A Question of Space


With questions on what constructs the public space becoming increasingly prevalent, Sean Finnan looks at the views from city planners to citizens on the people, organizations and groups that constitute it


To take a walk through Dublin City is to experience many different facets of life in a single stride. Whether it’s on Moore Street, Grafton Street, strolling along the quays or staggering through Temple Bar, we experience the city through the buildings that surround us. Streets, along with many other public squares, public buildings, shops, pubs are all considered public space. It is here that the city breathes; the social hub where people interact in an uncountable number of processes.

Deputy City Architect with Dublin City Council Owen O’Doherty explains that “Public space is important for a whole load of reasons. That’s how you experience the city. Apart from the buildings that they, city dwellers, have reasons to go to, most of what you know of a city is by walking the streets or driving around. That’s how you experience the city. Public space is a pretty important democratic issue: it’s how you participate in society. Everybody has a right to be visible and to participate in public space. There aren’t many shared social spaces in society. Public space is one of them.”

“Dublin has a really important historic character and people have to realise that in that they have something that is of value that a lot of other cities don’t have and it’s also a finite resource. It gets eroded and will disappear if you don’t look after it and it’s a fundamental part of what visitors come to experience. The literature, the music, it’s set in the spaces of the city and that’s fundamentally important.”

Who is in charge of Dublin’s public space is important. Often we think of streets as open to the public and therefore free for the public to use them for their own individual use. Yet, often this is not the case. The obscurity surrounding the rights of the individual in public space is still an issue. Even the fact that certain streets cannot be photographed creates confusion. Take for example, busking, or the recent occupation of the area outside the Central Bank by the political group Occupy Dame Street, using city streets as a protest. Dublin City Council hit buskers in Dublin with new rules two months ago. The movement of the Occupy Dame St. camp just before the St. Patrick’s Day festivals suggests that the use of public space is always limited by the wishes of larger public bodies. How these spaces are managed and the decisions that influence their uses are completely alien to most of us. For public spaces to work for citizens, citizens need to be aware of how they work.

City Planner with Dublin City Council, Dick Gleeson, explains more about the philosophies behind city management: “Cities are very complex… I think the approach now is just to acknowledge complexity. It’s a very rich source and you do need to try and manage it, so you do need a system type approach. As part of a very strong Urbanism philosophy, you would have six urban themes which would place the emphasis on economic, social, cultural and so on. From that then you would have the range of local areas of the city, let’s say character areas, so they represent diversity. You try and generate the unity from the interconnectedness of the public space. For example the public realm becomes essentially important.”

“Urbanism as a philosophy is a very good starting point. Everybody comes from different disciplines, whether you’re an economist or a geographer or whatever, but you kind of cross a threshold. Acknowledging Urbanism, allows you to have your contribution but you have to relate it to everything else. If you just have huge big boxes for workplaces in the cities, that’s not good enough, so when trying to understand what makes a good place, you have to consider all these elements. It’s the physical environment where all these things come together, so there should be a sort of legibility as you walk through the city of economy, of the richness of culture, of the possibilities of public life all coming together.”

The key then to a successful public sphere is one in which no one sector of society holds a monopoly on how a certain space is managed. When you mix the use of the space and an understanding between various parties on putting the area first, you realize the potential of a successful public space. Where dependence on one function in the public sphere exists, any slump in this function results in decline. This is easily seen when you look to the Dublin Docklands before they began being redeveloped by the Docklands Authority over the last 15 years. The Docklands now has a theatre, numerous shops, cafés, restaurants, a concert venue, and numerous business centres, as well as a significant improvement in the general aesthetics of the area, with many of the buildings designed by world-class architects. It may not have so far lived up to its potential but this interdependence has seen an area sidelined by dereliction become a new face of modern Dublin.

A problem, however, still remains on the communication processes between city planners and the city’s citizens. As more and more people continue to live in cities and as a result, in smaller living areas, the city is looked upon as a sort of communal living room. Therefore the direction the city takes is a matter of opinion for most of the city residents.

Gleeson is certain that there are many and varying problems in terms of communicating with Dublin residents on what’s best for their city. “It’s a huge challenge. Everybody knows that there can be global consultation or something a lot richer. I think Dublin City Council has realised they can’t do it all by themselves. And there is a wish to collaborate, to try and find the best way to collaborate is quite exacting… But we would have been aware of good examples in San Francisco and city club of Portland. Which had actually quite large memberships and they have a fantastic passionate interest in their cities and they try and work with their cities. So we’re trying to do that. At the higher level we have something called the creative Dublin alliance, which brings together partnerships at a strategic level. Under that there are various projects, one of which is ‘Fifth Province’, which is an exploration through sustainable topics of how we can get together with the citizens to co-produce the cities of the future but I mean that’s a long way down the road.”

The experience of the citizens on the ground who work to engage with their city is a more frustrating story. One such example is Mick O’Broin from the Unlock NAMA campaign. NAMA buildings could be viewed as a type of grey area in the public/private space debate. NAMA’s status as a public body is somewhat ambiguous as the state has a 49% share in it, along with the fact that much of what makes up the rest of the share are nationalized banks. This means the ownership of the buildings comes into some dispute.

“I’m a freelance researcher and translator and there’s a lot of people in my position that are either underemployed or unemployed. None of us have offices. In the city there is a 23% over supply of offices. Oversupply is being managed by NAMA. There’s clear market irrationality because you are not using resources that could be clearly used to benefit people on a variety of levels. Some of the things we were looking at were bicycle workshops, men sheds, and a publishing collective. So all sorts of different things would be involved in that are currently made impossible or extremely difficult because of exceptionally high rents in the city.”

O’Bróin continued: “It’s very difficult [to access NAMA buildings] as NAMA or Dublin City Council don’t have any mechanism for citizens to engage with it, which is basically the key problem. On the other hand it’s very difficult to get people interested in types of action that cause civil disobedience or direct action, to get the kind of numbers you would need to occupy a building and maintain it. We’re pretty much forced to use direct action as there is no other mechanism, when we do that we have found it difficult to get people involved.”

Dick Gleeson agrees on the subject of NAMA building use. “There is a good point to the NAMA ownership aspect but my feeling at the moment is that they have a very strong accountancy type of thinking. Their objective is to give as much money back to the state as possible. That almost flies in the face of Urbanism because as a large landowner, there could be a range of possibilities of creating planning gain where they have a cluster of buildings in a local area of being able to create aspects of connecting public space and being able to contribute a percentage to cultural uses and so on. It would require a very visionary type of philosophy of NAMA but they haven’t got into that type of thinking yet.”

Interviewing O’Bróin in a run down city centre building, he explains how the use of the building is acquired for as little as €20 per person per month. It is now used as an art studio and an office, a clear example of how previously derelict space can have a positive use.

“Citizen-managed spaces have produced great things in countries in terms of art and music scenes and places for political discussion, and activity for people, particularly young people,” says O’Bróin. “And also as a combination for young people who do not have any other option in terms of getting access to housing. We definitely see that as a really important way forward and to do that you need a certain amount of political strength. That’s difficult in Ireland at the moment, as people don’t seem to want to get involved in politics… So it’s not really a technical question it’s a political question, that the priority of the government and NAMA, obviously relates to the financial sector. In fact, they don’t really see this city. They don’t see it as a city where people live.”