Urban Research Belfast-Lessons from Empty Space: Inter-disciplinary Tools for Urban Enquiry and Place Investigation

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This paper presents the outcomes of Urban Research Belfast (URB), a two-year project that developed and evaluated an inter-disciplinary framework and practical tools to improve architects’ and visual designers’ skills to undertake urban, place-based, investigations, and to engage better with existing communities in contested inner-city contexts. It identifies a lack of effective skills amongst built environment design professionals to engage with other professionals, policy makers and members of the public in dynamic, challenging city contexts. URB established an original knowledge and training framework called TALK (Teaching Action Learning Knowledge) that proposes how to better connect abstract urban design theory to concrete experiments for more effective understanding of urban issues. This book section examines the context, imperatives, and theoretical framework that underpin the research design and qualitative methodology. It then describes and discusses a key research outcome for applying the TALK principles to live situations in marginalised urban neighbourhoods, testing an original cross-disciplinary action-based tool called Machines for Experiential Urban Learning (MEUL) in Belfast. MEUL is a broadly transferable mechanism to translate experiential theory into collaborative design strategies for architects and designers engaged in urban investigations, arguing for a shift from object- and solution-focused priorities to process- and narrative-led aims and place-driven aspirations. The research involved over two hundred participants through a range of related live projects including temporary installations in empty city spaces, public workshops and exhibitions. Photographic and video documentation combine with survey and interview feedback to examine how the proposed design framework and tools could influence wider socio-cultural, political, and professional dimensions of urban design practice and inner-city regeneration. The conclusions argue that tools like MEUL which focus on socio-cultural narrative and open-ended ‘storytelling’ processes of design promote greater understanding of early-stage urban design investigations from within rather than as an outsider. They add to international debates on designers’ roles in built environment futures.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDesign Place
Subtitle of host publicationInternational Urban Design Conference Proceedings
EditorsKatherine Borsi, Bahar Durmaz
Place of PublicationUnited Kingdom
PublisherUniversity of Nottingham
Number of pages200
ISBN (Print)9780853582823
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2 Apr 2012
EventDesigning Place: International Urban Design Conference - University of Nottingham Department of Architecture and Built Environment, Nottingham, United Kingdom
Duration: 2 Apr 20123 Apr 2012


ConferenceDesigning Place
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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