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Ciarán Cuffe: Dublin City Council needs a new 'public realm czar' to oversee public spaces

The MEP says it’s now clear that local councils in Ireland have have weak powers compared to the rest of Europe.

Ciarán Cuffe MEP

Updated Jun 3rd 2021, 12:00 PM

IT IS JUST over a month since Taoiseach Micheál Martin said, ‘Outdoors will be the theme for the Summer’. After a long winter of being told ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ young people naturally headed out to meet their friends in Dublin city centre and alongside the canals.

Sadly, their good intentions to stay outdoors have been thwarted by the temporary closing of Portobello Plaza, and suggestions by An Garda Siochána that streets could be closed off to prevent people from gathering.

In recent days a Dublin City Council spokesperson asked, “If we supply more toilets and bins, does that bring more people in?” It is time for a change of tack and joined-up thinking. We rightly focus on reopening the economy, but we cannot forget the impact on peoples’ mental health, of being out of work and little to no social contact.

As warm weather arrives, our young people deserve a break, and the opportunity to socialise safely in fresh air out-of-doors.

While some homeowners can head out to their back garden, for many, homeownership is out of reach, and public spaces are the only option. Many young people rent apartments with no balcony or limited outdoor space, the legacy of light-touch regulation.

For them, the great outdoors may mean taking to the streets, or limited open spaces in the city centre. Often cars take up much of these areas leaving narrow footpaths for those seeking to socialise.

Rather than fence off such spaces, we need to provide more of them and improve their maintenance.

A lack of public toilets affects all, but particularly women. Of course, residents need protection from people sitting on and then urinating on their doorsteps, but more public space and better facilities is the answer rather than a shutdown.

Look to Brussels

In Dublin, public seating and toilets are noticeable by their absence. On O’Connell Street, there are just three benches along its entire length, apart from the stone bases of statues. There’s no seating on Henry Street or Grafton Street. The city centre has two temporary public toilets. All Dubliners, young and old, deserve better.

By way of contrast, the city of Brussels has provided more public seating, public spaces, and drinking fountains in recent years. 29 urinals and 14 toilets are currently available, with another eight in the pipeline. They have also rolled out temporary toilets in black spots.

The local authority is investing in greening public space, which helps biodiversity and reduces air pollution. Public space management is also crucial. Last Sunday in Brussels, I saw a council worker with a bin trolley pick up every last piece of litter from a crowded square. In addition, uniformed ‘Gardiens de la paix’ or peace guardians patrol public squares and provide low-level public order security and advice. Snazzy all-electric ‘Glutton’ street cleaning machines tackle gutters and feature a vacuum hose that operatives use to clean the spaces between and under parked cars.

Belgium is by no means perfect, but there are lessons to be learned. Our own council staff do great work in Dublin, but they need additional resources and vision from management to manage the outdoors on sunny days. In the Phoenix Park, there appears to be a more coordinated approach by the Office of Public Works in placing out and emptying more bins when warm weather is forecast.

Restructure councils

Our public spaces don’t manage themselves. If ever there was an argument for Dublin City Council appointing a public realm czar to oversee our public spaces, then the threatened sealing-off of parts of our city from the public should be the rallying cry.

Such a figure could also plan and manage city centre improvements, including more car-free streets, greenery, and seating where one can sit down for free without having to purchase a drink. Well-managed public spaces are a public good and should be treated as such. We suffer at times from viewing these areas only through the lens of profitability or as conduits for cars.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently across Europe about the fifteen-minute city. In simple terms, it means creating a liveable city that is well-managed, with services available within a short walk. This includes the places where you live and work, but also the public spaces and green areas where you can relax.

This won’t happen spontaneously: it needs to be planned and managed. We can adopt these ideas in Dublin, but we must be honest with ourselves. We cannot shy away from re-allocating road space from cars to cyclists and pedestrians.

As we learnt from the stalled plans for Sandymount some decision-makers are publicly enthusiastic about reclaiming space for people in public but vote differently.

In addition, plans for lower speed limits in some areas of the city have been thwarted by conservative voices, even though lower, safer speed limits save lives and reduce noise and air pollution, as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

Time for common sense

Managing and improving the public realm isn’t rocket science. It requires a hands-on approach and an enthusiasm for making our cities better places to live and relax in.

My idea of a czar would be someone who tackles issues often before they’re readily apparent. One day they’re ensuring over-hanging branches don’t cause a hazard to the visually impaired; on another, they’re rolling out more bins.

Local councils have weak powers compared to their counterparts in mainland Europe. For far too long, they have been under-resourced and limited in powers. That is both the fault of successive Governments and councillors who lack the courage to raise Local Property Taxes.

Certainly, it should not be left to Cabinet Ministers to call out local government when things go awry. Instead, we should properly empower and fund our councils.

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Better still, we should have a directly elected mayor in all Irish cities. If a mayor with strong powers can’t manage the city properly, then at least we can kick them out at the next election and start again. It is time the buck stopped with someone.

Ciarán Cuffe is Dublin’s Green Party Member of the European Parliament.

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Ciarán Cuffe  / MEP

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