We are unwavering in our commitment to working with the communities in which we deliver projects but sometimes it’s not easy to find an accessible route to engagement, particularly for projects that don’t require detailed consultation through the planning process.

Esther O Kelly HR

But engagement should be about more than satisfying a requirement; it should be a genuine attempt to open an opportunity for alternative, local voices to have influence on the creation of the buildings which the wider community will live with, alongside if not physically inside, for generations to come.

This is a fundamental part of successful place-making and returns to a core theme for us of finding opportunities to allow local participants to take some ownership of the city creation process.

It’s about allowing influence and sharing control. So as part of the refurbishment of 35DP (35 Donegall Place) in Belfast, we commissioned Belfast based artist Esther O’Kelly to create a large-scale triptych reflecting her take on the city, without a restrictive brief or expectation on subject matter or scale.

We spoke to Esther during the process and she shared some of her reflections on why it is so important art is understood as a trustworthy and effective tool for engaging communities. We’ve turned this blog over to her voice, unedited.

We began by asking Esther what role she thinks art can play in the regeneration of cities:

Art has an important role to play in regeneration and can have such a positive impact when given space to breath. I welcome the idea of developers engaging with Artists in an effort to understand the unique culture and heritage of a city. Artists have a way of engaging with place, they understand its nuance and texture in a different way to developers. Traditionally these are two groups that don’t interact enough, but a cohesive relationship can generate positive results.

Theo visited Vault Artist Studio, of which I am a founding member, at the early stages of the project. It was clear to me then and also through the place-making work he does with Haller Clarke that he understands the need to engage with arts and culture at a local level. We as a community have seen the benefits for developers and communities who think differently about civic space. Hopefully we too have made an impact on how developers can see the benefit of working with the artists.

It is not uncommon for artists to be offered meanwhile space within developments but it is also important to consider a secure and permanent place for them when the project is finished. Artists create value and they too need to be valued. Moving the artists on also moves on the magic and intrigue that comes with them.

Belfast is a great city, it has a grit and a darkness that is brightened by great wit. The people of the city are brave; they stand by their convictions. As an artist this is a very exciting place to be.

Engaging within the arts is a meaningful way to really connect with a city, it asks questions and provokes discussion. The 35DP piece ‘Woods and Water’ has been created (with that in mind), as a conversation starter specifically about this city I call home. To commission an artwork of such scale was an exciting process for me, I love to paint big with the native landscape as subject.

I think Bywater see the same Belfast I see. They have worked with people who live here and asked for their guidance to establish what the lifeblood and beating heart of this place is. I look forward to seeing them collaborate with the artists of our city in new and meaningful ways and I welcome more developers to collaborate with artists by creating narrative and spaces where people can gather and make more stories.

Esther O’Kelly

We couldn’t agree more.

‘Woods and Water’ is currently on display at 35DP our recent redevelopment project in Belfast city centre.

It is described by the artist as a Belfast landscape, inspired by the hidden history

below our feet; the 3 rivers that still flow far below the city’s pavements, surrounded by high hills and ancient woods. Exploring emotion & intuitions, the painting is built with layers like stratified history, each stroke a different place discovered and uncovered.

It is an invitation to celebrate the stories that make Belfast and the Belfast that

makes our stories. Having these windows into our past is a way for us to reconnect with a sense of who we are now and how we can be.