Belfast Zoo & the Wider Hills Area

There’s a story around every corner at Belfast Zoo: from the caves to Bellevue our hills are steeped in rich histories and memories of Belfast from a bird’s eye view.

Our most famous story is that of our ‘elephant angel’ which tells the tale of one of our first female keepers, Denise Weston Austin, and Sheila the Elephant. Concerned for the wellbeing of her animal companion during the Belfast Blitz, Denise kept baby Sheila in her back garden and walked her back to the Zoo each morning.

We’ve plenty more stories to tell but this heartwarming history fully encapsulates what this future master plan is all about… crossing hum-animal boundaries to advocate conservation, wellbeing, and nature through celebrating the histories that make us so unique - we’re the zoo that never forgets!

Our Vision

This masterplan framework seeks to reflect on our incredible histories to rethink, reshape, and strengthen the future of Belfast Zoo and the wider hills area.

It asks how we can reframe the Zoo as a 21st century institution through reclaiming its rich socio-cultural heritages and reprogramming disused landscapes to positively impact wellbeing across the city; from individuals and communities to the Zoo’s animal populations and wildlife.

The project is born out of the need to diversify the Zoo’s current offer and inspire proactive, as opposed to reactive, thinking for its future. In light of current developments within the wider hills area, it equally aims to create new identities, partnerships, and relations with neighbouring destinations and Belfast’s city centre.

“We want to continue to be a centre of excellence and world leader in zoo based conservation, education, and experience. Our mission is to offer all communities the opportunity to learn and commit to the conservation of wildlife and wild places at home and abroad. We recognise the negative associations with the Zoo today and yesterday but our ambitions are bold, we want to engage and inspire through making wildlife a part of everyone’s everyday and we believe this master plan will help us do just that.”

Our Aims

Belfast Zoo and Belfast City Council have been working with Urban Scale Interventions to co-design what the future of the zoo and wider hills area might look like.

From Penguins to People
To create an environment that brings positive impacts to the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the Zoo’s animal populations and wildlife.

From Blitz to Ritz
To reclaim the rich histories and socio-cultural heritages of Belfast Zoo, and the former Bellevue Gardens, to deliver new spaces, events, and programmes for both local and global audiences.

From the Zoo to the Unzoo
To provide a distinct visitor experience that both enhances and goes beyond animal exhibits with a focus on conservation, education, and cultural programming.

From the Hills to the Lagan
To create a cohesive identity for Belfast Zoo as a 21st Century institution and its connection to the wider Belfast Hills and city centre.

The following five themes have been developed to steer the vision and align the masterplan with the various sites which make up the Belfast Zoo.

Click on the themes to learn more:

From Yin to Yang: A Balanced Review of Belfast Zoo


In Ancient Chinese philosophy, Yin and Yang describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary and interconnected in the natural world. When Yin and Yang are in harmony with one another, there is health, wellbeing, and contentment.

This health check and mapping exercise identifies the diversity of challenges and opportunities that exist across the Belfast Zoo site and wider hills area to inform our proposed work and get the balance just right.


Spatial Programming:
Putting our master plan into action on the ground …

While our strategic theming and initiatives will inform and interweave with all future works at Belfast Zoo, we’re creating 3 distinct spaces and experiences that will focus on, and be driven by, the scope of one particular theme.

Click on the themes to learn more:

Why not tell us your favourite story from Belfast Zoo...


Community | Wellbeing | (Bio)diversity

Incubating good relations for people, animals & nature to seed, grow & flourish.

Belfast Zoo and the wider hills area have historically been a place of congregation for communities across Belfast and Northern Ireland. Our Floral Hall and Bellevue pleasure gardens have seen people across the province come together through leisure, dance, and play over the years. This master plan aims to reclaim these socio-cultural histories and bring them into the 21st century through new diverse programming.

We want Belfast Zoo to be a platform for the city that promotes community engagement and wellbeing through biodiversity and ecological intervention. ‘Fruiting’ will render Belfast Zoo and the wider hills area as an ever-evolving ecosystem for all human and ‘more than human’ beings to seed, grow, and thrive.

Alongside a new ‘Community Garden of Intersections’ where people can come together through engaging with nature, this scheme will create new physical connections with the wider hills area to bring people from all walks of life to reap the benefits of better physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.


