An art installation in Derry/Londonderry will double as a suicide prevention tactic

The Peace Bridge over the river Foyle, Derry/Londonderry, 2013. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.