A tale of two (northern) cities

View of Liverpool’s famous waterfront

Post by Dr. Gemma Catney

I moved from Queen’s University Belfast to the SoES during the first week of September, to work on my Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship, ‘Geographies of ethnic and social segregation in England and Wales, 1991-2011’. I’m very excited about the project – so do feel free to come and talk to me about it! I’m really looking forward to being part of the School of Environmental Sciences at University of Liverpool, which has already given off great vibes as being a dynamic, productive and friendly place to work. I’m also eager to start to explore the city of Liverpool as a new resident.

My first brush with the Liverpool was as a PhD student back in 2006, when I presented at the postgraduate conference PopFest, and the 3rd International Conference of Population Geographies. I was back again in 2008, whilst working as RA at CCSR (University of Manchester), to participate in the innovative Intercultural Cities conference at St George’s Hall. On both occasions I was struck by how friendly and open Liverpool was, with a keen sense of its own identity. It was also somewhere which was clearly going places – the entire city seemed like a building site during my visits! Being back now it’s clear that all the scaffolding and cement has paid off, and Liverpool city centre is certainly rather polished, with its new buildings and clean streets.

All this urban development and regeneration reminds me of my hometown, Belfast. Like Liverpool, Belfast is also well-known for its warmth to both visitors and locals, its friendly atmosphere, and its great ‘craic’. It has also undergone substantial changes in the last ten years. Aside from the welcome fact that its infamous socio-political climate is ever-calming, the city has been at the receiving end of substantial infrastructural investment; the city centre is now virtually unrecognisable in places. It’s a very positive thing to see Belfast growing as a tourist and immigration destination – a place where people want to visit and to move to.

In reflecting on the similarities of the two cities, I was struck by the fact that urban regeneration schemes in both Liverpool and Belfast stand the risk of succumbing to the same pitfall: all the fancy glass buildings, the chain high street shops and eateries/drinking holes, and the branding of sections of the city to make them more marketable (Belfast now has a ‘Cathedral Quarter’, a ‘Queen’s Quarter’, a ‘Titanic Quarter’; Liverpool has a ‘Knowledge Quarter’, a ‘Cultural Quarter’, a ‘Georgian Quarter’ and so on) risks emphasising commerce over other forms of interaction and can lead to a ‘could be anywhere’ feel to some parts of both of these characterful northern cities. These are things that urban geographers study and write about. A challenge to planners and developers is how to respond to the importance that cities retain their uniqueness, protecting places like Bold Street in Liverpool that have independent shops and restaurants and that economic sustainability is not seen as achievable only through a shameful ‘McDonaldisation’ of the city. Both Liverpool and Belfast have truly outstanding landmark buildings, and the sense of a significant and important industrial history is obvious in their urban fabrics. Hopefully the appearance of glitzy department stores and snazzy chain restaurants won’t cloud (or rather gleam) over their fascinating pasts. In getting to know my new city I look forward to embracing the ‘real’ Liverpool and finding the city’s hidden gems (suggestions on a postcard!).

Belfast

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