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Dublin: 8 °C Monday 18 November, 2019
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'There's loads of space for people': Can Dublin break down the barriers to pedestrianisation?

Dublin City Council is trialling three traffic-free days at College Green this summer.

Cones block vehicles from College Green at a traffic-free event last Sunday
Cones block vehicles from College Green at a traffic-free event last Sunday
Image: Stephen McDermott/TheJournal.ie

IT WASN’T EVEN midday, but the situation at College Green was already turning into a public relations headache for Dublin City Council.

Crowd control measures at an event designed to showcase the council’s most ambitious plan in years were threatening to undermine the entire project.

“Not what I had in mind,” Green Party councillor Neasa Hourigan said in a viral tweet showing security guards in orange hi-vis vests and hundreds of metal barriers ring-fencing areas on College Green and Dame Street.

“Like any functioning public plaza around the world this one comes with a long list of ‘ground rules’,” Janet Horner of the Dublin Cycling Campaign said ironically in another post with an image of orders usually reserved for those attending football matches.

By mid-afternoon, some barriers had been removed and bigger crowds began to flock to College Green, but it remained an underwhelming use of a public space which the council hopes will one day become a pedestrianised plaza.

This Sunday will see the second of three 12-hour traffic-free trials in the area, where the public is given an opportunity to sit and avail of free entertainment on what is otherwise one of Dublin city centre’s busiest thoroughfares.

But the handling of last week’s trial, when only 8,000 people attended and local businesses reported reduced footfall, has increased the scrutiny on this week’s event.

It begs the question: are Dubliners even ready to embrace a pedestrianised College Green? 

‘The car is king’

Plans for a pedestrian plaza at College Green were first proposed by Dublin City Council in its latest development plan, published in 2016.

The idea followed the publication of the council’s Public Realm Strategy in 2012, which recognised the area as “potentially the most important civic space” in Dublin.

Among the council’s ideas was to create a so-called ‘Civic Spine’ from Parnell Square to Christchurch, travelling along O’Connell Street, College Green and Dame Street.

Under the plan for College Green, all traffic – including public transport – would be banned from entering the area, much of it displaced onto the quays.

But after months of delayed announcements as An Bord Pleanála considered and reconsidered the council’s plans the proposal was eventually rejected last year over traffic concerns, as well as the negative impact it would have on hotel and car park owners.

“It’s important to stress that a lot of opposition isn’t coming from business-owners: it’s more car-park owners who are worried about what’ll happen to their business,” Hourigan tells TheJournal.ie.

“We have a very car-centric mindset.”

20190721_134214 Barriers along Dame Street at last Sunday's traffic-free event Source: Stephen McDermott/TheJournal.ie

But the council hasn’t abandoned plans for a permanent plaza yet, and aims to lodge a fresh application with the planning authority this year.

In the meantime, three summer events were planned to showcase the possibility of having such an area in Dublin city centre.

The plans would follow trends in other European cities, with low emissions zones now widespread in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Italy.

In 2018, Madrid banned cars from its city entirely, with a recent proposal to reintroduce access to cars met with protests and demonstrations.

Green Party MEP Ciarán Cuffe believes that An Bord Pleanála need to consider the wider impacts of the move, suggesting that approval for the plaza would resolve some planning, mobility and sustainability issues affecting the city.

“Internationally there is now an understanding that if the public realm is improved people shift from car to walking and cycling for shorter journeys in a process known as ‘traffic evaporation’,” he told TheJournal.ie last year.

“The view that the car is king has got to change.”

South William Street protest

While businesses, taxi driver unions and public transport companies disagree, proponents of the plan point to Henry Street and Grafton Street as examples of where pedestrianisation has been managed successfully in the city.

A second traffic-free event in Dublin last weekend also gave cause for optimism among those who wish to see more spaces for pedestrians in the city.

On Saturday, members of the Dublin Cycling Campaign, the Dublin Commuter Coalition, the Irish Pedestrian Network and Extinction Rebellion blocked nearby South William Street from traffic for a number of hours.

The protest took place to fight against what the groups said was the dominance of motor vehicles in the city, amid concerns about the health impact of air pollution in Dublin, and brought a sense of calm to a street normally crammed with vehicles. 

“Within half an hour or an hour, we knew we were on to something,” Janet Horner of the Dublin Cycling Campaign told TheJournal.ie.

“People were actually thanking us. It was amazing to see what could actually happen in the space. Of course we were getting negativity, but not on the scale we thought we were going to.

“Businesses have asked us to be part of something if we’re planning another event, and we’re thinking strategically about how to move the idea forward.”

‘Free ice creams’ 

As well as creating a healthier environment in the city centre, the groups behind the South William Street demonstration also sought to create a space for pedestrians.

They envisaged greater room for wheelchair-users and parents pushing buggies, changing the emphasis from overcrowded footpaths to spacious areas that are simply more enjoyable for people to use.

It’s an idea that seemed to be lost among organisers of last week’s event at College Green.

“I think the council got it a bit wrong with the barriers at the weekend,” Hourigan – who also founded the Irish Pedestrian Network and helped organise the South William protest – told TheJournal.ie.

“It created a situation where people were segregated, and actually had to go a longer way around than they normally would have in the space before the Bank of Ireland building.”

She also suggested the council should simply have allowed people to see the space and enjoy it for themselves, rather than hosting events on the traffic-free days.

It was a view echoed by independent councillor Mannix Flynn, who suggested last year that such events would not show what a pedestrianised College Green would look like.

“Just present it as a plaza and see how it works out rather than having something like free ice creams,” he said at the time.

“Because you’re going to get a crowd for free ice creams, there’s no question about that.

“But if you have a plaza event, it could be very interesting just to say that this is a space for people and [that] this is what it may or may not look like.”

Success of trials

This week, Dublin City Council confirmed that the amount of space accessible to the general public on College Green would be almost double that during last week’s event. 

The council also said that it will provide additional seating and more spaces to allow the public to “come in and linger in the area”, which may provide a more accurate depiction of what the area might look like.

But although Hourigan welcomes the idea, she acknowledges that the concept of creating a plaza isn’t just about removing traffic from College Green.

“I think pedestrianisation there a bit more complex because it’s not just closing off a street; it’s creating an entire plaza,” she said.

“We’re so far away from things like congestion charges and car bans and other measures, but we still believe that there’s loads of space in the city for people.”

For its part, Dublin City Council believes the success of the traffic-free trials will be based on the experience of those who use of the plaza, rather than on the impact on traffic.

“The prime purpose of these events is to make the space available for the public, [and] the council will be assessing over the three weekends what lessons can be learned and what worked or didn’t work,” a spokesman told TheJournal.ie.

Tomorrow’s event will go a long way to showing whether lessons have been learned, and time will tell whether the council can organise itself sufficiently to remove the barriers to its grand plan for College Green.

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