GraftonStreet1956I have commented on Grafton Street before (here and here), while also discussing Schemes of Special Planning Control (SSPC) and Architectural Conservation Areas (ACAs) (here). In light of the current draft for the renewal of the Grafton Street SSPC, there are, I feel, a number of elements that need to be discussed about the relationship between land-use, social space, and heritage in Grafton Street, which are, to a certain extent, reflective of wider dynamics in Dublin more generally. The revision of the Grafton Street SSPC provides the opportunity to redress the bias towards elite notions of heritage and instead celebrate the role of contemporary social life in the street.

The current draft of the Grafton Street SSPC opens with the following vision: “To reinvigorate Grafton Street as the South City’s most dynamic retail experience underpinned by a wide range of mainstream, independent and specialist retail and service outlets that attract both Dubliners and visitors to shop, sit and stroll, whilst re-establishing the area’s rich historic charm and urban character.” The language of such documents tells a very interesting story.  There is an explicit perspective within the Scheme of Special Planning Control that the area of Grafton Street has somehow lost some form of character that needs to be re-established or reinvigorated. How this is to be achieved is perceived to require a set of processes that promotes certain forms of land-use over and above others.

In drawing on an imaginary of some unspecified ideal time, the document naturalises the connection between elements such as prestigious forms of consumption and architectural conservation: “A number of uses on Grafton Street are of special significance through their long association with the street. Businesses such as Brown Thomas, Weir and Sons and Bewley’s Cafe are now an essential part of the street’s character and continue in the tradition of providing prestigious products and fine service in high quality surroundings.” When taken at face-value, such language might seem innocuous, and it is difficult to dispute the relative importance of such establishments to the commercial core of Dublin. However, when looked at in more detail, I would argue that in privileging the connection between what are deemed as prestigious land-uses with notions of ‘character’, the SSPC presents an elitist ideal of what the street should be, and, by connection, whether it is intended or not, who Grafton Street is for.

This is not a desire to argue for the retention or promotion of poor signage and shop fronts (however they may be defined), but to seek to expand the remit of what is valued beyond the supposed virtues of exclusive high-end retail and a loosely defined notion of what the street is imagined to once have been. From a broader perspective, it can be argued that in light of the evolution of Dublin over the last number of decades, Grafton Street – and Dublin city centre more generally – has to distinguish itself to compete with the out-of-town centres. Yet, there is also a need to at least try to imagine or think through what the social life of the street might actually look like if the vision of the SSPC, as it currently stands, is achieved. Would it still be a container of a rich variety of social life that it is today? Would it be the street of buskers and flower sellers? Would it still be the street on which younger age-groups gather outside McDonald’s?

The street has and will evolve in response to the dynamics of wider social and market changes. Yet, there also seems to be a need to actually think through what the social dynamics of such streets are beyond the conception of notions of urban character and heritage-value as being directly connected to upmarket land-uses alone. Celebrating those social dynamics of the present and recent past which serve to define the everyday life of Grafton Street rather than decrying some loosely defined imaginary of what has supposedly been lost would be a start to such.

Philip Lawton

If the last decade was dominated by ‘creativity’, then ‘innovation’ has surely now been well and truly adopted as the current buzzword of choice. This can be witnessed throughout various institutions and endeavours, from the recently re-titled Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, to Innovation Dublin (an outcome of the ‘Creative Dublin Alliance’), and the  TCD/UCD Innovation Alliance. It is hard to trace exactly where the focus on innovation came from. Perhaps notions of ‘culture’ and ‘creativity’ are too difficult to clearly define, too loose around the edges, so to speak. Innovation is clear. It has a direction and a specific output. It represents a desire to connect diverse elements such as scientific output, technological change, the creative arts, and, at times, the social sciences towards largely economic goals. The new Provost of Trinity College, Professor Patrick Prendergast, recently emphasised this perspective as follows; “When James Joyce wrote Ulysses he was being disruptive in changing the way we think about the novel. Joyce was a true innovator. A century later he might have created Google” This might have been a throwaway comment, yet it highlights the current desire for that which might once have sat on the outside to be brought centre-stage. Certainly those areas associated with ‘culture’, the arts, and ‘creativity’ remain a feature of current activities and debates, but increasingly there seems to be a desire to quantify their actual impact. While I am not questioning the role that those sectors focused upon innovation in various guises (such as the afore-mentioned tech and science sectors) will play in reshaping the Irish economy in the coming years, there seems to be a very real danger that the role of those elements that are less tangible, such as the ability to critically engage with, and challenge, the structures of society, will become lost in the search for direct  and measurable outputs at every turn. While economic recovery is paramount, the current period also offers the potential to challenge the very structures that shape our society.