Conservation | Habitat | Experience

Rethinking multi-species co-habitation through conservation, intersection & encounter.

‘Rewilding’ aims to break down barriers and blur boundaries between visitors, zoo keepers, and animal inhabitants. It will create a fully immersive environment that will inspire new ways of experiencing what Belfast Zoo has to offer. From reworking the walls of enclosures, to improved landscaping, and an array of outdoor experiences, this initiative will build on Belfast Zoo’s world-leading conservation work to reimagine what zoological infrastructure can offer to future cities and citizens across the globe.

In the spirit of co-creation, this project will equally link up with the work of the Belfast Hills Partnership to develop a series of site specific conservation and resilience principles to preserve natural habitats, species, and wildlife within the region. With a particular focus on native populations, this work will trickle down into public spaces and homes across the city to develop shared spaces for all species to celebrate and enjoy.


Heritage | Education | Innovation

Breathing new life into rich socio-cultural heritages through educational programmes and a living lab.

A lot has changed since we first opened our doors in 1934 and we recognise our role in tackling some of today’s toughest challenges around climate change and environmental degradation. Our ‘Evolving’ initiative will build capacity for the evolution and development of Belfast Zoo as a key space for education and innovation across the region; reframing our derelict infrastructure that speaks to the past as a test-bed for incredible ecological and zoological futures.

Through the exposition of the Zoo’s cherished oral and visual histories, and further investment in our pioneering research work, we aim to create an ‘active’ learning environment for people of all ages, in particular children and young adults, through alternative forms of education. From experimenting with multi-species co-design and manufacture to developing virtual realities that capture the world from the eye of the tiger, we’re asking big questions to capture creative minds and bring innovative social, cultural, economic, and ecological value to the region.


Tourism| Economy | Ecology

Welcoming all local vendors, global explorers & beastie pollinators.

Through the development of a tourism strategy that champions economic and environmental sustainability, ‘Attracting’ aims to enhance our current offering and provide a zoological experience that is distinctly Belfast. This initiative will establish Belfast Zoo and the wider hills area as a must-see destination and # allow our diversity of species and spaces to be accessed from across the island of Ireland.

We believe that in welcoming a diverse demographic of local and international visitors we must create an ecosystem through which our rich histories, vibrant local commerce, and the preservation and attraction of wildlife are interlinked and interdependent.

From new ‘snore and roar’ experiences to seasonal festivals, local markets, nocturnal programming, and visitor packages with venues such as Belfast Castle and the city’s new aquarium, Belfast Zoo and the wider hills area will offer a truly unique and evolving experience where visitors can spend a long weekend and return time and time again.


Connectivity | Access | Place

From the Caves to the City: Re-connecting Belfast Zoo with the hills and beyond.

Situated in the heart of the Belfast Hills, we’ve always been known as “The Zoo with The View”. Our unique landscape and views over the city makes our offering distinctly different to many city zoo experiences across the world. With a need for more accessible and sustainable forms of getting to the hills, however, it’s also what’s been holding us back.

Memories of walking to the Zoo via the Bellevue Steps or arriving by tram from the city centre seem distant, but these are the kinds of histories and modes of transport that ‘Fusing’ aims to reclaim. With a focus on promoting active lifestyles through the development of green infrastructure and sustainable transport this initiative will make Belfast Zoo more physically and socially accessible.

From linking up with development plans to create new access points across the hills to creating a more cohesive identity for the region, our assemblage of e-bikes, cable cars, floral hubs, eco-bridges and city interventions will reconnect Belfast Zoo with the hills, the city, and beyond.

The Commons - Fruiting

The Commons - Big Vision Project

A shared space for species to thrive together.

Driven by the act of ‘Fruiting’, the Commons will be exemplary in demonstrating how Belfast Zoo and the wider hills area can authentically engage with communities and visitors, and positively impact their wellbeing through access to sustainable shared spaces for species and diverse ecological programming.

We’re breathing new life into our cherished Bellevue steps, creating a ‘community garden of intersections’, and introducing new nocturnal programming; from a rooftop bar and common market to unique stayover experiences.

Creating a unique destination for the Belfast Hills through an ecosystem of species, local enterprise, cultural pop-ups & stay-over experiences.

Engaging with a diverse range of communities and visitors through the lens of biodiversity & conservation focused programming.

