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Column: As a country that thrives on its reputation for craic, we must ensure our cities are a place of enjoyment

‘A good city is like a good party – people stay much longer than really necessary because they are enjoying themselves.’

Seán O'Leary

RECENTLY AN INFLUENTIAL Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl delivered an interesting lecture on how to make Irish cities more attractive places to live, walk and cycle.

Speaking on the topic of liveable cities, he provided much food for thought on how Irish cities can continue to become “Copenhagenised”.

Gehl has long advocated a people orientated approach to planning and building cities and has been a huge influence on changes to street design in a string of major cities around the world, encouraging more cycling and walking alongside restrictions on the movements of cars.

Reflecting his influence, Gehl was presented with Honorary Membership of the Irish Planning Institute in recognition of his contribution to promoting sustainable urban design.

Liveable cities

Liveability has become a criterion on which cities around the world compete for investment, talent and tourism.

Gehl’s insights were particularly pertinent given the results of the Economist’s recent “Liveable City” index which ranked Dublin at 46th must be considered with a health warning – some factors (for example the availability of over the counter medication and humidity in the case of the Economist’s criteria) are outside the sphere of influence of any planner or urban designer, though others (such as safety and the quality of housing and transport) are not.

Today’s league tables are not the key driver however; future growth must consider the challenges of climate change and cities must be designed to be resilient.

There are a variety of indicators out there but fundamentally for Gehl a liveable city is a city for people; one that is lively, safe, sustainable and healthy.

Gehl has called for a “dignified” pedestrian experience where the city invites people to walk, stand, sit, listen and talk and he describes crossing the street as “a human right” not something you should have to “apply for” by pushing a button.

shutterstock_146800613 Source: Cork via Shutterstock

As William Brady from University College Cork’s Centre for Planning Education and Research notes “the poor design of pedestrian routes and the distances people have to travel to get to basic amenities” has a part to play in growing health problems and must be addressed urgently.

Car dependency 

Clearly the city does not stop at the centre and there may be lessons for Irish cities in Australia where car dependent, sprawling doughnut cities are being addressed by corridors where the suburbs increase from low to medium density, connected by more viable rail, tram and rapid bus routes. Higher densities lead to the efficient use of land and resources but Gehl confirms that higher density does not have to mean high rise or low quality, saying “towers are the lazy architect’s answer to density”.

There are examples of ideas such as Gehl’s in practice here.

Shutterstock-158798258 Limerick Source: Shutterstock

He believes a key consideration in urban design is what the pedestrian sees and how they use space. He argues that in the city eye-level is the most important.

This requires creating interesting streets with good ground-floor architecture and he has praised the rich detailing of Dublin’s facades and traditional shopfronts, especially the brightly coloured doors familiar from posters, postcards and tourist brochures, which enhance the pedestrian experience at eye- level.

The creation of a new living and working community in the Dublin Docklands represents a considerable achievement comparable to other major waterfront regeneration projects in Europe.

Grand Canal

The award winning Grand Canal Square designed by Martha Schwartz is the location for the Libeskind designed Grand Canal Theatre and supporting businesses. This emphasis on quality placemaking has been widely recognised and the docklands are now the site of discerning multinationals like Google and Facebook.

Dublin Weather Scenes Grand Canal area Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Dublinbikes is a Dublin City Council planning department project and has seen the implementation of one of the world’s most successful city bike share schemes with planning ideally placed to lead a multidisciplinary team changing infrastructure, sustainable transportation and the public realm in the city.

Dublin City Rental Bicycles Dublin Bikes Source: Sam Boal

The Government’s award winning Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets (DMURS) adopted in 2013, sets out a new approach to streets seeing them as multifunctional spaces in which people want to live and spend time rather than just corridors for traffic.

Unlike many other well-intentioned guidance documents, which end up gathering dust on shelves, the use of DMURS is mandatory on all new or upgraded urban roads and streets and will in time lead to a more attractive environment for all.

For Gehl “a good city is like a good party – people stay much longer than really necessary because they are enjoying themselves”. As a country that thrives on its reputation for craic, we must continue to build on our own experiences and apply best practice from elsewhere to ensure our cities are a place of enjoyment for everyone.

Seán O’Leary is executive director of the Irish Planning Institute, which you can follow on Facebook or Twitter, and he is author of “Sense of Place: A History of Irish Planning” published next month by The History Press.

What suggestions would you have to make our cities better? Tell us in the comments section below.

Read: Drumroll, please… The top ten “most liveable cities” in the world have been named>

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Seán O'Leary

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