Since the Good Friday Peace Agreement, more people have died from suicide in Northern Ireland than were killed during the troubles, leaving the province with the highest suicide rate in the UK. This is a particular issue for the city of Derry/Londonderry which has the highest suicide rate in Northern Ireland.
Since 2016, a team of designers from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, working with the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland, have been investigating how design approaches might improve mental health in the city. Their focus has been on the River Foyle – a dominant city landmark which has negative connotations for mental health issues in the city.
Historically the river has acted as an unofficial ‘peace’ wall. “It has separated communities,” says local Sinn Féin MP Elisha McCalion. The opening of the Peace Bridge in 2011 connected the divided east and west banks of the city, “but unfortunately there is a reality as well – regrettably a number of people take their own lives in the river.”
The local phrase ‘ready for the Foyle’ is used in jest at times of stress or hardship. A recent spike in suicidal incidences on the river has contributed to pressure on the city to respond. However, the river also plays a positive role in the city’s history.
One of the more unusual events to take place at the river has become a departure point for the project. In 1977, at the height of the troubles, an Orca whale – nicknamed locally as Dopey Dick – made its way up the river Foyle in search of salmon. For several days the whale became a point of community cohesion – a distraction from the ongoing violence.
The team built a full-size replica whale to float down the river as part of Derry’s yearly Maritime festival and Halloween celebrations. Using the whale as a research base, they asked people about how they would improve the riverfront.
“The response was amazing,” says project leader Ralf Alwani. “We began to understand how the whale holds such significance, and why it still resonates as a positive memory. We learned that the river plays such a significant role in the local consciousness. So we began to think about how the project could do something similar by reanimating the river in a positive way – creating a sense of festival.”
The team’s first proposal – responding to suicide behaviour along the bridges of the Foyle – is the Foyle Reeds project. Around 12,000 extruded, digitally interactive ‘reeds’ will be installed along the existing barrier of the city’s main river crossing, the Foyle Bridge, in what will become the largest art installation in Northern Ireland. The Reeds will create an architectural barrier that aims to prevent planned suicides. Unlike traditional prevention barriers, which feel imprisoning, the reeds will interact with pedestrians, changing colour as they detect the movement of people. People can also adopt a reed for a small fee, and change their colour for a special occasion.
The second proposal is Foyle Bubbles, a series of small portable spaces that can be deployed around the riverfront. The ‘Bubbles’ will house community, arts, leisure, and commercial groups. The team hopes that the ‘bubbles’ will incubate entrepreneurial activity and generate festivity in the area. The occupiers of the ‘Bubbles’ will also undergo mental health awareness training, to help them spot those in crisis along the river providing a community response without the clinical stigma.
This is the first time a project of this kind and scale has been undertaken. If successful it will likely take a generation for negative perceptions of the river to change. Alwani is aware of the project’s limitations: “Art and design are not the silver bullet.” But research carried out by the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health has shown that mental health can be improved by “changing how a place feels.”
The centre’s director Dr. Layla McCay says that, “One theory is that installations that evoke nature can make people feel less anxious and reduce suicidal thoughts; another is that investing in places that have meaning to communities can evoke pride in a neighbourhood and can improve feelings of belonging and self-esteem. The Foyle Reeds project has elements of both of these theories.”
Visuals courtesy of Vizrage; photos by Ralf Alwani.