Flattening the hum-animal hierarchy to render the Commons as a platform for environmental activism across the isle of ireland.

Re-invigorating disused landscapes to create a space that positively contributes to wellbeing across the city.

How we get there in the long-term...

Cabins of Cave Hill

What is it?

An opportunity to establish Belfast Zoo as a unique stay over experience for the city … appealing to locals and visitors alike.

The Common Market

What is it?

A unique out of city offering that bundles together food & market stalls, a rooftop bar, and rentable events spaces.

Capital of Collective Wellbeing

What is it?

A unique centre for the city of Belfast accessed through an array of subscription models and community programmes to improve wellbeing across the city.

How we get there in the short-term...

What is it?

Community Plots to grow food for people and animals at the Zoo… an opportunity to learn about growing food and species diets.

What is it?

A walled wild garden of intersecting species and plants that showcases the diversity of communities in Belfast.

What is it?

Market Stalls and Food offerings taking place onsite as a meanwhile intervention that will inform the sites long term T&C offer.

What is it?

A meanwhile intervention that creates a series of wider steps and gathering points for visitors through the lens of species (e.g. elephant/dog steps).

What is it?

A community outreach programme to gather stories of Zoo and provide space for community to be involved in project development.

What is it?

From Yoga to storytelling and the promotion of active lifestyles to better showcase Belfast Zoo as an asset to the wellbeing of Belfast citizens.

The Zoo - Rewilding

Rewilding - Big Vision Project

A space to reconnect with creatures, critters, & your inner animal.

With a focus on ‘Rewilding’, our future master plan for the Zoo area will see the creation of a fully immersive environment that will inspire new ways of experiencing what Belfast Zoo has to offer.

From new ‘conservation corridors’ to reworking the boundaries of habitats, improved landscaping, and an array of alternative outdoor experiences, this initiative will build on Belfast Zoo’s world-leading conservation work to champion the preservation of species and wildlife across the isle of Ireland.

Developing unique immersive experiences that facilitate authentic hum-animal interaction & bring people back time & time again.

Providing alternative outdoor activities & programmes that go beyond normative zoo experiences to diversify our offer & increase dwell times.

Enriching our current animal collection with a particular focus on the conservation of native species and wildlife.

Creating an environment that better reflects the natural habitats of animal populations & enhances their health and wellbeing.

How we get there in the long-term...

The Hum-animal Gaze

What is it?

Reworking the boundaries of enclosures through replacing walls and fences with interactive and immersive infrastructure.

Reworlding the ‘Sprawl’

What is it?

Continental landscaping/programming across the site to strategically re-organise exhibits according to natural habitats and visitor experiences.

The Immersive Indoors

What is it?

Creation of more indoor spaces for education and ‘rewilding’ experiences that create new ways of experiencing what Belfast Zoo has to offer.

How we get there in the short-term...

What is it?

Linking up with other partners to provide alternative outdoor experiences beyond animal exhibits e.g. zip wire, cave-hill rock climbing etc.

What is it?

Re-imagining the site’s current wayfinding system through improved signage, themes routes/experiences, and interesting surfacing that integrates wildlife along paths.

What is it?

Increased recreational areas for visitors to eat, drink, take a break, and relax with a focus on alternative animal encounters e.g. introducing picnic areas with infrastructure for birds etc.

What is it?

Reclaiming Belfast Zoo’s former title as the “Zoo with the View” through new creative landscaping and community intervention.

What is it?

Strategically planning and building capacity for future species at the Zoo with a particular focus on conservation, native species, and endangered animals.

What is it?

Building on the Zoos existing array of one-off experiences this initiative aims to further diversify the zoos audience through themed date nights and dining experiences for example.

The UnZoo - Evolving

The UnZoo - Big Vision Project

A place for collaborative reinvention of earthly futures.

The Unzoo will interweave with all of our sites and focus on education and innovation through revitalising our built and socio-cultural heritages. It’s all about using the past to project futures and provide that necessary breathing space for ‘Evolving’ to unfold.

From renovating and reframing our Floral Hall as a cultural centre for the Belfast Hills to creating an extensive network of ‘Floral Hubs’ we’ll be developing a unique platform for sharing histories, offering new interactive VR experiences, and facilitating new innovative research into ecos-systems, multi-species co-design, and sustainability.

