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Dublin: 4°C Sunday 5 December 2021

Column: We make plans for our cities, but do we ever follow them?

Dublin authorities have released an ambitious plan to rejuvenate the city centre. But we’ve been here before, writes James Nix.

Image: Daniel Flower via Flickr

Earlier this month, Dublin City Council released a draft plan for the future of the city, called Your City Your Space. It called for a radical change to city planning, with pedestrians and public transport taking priority over cars.

As the deadline for submissions closes secretary of An Taisce James Nix, writing here in a personal capacity, argues that grand plans are all very well – but we’ve been here before.

DUBLIN CITY COUNCIL’S Draft Public Realm Strategy is full of winning photographs, maps and flow charts all nicely laid out. The trouble is that we’ve been here before. In fact, we’ve been here many times before, and it would make far more sense for Dublin City Council to implement the plans it has published in recent years, rather than printing more and more plans. The public is entitled to ask: without follow-through on previously published plans, what’s the point in engaging with the latest initiative?

Examples of plans in limbo, or half-implemented are legion. On the northern side of Parnell Square, a link between the Garden of Remembrance and the Hugh Lane Gallery was planned. The new access to the northern side of the Garden of Remembrance was built, but then the raised ramp across to the Hugh Lane Gallery never was – and why the flush pedestrian link never materialised we don’t know.

Of course, the plan was not simply to create greater interplay between the gallery and the garden; it would also slow traffic that otherwise careers up Parnell Square West and whips east across the top of the square. For some motorists it’s a little racetrack there. It makes for lousy public realm and the consequences on surrounding streets are clear. North Frederick Street has two or three derelict buildings along its western side, and almost half of Parnell Square North is empty. An environment less oppressive for pedestrians would help combat vacancy and dereliction – all of which goes back to following through on plans already published.

‘No visible delivery – to date at least’

Opening up the haven that is Dublin Castle was the subject of another plan. The vision is – or at least was – to create a new entrance to the castle off George’s Street, and this would enable a whole new axis stretching from Grafton St along Exchequer Street and into the grounds of the Castle. Excellent idea. No visible delivery – to date at least. And no mention of it in the Draft Strategy, not even a footnote to say further investigation showed it tricky to implement. Hanging in planning limbo, we don’t know its current status. A more professional approach is needed to inform the public of the status of existing plans. Is the plan for Dublin Castle scrapped? If it is still in play, is it to be implemented before or after the designs and new charts set out in latest Draft?

Then there is, (or was), the plan for a Sutton to Sandycove cycleway (S2S). Now, don’t get me wrong. Some sections of this can never be realised. At Booterstown, for example, the engineering cost is too high and the adverse consequences on the marsh too severe for a new path by the sea: there were always going to have to be some diversions back to existing roads. But the key point is the vision backed up by step-by-step delivery so that, over time, Dublin City Council would work to create recreational routes by the sea.

The walk along the South Bull Wall is an old favourite for long-term residents and visitors alike. But try getting there by bike. To avoid the smell of sewage undergoing treatment, the best route is via Sandymount, but here the gravel path has severe gradients and briars spitting out from the hedgerows. Then, on arrival at the beginning of the Bull Wall, there’s no cycle parking, unless you count one signpole which is usually occupied by other bikes, and some uprights of nearby chicken-wire fencing – which are a right challenge to civilise with a bike lock. There are oodles of other plans on which there appears to be little or no follow through, and a further article below offers further examples.

‘It’s not helped by street clutter’

Walking in Dublin “the general level of comfort in the streets is pretty low” commented international urban design expert Patrick Malone after a visit in the mid noughties. It is not helped by street clutter – the proliferation of poles, poorly-tailored signs and fixtures blighting almost every footpath. College Green is perhaps the worse example but very few streets escape the problem.

Just like the Draft Public Realm Strategy, Dublin City Council’s Development Plan, 2011 to 2017, is rich with vision and objectives seeking to provide first-rate public space – all worlds apart from the reality on the ground. A 2011 survey by An Taisce found 100 disused or unused poles in the city centre alone. An Taisce forwarded the study to the city council and some poles were removed, but there’s a disheartening aspect too: in some situations the city council ‘found’ items to erect just to ‘make use’ of the poles. With his camera Kevin Duff of An Taisce documented the flurry of activity in what can only be described as a bizarre and sad episode.

Up to two-thirds of the number of poles currently on footpaths could be removed by removing unnecessary and redundant items, and by co-locating a number of signs on one pole, according to Kevin Duff. He welcomes Dublin City Council’s new wayfinding signage, saying it shows what can be achieved by co-hosting signs, and adds that Dublin’s cluttered streets will do nothing for a bid by the city for UNESCO world heritage status.

‘Irish granite was thrown away in favour of cheap imported stone’

Also militating against that bid is what Duff describes as “the butchery of historic stone paving sets”, such as those ripped out in 2009 for the introduction of the College Green bus gate. Instead of being reused, Irish granite from the 1700s and 1800s was thrown away in favour of cheap white imported stone. “The casual approach to the repair and replacement of the city’s paths and kerbs will cost Dublin in terms of [historic] UNESCO status and lost visitor revenue”, according to Duff, who points to properly-managed systems in place across other European cities.

Both Duff and his An Taisce colleague, heritage officer, Ian Lumley say that its vital Dublin has conservation advice in undertaking repair, alteration and reinstatement work – whether it is by its own traffic and water departments, or by utility companies acting on its behalf, or with its consent. “The evidence to date is that, apart from a small number of select projects, work on the city’s historic public realm is driven and dominated by an engineering approach that sorely lacks conservation input”, according to Lumley.

Lumley points to what he describes as the “clarity and simplicity” of new public realm works in cities such Avignon, Bordeaux, Copenhagen, Lyon, and Nantes and the newly-enhanced Trafalgar Square in London. For Dublin, which trades so heavily on its historic credentials, the current way streets are treated, and streetworks are undertaken, is unacceptable, he says.

Undoubtedly, an ongoing problem in Dublin is the lack of a directly elected mayor who is directly accountable when plans and policies are followed through – or not followed through – as the case may be.

And this undercurrent runs through the latest publication. City Council officials are to be commended for dedicating the time to focus on the importance of enhancing the public realm. But follow-through on existing plans and policies is what’s needed first and foremost; glossy new publications can wait.

James Nix is Secretary of An Taisce. This article is written in a personal capacity.

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James Nix

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