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The spatial patterns of residential areas in cities have long been of interest to Geographers. Belfast's residential patters were examined by Emrys Jones, then a Geography Lecturer in Queens' University in Belfast, in Towns and Cities as long ago as 1966. Comparing the age structure in 22 areas of Belfast, Jones noted the absence of children and the over-representation of men between 20 and 25 years in the central areas examined. The 19th Century terraced houses in the west of Belfast provided a more typical population structure, although he did find differences between ethnic groups. In suburban areas of 1960s Belfast, Jones found areas characterised with an older population and with few children. However other suburban areas, where modern estates had not long been built, were characterised by young family groupings with few adolescent or elderly residents.Jones suggested that such patterns were typical of many Western cities of the day, although he did note that, in London, "a migration to the outer suburbs is attractive to families with young children" p. 120.

This migration to the suburbs also affected Belfast in the end although later than many other cities. Paul Compton (1990) observed that Belfast's urban population concentration continued until 1961, before being reversed in the late 1960s. This contrasts with London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, for example, where decentralisation was noted from the 1940s. The pattern after Emrys Jones was writing changes somewhat as the pressures of suburbanisation began to make its impact felt on Belfast's population. By the 1990s the suburbs were characterised by higher proportions of married people with children. Each housing development took on its own character which aged with the inhabitants. Generally estates in suburban areas such as Glengormley or Dundonald would have started with young married couples with young families. In some of the more established areas, the children have grown up and left and the population has consequently aged.

While a move to the suburbs was a process that affected people from all income levels, the sectoral arrangement of social class tended to be replicated in the suburbs. Thus low income areas, such as along the Shore Road or in West Belfast, extended outwards as the settlement grew. Similarly, relatively affluent areas such as the University area was extended out the Malone Road towards Shaw's Bridge.

The population of the Core City fell from the 1960s and was marked by massive redevelopment. The area certainly required such change as, even as late as 1974, nearly 25% of houses were deemed unfit for habitation. At first the answer to this was suburban developments with Rathcoole and Ballybeen estates being built on greenfield sites by the government appointed body, the Housing Executive. In the late 1970s the focus shifted back to the inner city. Unfit dwellings comprised just 8% of Core City housing by 1991. This was accomplished by clearance and redevelopment within an inner area and retention and rehabilitation of houses towards the edge of the Inner Core.

Some recent development of high income houses has featured suburban growth at breaches in the Matthew stopline, such as at Cairnshill and there has also been considerable infilling, especially in the Malone Road area. Particularly characteristic of the late 1990s has been the building of apartments in affluent areas of Belfast. Many of these have been built close to the CBD (such as the apartments in the photograph, just off the Dublin Road at the heart of Belfast's Golden Mile — an area of bars and restaurants). The revitalisation of Belfast and the re-emergence of a nightlife has attracted many young and single people back to the centre of the city.