'We have to let people know what they're missing': The man tasked with getting Dubliners back to their city

Dublin city has been shaken by the pandemic but the man in charge of its recovery is hopeful for its future, writes Sean Murray.

CÓILÍN O’REILLY IS the man heading Dublin City Council’s efforts to make the people of Dublin “fall back in love with their city again”. 

The senior DCC official was recently appointed the director of the city’s recovery as it deals with the fallout caused by the pandemic, and he’s using what’s been learned over the last 14 months as a guide for how Dublin can function after Covid. 

Speaking to The Journal, O’Reilly said there was “nothing we could’ve done to pandemic-proof a city” but that a greater appreciation for Dublin’s outdoor spaces is likely to be one of the permanent changes to the city. 

“A lot of the street furniture licences [for outdoor dining] we’ve issued are to those who never applied for them before,” he said. “They never thought of the public space in that way.”

“I think we probably made assumptions around how the city operated and how the economy operated. We probably as a nation didn’t look to our outdoor spaces for business and recreation. We probably have learned to appreciate our public realm and outdoors. I hope we can maintain that when things ease back.”

Like cities, towns and villages around Ireland – and around the world – Covid-19 has changed so much.

In Dublin city these days, the streets are a lot emptier. Traffic isn’t what it was like back in early 2020. Non-essential retail outlets have been shut for months, as have pubs and restaurants. In the case of the “wet” pubs, they’ve been closed for well over a year now.

It’s a different city now to what it was before. But it can recover, according to O’Reilly, the buzz and vibrancy it had before the pandemic. The appreciation and use of outdoor spaces may be a welcome side effect but the goal is to make Dublin a place people want to visit in their droves again. 

He told The Journal: “A lot of what we’re looking at now is about public realm improvements. Different cities have different issues across Europe. 

A million people live in Dublin city. You can’t replicate the authentic experience of this city. What we have to do now is let them know what they’re missing. Make them feel wanted and welcome in the city again. 

O’Reilly, who was previously director of services for the north city, said that his brief is to look exactly how the city would look post-pandemic – in the short, medium and long term – and how it can become an attractive place to visit all-year-round.

In the short term, that’s about making the city more attractive to visit when society (hopefully) begins to re-open this summer.

At the moment, while he says the city “hasn’t changed much” in appearance in the last year, there are perceptible differences. 

Outdoor Seating Outdoor seating provided by the council in Smithfield Dublin City Council Dublin City Council

“I think it’s more of a feeling,” O’Reilly said. “There’s less people in here. Non-essential retail is closed, hospitality is closed. That’s what the city centre is all about. Now, it feels like a little bit of the life has been taken out of the city.”

A Dub himself, O’Reilly is keen to get that “feeling” of authenticity back to city so that when you visit again it has those same elements it had before the pandemic.

And there are actions in the works attempting to bring that life back. 

One area where there has been a big demand for the council to take action was the area of public toilets.

As well as issuing a tender asking for private premises to supply access to bathrooms, the council will be opening up a number of its buildings around the city for access to toilets in the coming weeks.

“We’re working on that around toilets,” O’Reilly said. “We’re also working a lot around the street furniture applications. That’s one area that has changed a lot. There have been 80 new street furniture licences issued since before the pandemic.”

Another aspect announced yesterday by O’Reilly was the addition of 70 barrel bins at different points around the city, saying it was everyone’s duty to keep Dublin “beautiful this summer”. 

The constant refrain is that we’re heading for an “outdoor summer”, and the council official said that hospitality businesses were “moving outside” in large numbers if – as expected – outdoor dining is permitted before indoor dining in the coming weeks and months. 

The pedestrianisation of a number of streets will go some way to making the city more inviting for many people. It includes streets in and around Grafton Street, South Anne Street, Drury Street and Dame Court. 

Councillors also recently agreed to pedestrianise roads such as Merrion Row, Mary Street and part of Capel Street on a trial basis this summer. More streets will be considered for an extension of pedestrianised space, such as Parliament Street, Wicklow Street, Jervis Street and Dawson Street. 

Other cities around the country are facing similar challenges and have been drafting their own solutions to try to entice people back. Cork city has begun work to permanently pedestrianise 17 streets after successfully rolling out outdoor dining on a large scale last year

The city council in Galway is examining a number of areas for outdoor dining space. In Limerick, the council will waive fees for licences for outdoor dining and hold a number of street events this summer. 

A temporary road closure is planned again this year in Waterford city in the area of O’Connell Street. A spokesperson added that “casual trading by-laws have been put in place to facilitate a weekend crafts market in the Cultural Quarter and consultation with businesses and residents will be planned to ensure a well functioning market to attract locals and visitors to this part of the city”.

Pent-up demand

According to O’Reilly, it’s about taking these areas with potential to draw people into the city again and giving them the space they need to flourish. Facilities like toilets and greater pedestrianisation across a number of key streets are among those avenues being pursued.

With overseas tourism unlikely in the short and medium term, at least, O’Reilly said the coming months will be about enticing people who live in and around Dublin to enjoy the city as much as possible.

Anne St seating 3 Outdoor seating on South Anne Street Dublin City Council Dublin City Council

“We’ve been working on a city centre marketing plan,” he said. “Putting on events – subject to public health advice. Looking at streets in the city at how we can improve their use and make them more friendly for people to use, and for businesses to use. 

We obviously talk a lot about pent-up demand. It’s about making people fall back in love with the city again. 

Another important issue to be addressed in a post-Covid Dublin is that of office workers.

Before Covid, tens of thousands commuted into the city every day with these workers supporting local businesses through their morning coffee, their sandwich for lunch and their pint after work.

O’Reilly is of the belief that even in a future with remote working a possibility for many, the office will still have a place and these workers will still be coming into their cities.

“When you listen to people, they say things like a 3-2 mix for days in the office and then at home,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it’ll evolve.

People will come back here to work. I can’t see them not. We’re human beings, we need that interaction. Zoom is great and has been a life saver. But it’s not an authentic experience. It doesn’t replace that idea generation and social aspect you have in person.

When it’s possible again and businesses are largely back open, O’Reilly believes that people will make use of their cities. In the medium-to-long term, that will mean continued improvements to make the city as attractive as possible to visit. 

“We do have a population that lives close to their city,” he said. “That has helped. During periods where we were open again, we got to 75% of footfall without tourists quickly. We can sustain ourselves but it’s about presenting that public realm and creating ideas to support it. 

From a lobbying point of view, we liaise with good business groups. A lot of what people are saying is common sense. We’re all on the same page. There’s not huge arguments or rows. Everyone gets it. We have to make it work now.
This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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