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Belfast - a sustainable city?

Sustainability has been defined as 'meeting the needs of the present generation without damaging the chances of meeting the needs of future generations' (paraphrased from the Bruntland Report, 1987). A sustainable settlement must meet the needs of its inhabitants without using so many resources or causing damage to the environment in such a way as to make things difficult for later generations. Is Belfast sustainable?

What Belfast takes in each year
Tropical Timber
Bricks, blocks, sand and tarmac
What Belfast gives out each year
Household waste
Sewage sludge
Commercial and Industrial wastes
Carbon Dioxide
Sulphur Dioxide
Nitrous Oxides

At its simplest, sustainability is about resources. Belfast uses an enormous range of these each year. Fred Boal, from Queen's University Geography Department (in Shaping a City. Belfast in the late Twentieth Century), adapted figures for Belfast which are summarized in the table below.

As the table shows, much of the resources that the inhabitants of Belfast use come from outside the city. The use of 10,000 tonnes of tropical timber shows that it even effects tropical rainforests. Like any settlement, Belfast has an impact, called an ecological footprint, on the world.

The domestic refuse produced by the population of Belfast is one example of how the city has an impact on the environment. Much of what is brought into Belfast eventually ends up in landfill sites like the one illustrated here in Dargan Road in a photograph by John Doherty. As these landfill sites within the city become filled, and the landfill on Dargan Road is virtually full, the city has to 'export' its waste out into landfill areas in the surrounding countryside. This increases the area on which the city has an impact. As landfill sites become more scarce, and also more expensive, the dilemma of what to do with Belfast's household waste is made more and more difficult.

Geraint Ellis (2000), from whom the table at the bottom of the page is adapted, shows that the people of Belfast need an area nearly 50 times bigger than the city to keep them in existence. This is nearly the total area of Northern Ireland. In other words, each person who lives in Belfast needs an average 2.8 hectares each year to supply his or her needs (a hectare is 100metresx100metres). While this is not as bad as an average North American, who needs about 4.5 hectares, it is much worse than an average inhabitant of a LEDC (Less Economically Developed Country) such as Bangladesh where less than half a hectare is needed for each person. Is Belfast sustainable ... and if it is not, what can we do to make it: 1. reduce the amount of resources it uses; and 2. reduce the amount of pollution that it causes?


As well as the use of resources, Belfast is a city which has seen considerable sprawl recently. The Belfast Metropolitan Area (BMA) covers about 960 square kilometres and includes Belfast City, and the Boroughs of Castlereagh, Carrickfergus, Lisburn, North Down and Newtownabbey. Cooper, Ryley and Smyth (2001) in Contemporary lifestyles and the implications for sustainable development policy: lessons from the UK's most car dependent city, Belfast describe the city as the most dependent on cars in the UK. Over 80% of the workforce travelled to work by car, van or minibus in 2000. As McEldowney, Scott and Smyth put it (2004 Integrating land-use planning and transportation — policy formulation in the Belfast Metropolitan Area) "in the BMA, peak hour traffic conditions are steadily worsening causing accessibility and environmental problems. For example, between 1995 and 2000 ... increases in traffic flow measured on some key routes to and from Belfast City Centre has risen by up to 20 percent." They go on to argue that planning should take more account of the link between compact urban forms and efficient transport as the key to increasing sustainability in settlements.

Area of Belfast (hectares)
27,225 ha
Population of Belfast Urban area (1991)
Farmland used to grow food: 1.2 hectares per person per year
577,863 ha
Forest area required to grow enough wood = 0.1 hectare per person per year
52,000 ha
Area needed to absorb carbon dioxide = 1.5 hectares per person
712,698 ha
Belfast Ecological Footprint
1,342,561 ha
Total area of Northern Ireland
1,415,324 ha