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Growth of Belfast

The discontinuous built-up area that is now 'Belfast' extends through Newtownabbey towards Carrickfergus in the north, to Holywood and Dundonald in the east and along the Lagan to Lisburn in the southwest. In the nineteenth Century, Belfast was a continuous urban area contained within the urban district - much smaller than today. As the city grew three rings of urbanisation were created.

The Core City

This extends to the edge of the Belfast District Council area. The Core City experienced an enormous growth in population in the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s.

The population doubled between 1831 and 1851. In the decade following 1891, the population grew by 93,000. A little of this growth may have been due to natural increase in Belfast (more births than deaths) but most was because off in-migration form the countryside and from towns in Northern Ireland - a classic case of urbanisation. These people were attracted to Belfast by industrialisation and the chance of employment in the growing mills, shipyards and engineering works.

By the early 20th Century the growth slowed and by 1950 the Core City ceased to grow. From that point on the population of the Core City declined and, by the last census in 1991, the population was almost half of what it had been at its peak. Part of the reason for this decline appears to have been a flight of families from the Core City to the suburbs beyond. The number of households has declined much less than the population, but the households of the Core City increasingly tend to be single person households Some of these are elderly residents, living in decaying terraced housing; there are also large numbers of single young people living here.

In 1991 the population of the Core City was 279,237 people compared to the whole urban area's population of almost half a million. In 1926 90% of Belfast's residents lived in the Core City but by by 1991 that had dropped to less than half.

Belfast Urban Area, beyond the Core City

While the Core City's population fell from the 1950s, the area around it continued to grow. The 1971 census indicated almost 600,000 people in Belfast's Urban Area. Between 1971 and 1991 the Core City's population fell rapidly, but the population in the area around it continued slowly to grow. There was an attempt to stop the continued growth of suburbs around Belfast in 1964 with the Matthew Regional Plan. To redirect population from Belfast, a number of 'new towns' were declared: Ballymena, Antrim, Carrickfergus, Newtownards and Bangor. These existing small market towns were to be greatly enlarged to handle overspill population from Belfast. In addition a new Regional Centre, Craigavon, was built between Portadown and Lurgan. Another part of the strategy was to establish a Stop-line around Belfast to protect the surrounding countryside and to stop Belfast's relentless growth.

There was increasing pressures for more housing in the Falls and Andersonstown areas of West Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s. The population living there was constrained from expanding to the north or south because of ethnic divisions. As the pressures grew it became inevitable that the stop-line would have to be broken. The building of Poleglass beyond the stop-line in 1979 relieved this pressure but led to pressure from private developers for land to be released for owner-occupied dwellings. This happened most dramatically at Cairnshill in the southeast of Belfast. As Boal says in Shaping a City, it added to "...the urban flood that had already breached the dyke".

Belfast Regional City

This area includes Belfast's commuter settlements, as well as the city itself and makes up a single functional zone. This means that, while Antrim and Bangor, for example, are separated from Belfast by 20 kilometres or so of countryside, the residents in both of these towns depend on Belfast for shopping and employment. In turn Belfast depends on them to supply workers and money to keep shops and businesses operating. With this mutual dependence, the area is tied together as a functional zone. The population of the Regional City was almost threequarters of a million people (727,391) in 1991.