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Column: 'Pop up' projects are creative and positive – but can mask deeper social problems

The ‘pop-up’ phenomenon has become popular in cities with vacant spaces in recent years – but, as positive as these projects are, local authorities are using them to paper-over their failure to fix to chronic urban problems, write Mick Byrne and Patrick Bresnihan.

Image: Photocall Ireland

GRANBY PARK IS an initiative of the Upstart collective, turning a vacant space on Dominick Street in Dublin’s north inner city into a temporary park hosting various creative arts, educational and food events between the 22 August and 22 September.

It sounds great, and it is – but if we’re going to have a real debate on transforming our city we need to think about the problems here too.

What is the history of the site?

Upstart says it will convert a space which would ‘otherwise be vacant’ into a public park. But every space in the city has its own history, and the Granby Park site particularly so.

The site was originally ear-marked for a significant regeneration project. Under government guidelines the project (like many others including O’Deaveny Gardens and St Michael’s Estate) was set up as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP). The land on which Dominick Street flats were located, and encompassing the Granby Park site, was to be given to private property developers, on condition that the developers would build new housing and commercial units, a portion of which would be social housing.

Subject to the fortunes of unstable property speculation

According to this model, the City Council could make use of a valuable asset (the land) to secure social housing development at no cost to the public purse. The whole concept of PPP, like so much of public policy during the boom years, was predicated on the possibility of developers extracting profits through future price increases in housing. The housing needs of the residents were thus subject to the fortunes of one of the most unstable property speculation bubbles in history.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, as property prices declined in 2007/2008 the developer (McNamara/Castlethorn) pulled out. Several flat blocks had already been demolished – leaving the residents high and dry and resulting in the continuing vacancy of the Granby Park site. In a very concrete sense, then, the fact that the site remains vacant is the result of national policy choices which were underpinned by, and reinforced, the logic of property speculation.

Excluded from the debt-driven private property market

In this context, the idea that Granby Park is about turning a vacant site into a public park is a little misleading. It would be more accurate to say that the city council has decided to make the space available for one month instead of living up to its long-term promise of providing housing for those excluded from the debt-driven private property market.

Recalling this recent history is not just important because we don’t want the experiences of the people who lived there, and continue to live there, to be forgotten, but also because the logic which underpinned the failed regeneration on Dominick Street continues to apply: private-led, profit-driven development is still seen as the only game in town.

NAMA, for example, the single most significant government intervention in the real estate sector, is wholly focused on harvesting the monetary value of real estate, even if this means sitting on vacant properties for the next decade.

Why a temporary space?

Granby Park will last for only one month. The ‘pop-up’ phenomenon has become popular in Dublin – and many other cities around the world – over the last few years. The attraction of a temporary space or project is obvious. It’s not as burdensome as an ongoing commitment and it can be more exciting and inspiring.

Granby Park is a good example: there is enthusiasm for a project which can suddenly transform a vacant space into a functioning park. While all of this activity and buzz can be a good thing, it is also important to recognise that some things need more than temporary access to space.

The park’s plants and flowers that will brighten up an otherwise grey, concrete site. This is part of the organisers’ mission to turn the site into a place of ‘nature, imagination, play and beauty for everyone’. The problem is that nature doesn’t speed up to suit the quick turn-over of a month long project. The plants, flowers and vegetables were all grown somewhere else, and will all have to be removed in September. They will have to be in pots rather than in the ground.

This isn’t the fault of the organisers – the City Council would never have let them break up the concrete to grow directly in the soil – but it should make us ask what it would actually mean to have nature in the city: what length of time would be required for a garden to be established and vegetables to be grown for people to eat?

Community involvement

Connected to this question is another aspect of the project which the organisers have highlighted as important: community involvement. No doubt those volunteering in the park will form their own community, and this is an important contribution. But what about the relationship with the local community, the long-term residents of the north-inner city?

From what we can gather so far, the local community is enjoying the park – and this is great in a city which is often divided along class lines. But what will happen when Granby Park goes? It takes time to get to know people, to develop relations of trust, to identify common problems and solutions – community takes time.

The Granby Park project is a great start, but the limitations of temporary spaces in terms of building diverse urban communities also have to be recognised, especially if we want to overcome those limits.

Who benefits in the long-term?

Temporary spaces and ‘pop up’ solutions have found favour with city planners across Europe: they allow developers and city councils to harness urban creativity in order to drive up real estate prices without ceding control of a given site. Those who produce the space through hard work, collaboration and passion move on, making way for property development and speculation.

The international research is clear on this point and it has been documented in places from Lower-East Side Manhattan to Berlin’s Kreuzberg. Worst of all, increased property prices make it even more difficult for creativity to flourish and end up driving out long-term working class communities, migrants and young people.

Whenever we try to make change happen, the kinds of complexities and contradictions we have discussed here arise. There is no pure path to change and we have to get our hands dirty in the messy business of transforming our city for the better. This begins by recognising the effort that has made the Granby Park project possible. But in doing this, it is vital that we not only critically reflect on, but actively work towards finding ways to respond to the kinds of challenges and concerns which we confront.

Chronic and complex urban problems

To sleepwalk into a general enthusiasm for ‘pop-up solutions’ to chronic and complex urban problems is to fall victim to a form of group-think not unlike that which has led us to the situation we find ourselves in today.

Let’s hope future changes in Dublin city start to look more like the Granby Park project, but let’s also hope they are accompanied by a more critical, a more radical and a more ambitious project of urban change that will allow us to take control of the city we love.

To read a longer version of this article, click here.

Mick Byrne and Patrick Bresnihan participate in the provisional university, a Dublin-based independent research and education project, empowering the production of knowledge within and for social movements.

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About the author:

Mick Byrne and Patrick Bresnihan

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