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ON THE BLOG: Q&A With Urban Scale Interventions

Urban Scale Interventions were awarded 2020 Cooperation Projects funding as part of the innovative EUR 2 million project 'European Creative Rooftop Network', reinventing underused rooftops across European cities: Amsterdam, Antwerp, Barcelona, Belfast, Chemnitz, Faro, Gothenburg, Nicosia and Rotterdam.

Claire Hall and Jak Spencer are part of the team at Urban Scale Interventions, the Belfast design and innovation studio, and tell us more about transforming urban spaces at a time when between 15 and 35 per cent of Europe’s urban landscape is roofscape, and this space is typically overlooked and underused.

"It's never been more important to have public spaces that can support healthy, social lives. Belfast has a rich and diverse urban landscape. This grant will help us to explore how our underutilised rooftops can be better used for social, cultural and climate activities, whilst connecting us to other cultural cities across Europe". - Jak Spencer on Creative Europe funding.

Q&A: URBAN SCALE INTERVENTIONS

How have roofs been used historically around the world?

Globally, people use roofs in many different ways. In some parts of the world, people have traditionally used rooftops to dry out food, do their laundry and sleep. The narrative of rethinking how we use rooftops has always been there – now it’s evolving again. 

In Belfast, where we’re based, there’s a culture of enjoying looking down on the city from up high, because it’s in a valley. But because we were a conflict area for a long time, many people didn’t want to live, work or hang out in the city, so our roofscape has been neglected. 

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What can we turn our roofs into and on what scale?

Rooftop projects can be as big or as small as you want – it’s all to play for. That’s true of what they can be used for, too. They can be used as social or cultural spaces, for green or blue infrastructure, or for utilities. It’s about losing the mindset that roofs are off limits and embracing their challenges as opportunities. 

For example, we’re helping turn the rooftop carpark of a city centre shopping centre into an outdoor space for employees, due to restrictions they now face indoors because of Covid-19. 

But it’s not just about commercial opportunities; it can be as simple as an individual turning their city balcony into a mini garden or vegetable patch. 

In Belfast, we’ve noticed residents who live in terraced streets moving their bins out of alleyways and starting community gardens during lockdown. Why shouldn’t we do the same with apartment block roofs, to encourage social interaction and city wildlife?

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What are the benefits of using rooftops in this way?

Using rooftops creatively allows us to tackle many of the challenges faced by cities today – be those environmental, social, technological, or cultural. It’s not just about doing it on a rooftop because it’s ‘cool’. It’s about creating a new discourse and contributing to long-term strategic change. In Belfast, we’re working closely with the city council on its cultural and resilience strategies.

At the moment, we’re being forced to rethink how we use public spaces due to Covid-19. With lots of restrictions on enclosed areas, we should be acknowledging rooftops as viable alternatives. 

Rotterdam recently hosted a play that took place across its rooftops. Each roof lit up and hosted a different part of the drama, while residents sat and watched, listening to the action through headphones.

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Are there any challenges…?

Rain is one. As is health and safety. But there are creative and practical solutions to all the barriers we face. To overcome tricky weather conditions, we can explore using rooftops as art installations with top floor viewing platforms which keep the public undercover. Or, we can think about involving the weather in our rooftop gardens and performances. 

A lot of it is trial and error and common sense. We wouldn’t suggest hosting a big rooftop concert with loud noise and flashing lights near an airport. We carry out risk assessments and work closely with local authorities to make sure our rooftops are safe, accessible and relevant. We also measure the impact of everything we do. In fact, the challenges are what make rooftops so exciting – because they give you even more opportunity to be creative and problem-solve.

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Read more about Urban Scale Interventions and successful UK-partnered 2020 Cooperation Projects online here.

A version of this interview appeared in British Council's Voices magazine in August 2020

Image: Urban Scale Interventions