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Geographers when looking at urban structure have produced urban models - simplified versions of what cities look like - so that they can understand settlements better. There are three main models, each of which helps to explain Belfast's structure. Burgess came up with the Concentric model, where the city grew out in concentric rings. Some features of Belfast are arranged in this way. Hoyt suggested that cities are arranged in wedges which grow out from the centre with, for example, rich people living as far away as they could from industrial areas. This he called the Sector model. Harris and Ullman believed that cities had more than one point around which growth took place. They suggested a Multiple Nuclei model.
As Paul Doherty said in Social Contrasts in a Divided City (Geographical Perspectives on the Belfast region, Geographical Society of Ireland 1990), the geography of the people who live in Belfast is similar to that of many other cities of Europe.
Belfast is different from many other cities as a consequence of its strong ethnic divisions (see Ethnic Diversity).
The physical structure of Belfast has been affected by the physical constraints of its site. The Antrim Plateau lies to the north and to the south are the Castlereagh and Holywood hills. These have largely constrained the city within the Lagan Valley itself. Called Beal Farset (the mouth of the Farset), the city grew up at the mouth of the River Farset, where it discharged into the River Lagan. An insignificant settlement for some time, it was not until the early 19th century that it began to grow rapidly with industrialisation based on textiles and, eventually, shipbuilding, rope making and engineering. By 1861 Belfast briefly became larger than Dublin as Ireland's most populous settlement, with 350,000 residents.
While the core industries of the city have declined in importance since the early 20th Century, the population of the city has continued to grow. The size of the city grew too, beyond the politically defined city into a commuter zone of discontinuously urbanised land. Fred Boal, in Shaping a City: Belfast in the Late Twentieth Century (1995), divides Belfast into three areas.
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