, namely to expedite the evacuation of cities in the event of nuclear attack. The defensive planning and architecture that characterized Belfast from the early 1970s therefore mirrored that which took place several decades earlier in the US in its objectives, and in its operation, but no actual technical expertise from the US played any role in developments in Belfast. Apart from anything else, it would have been politically unthinkable that architects, planners, or engineers working in US cities would have been sanctioned to assist British military operations in Northern Ireland. Rather, both experiences illustrate the extent to which military urbanism shaped civilian architecture and planning to ensure that infrastructure, especially highways, served a dual purpose, facilitating both transportation and segregation.

One important difference between the US and Belfast experiences is the extent to which military intervention in planning and architecture in Belfast went largely unchallenged and undocumented. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the official line from the British government has always been to stress the neutrality and objectivity of planning decisions and deny that the British Army had any role in shaping the urban fabric of Belfast. Many commentators, including academics, also dismissed such claims as conspiracy theory. This failure to acknowledge and explore military involvement in redesigning Belfast ought to be contrasted with the very different experience of the US. From Miami to Syracuse, and from Los Angeles to New York City, scholars have highlighted how highways and urban renewal combined to drive “White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes” as part of the infrastructural racism that dominated urban policy in the middle of the 20th century (Mohl 1993). Department of Transport (DOT) secretary Pete Buttigieg launched the Reconnecting Communities program in 2023 as part of a mea culpa on the part of the federal government to atone for decades of racist highway construction and design. No such initiatives have emerged yet in Belfast, despite considerable debate about the need to address the wider legacy of conflict in the region. Recognition of past harms in the US has not led to a blanket about-face regarding the role of highways in separating and dividing communities, especially from state DOTs. The recent revelation that funding for some Reconnecting Communities programs has been earmarked to expand highways has caused concern. In a context in which evidence is continuing to emerge about the adverse impact of urban highways on physical and mental health, the environment, and educational attainment, not to mention the social and economic costs of displacement and segregation, it is surely time that a transatlantic trade in ideas about how to reconnect cities and communities shattered by defensive architecture and divisive infrastructure took place. It is hoped that this essay can contribute to the start of that debate.


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Tim Cunningham, “On A Road to Nowhere? Military Urbanism and the Architecture of Segregation”, Metropolitics, 3 May 2024. URL :

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