The Unzoo will continually reimagine what zoological infrastructure can offer to future cities, citizens, and creatures across the globe.

Continually re-imagining what the zoo looks like as a 21st century institution through further developing our research and innovation initiatives.

Rehabilitating our built heritage to celebrate our rich histories & build capacity for future cultures to emerge.

Engaging with creative minds to inspire zoological and ecological learning through alternative education programmes.

Creating ‘moments’ of ‘unzoo’ experiences that enhance our existing offer and create a unique identity for Belfast Zoo and the wider hills area

How we get there in the long-term...

Pilot Pavilions

What is it?

An international open call for artists to create a series of pavilions across the Belfast Hills to draw visitors and inform the longer term floral hub project.

Multispecies Co-design

What is it?

An innovative research and design centre/programme that marries science with art to investigate and showcase co-design across species boundaries as a tool for combating climate change.

The Events Ecosystem

What is it?

An array of public and private events spaces to render the Zoo and wider belfast hills as the ultimate vents destination for the city.

How we get there in the short-term...

What is it?

A pilot ‘Education through Recreation’ programme that will see visitors weigh up their abilities against those of their animal companions through unique installations and experiences.

What is it?

Interactive digital experiences that boost the Zoo’s indoor offering: from showcasing how animals see the world to a co-designed digital animal collection.

What is it?

A performance programme that sees stories and theatre unfold across the Zoo that will inform future programming of floral hubs.

What is it?

An artist in residence programme that uses empty enclosures to create a ‘human zoo’ # experience for artists and visitors.

What is it?

An array of rentable spaces throughout the zoo and commons site to bring together a diverse range of creatives and entrepreneurs that can equally contribute to the zoo’s future offer.

What is it?

A research programme that delves into the study of ecosystems in conjunction with Belfast Hills Partnership & QUB; exploring animal bodies to plants and microorganisms.

Fusing & Attracting - Site, Cavehill and the City

From the Hills to the Lagan - Big Vision Project

A city-wide ecosystem for conservation & connection.

From the hills to the lagan, this non-site-specific initiative seeks to facilitate myriad interventions across Belfast and Northern Ireland through ‘Fusing’ and ‘Attracting’. It’s all about connecting up with others events, sites, and venues to bring a diverse range of visitors, pollinators, and local commerce to our unique landscape.

Let’s extend the greenway to the foot of our hills, be a springboard for climate activism in homes across the country, host sustainable seasonal festivals, and encourage people to spend a long-weekend with us through package experiences with Belfast Castle and the city’s new aquarium.

Reconnecting with the city through investing in sustainable and green infrastructure that makes the zoo & wider hills area more physically and socially accessible.

Establishing Belfast Zoo & the wider hills area as a must-see destination for tourists through providing an experience that is distinctly Belfast.

Building capacity for the future of Belfast Zoo through ecological programming that will diversify our income streams.

Creating shared package experiences with complementary interventions, events & venues across Belfast to encourage new partnerships and collaborations.

How we get there...

Cave-hill Connectors

What is it?

Creating more sustainable and socially accessible infrastructure to better connect people with the site through extending to greenway to the foot of the hills.

Escape from the Zoo

What is it?

An opportunity to take over abandoned spaces within the city through a virtual zoological experience and inspire people to visit the hills.

T&C Package Partners

What is it?

Creating a themed package experience with Belfast Castle that builds on the legends of the hills, NI’s Game of Thrones success, and the Zoo’s inhabitants.

What is it?

Commissioning artists and communities to create meaningful artwork that celebrates the history of the hills and creates new trails for the culturally curious.

What is it?

Creating an arts trail that celebrates the history of Sheila’s venture into the backyards of the city while generating an inner city-presence of the hills.

What is it?

Linking up with the new proposed reefLIVE aquarium (to be situated in the inner city) to create complimentary as opposed to competing destinations.

What is it?

An opportunity to extend the Zoo’s potential network of floral hubs across the wider hills area to improve access, provide pit stops for explorers, and new programmable indoor experiences.

What is it?

Facilitating new ways of accessing the hills through sustainable transport options such as e-bikes and direct shuttle buses for locals and cruise ship visitors alike.

What is it?

An opportunity to curate a zoological audio-visual offering as part of the upcoming city-wide festival ‘Urban Forest’ in 2024 in partnership with the Eden Project.