'Trees on the Quays': Proposal for 'Vertical Park'. Source: http://www.treesonthequays.com

To narrow the focus a little here, the recent plan,  by Mahoney Architects to convert the half-built Anglo Headquarters into a ‘vertical park’ raises some interesting questions about the relationship between innovation, the built environment, and the widely accepted norms of property markets. As outlined on the project website; “The Trees on the Quays project  proposes to radically transform the shell of the abandoned Anglo Irish Bank Head Quarters into an innovative Public Park which will become a focal point for the commemoration of the Centenary of the Irish Republic.” There is much to be admired in this proposal, both in as much as it would stand as a permanent reminder of the problematic nature of a system so orientated towards property development, and the ability to transform it into something completely different for public use. Crucially however, the potential for such a project to gain traction or receive support lies in the willingness of different agencies, such as NAMA and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, to challenge the status quo. It will take a willingness to show that land-use is not simply at the mercy of booms and slumps, and that the alternative use for the Anglo Headquarters (or similar half-built developments) is not just about finding temporary solutions until, as The Irish Times recently stated, “…the property market recovers.” If Irish society is to get past the obsession with property that so dominated the last two decades, there must be a willingness at different institutional levels to challenge the meanings of urban space beyond that which is related to the property market. Ideas such as the Vertical Park, and similar proposals by NamaLab, can help redefine the meanings of our towns and cities, so long as they are allowed to. This requires critical reflection of the structures that contribute to and shape urban space in the first place.

Philip Lawton

The recent An Taisce submission to Dublin City Council mentioned on this site in the last few days makes for very interesting viewing. It is a fascinating and detailed insight into the lack of planning enforcement in parts of Dublin city centre in recent years. While agreeing that planning enforcement and architectural conservation are both extremely pertinent issues, I feel the submission raises important questions about exactly what is, or should be, enforced in the first place. Although An Taisce  emphasise  shopfronts and signage, they also take issue with the amount of fast-food, convenience stores,  and discount shops, which are collectively referred to as ‘lower-order’ shops, within the streets that are surveyed (Westmoreland St., Dame St., Parliament St., and the South Quays between Westmoreland St. and Parliament St.).

Throughout the document, An Taisce focus on the connections between poor signage, planning enforcement, and quality of land-use. A key factor which they highlight is how many of the offending businesses are fast-food or convenience stores. They also try to push the link further. For example, in the first part of the document, they state that The lack of enforcement and active management of streets is a contributing factor in the ongoing loss of independent shops and businesses with ‘personality’ – as exampled by the recent closures of the Gruel and Mermaid Cafe restaurants on Dame Street.” Unfortunately, why this is the case is not expanded upon. Perhaps, when looked at on a broad level the so-called lower-order shops are better able to pay higher rents, thus placing pressure on the independent businesses? However, the exact nature of the connections between land-use, vacancy, and enforcement is something that I would argue needs far greater amounts of scrutiny.

Moving beyond issues related to enforcement and signage, the submission raises  some pertinent questions about what are deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable forms of land-use in Dublin city centre (here I am referring to the broad approach to planning in Dublin). Following from the work of Brian J.L Berry, the definition of lower-order and higher-order goods (and shops) used within Scheme’s of Special Planning Control by Dublin City council is as follows: “Lower order goods are those goods, which consumers need frequently and therefore are willing to travel only short distances for them. Higher order goods are needed less frequently so consumers are willing to travel further for them. These longer trips are usually undertaken for not only purchasing purposes but other activities as well.” In practice, lower-order shops have come to mean the likes of fast-food stores, convenience shops and discount stores, or anything else deemed undesirable in the city centre retail environment. The reasons for their domination in particular areas is often  linked to a combination of market forces and a lack of planning enforcement. The reasons often cited for why the concentration of such uses is deemed undesirable in the first place is that they are perceived to be connected to the economic decline of the city centre, due, in part, to their appearance (health issues, particularly in relation to  fast-food, might also be a fair argument, but do not seem to  ever have been raised as a factor. It would also prove a particularly difficult issue to address). Again the causal relationship here needs more detailed scrutiny, and surely proper enforcement of acceptable signage would serve to address questions of appearance.

Following from the above, and for the purposes of clarity, the issue might be divided into two overlapping, yet connected, sub-issues. On the one hand, there is the location of more permanent uses, such as fast-food and convenience stores. On the other hand, there are the temporary uses – often discount stores – which tend to operate within recently vacated stores (and often for prolonged periods). Focusing on the former, there seems to be a need to question the actually existing relationships between different land-uses within the city centre. To speculate on this, is there not a connection between fast-food and pubs/bars in a city which, since the early 1990s, has been re-orientated towards the night-time economy? In short, a starting point might be to address why these so-called lower-order functions seem to locate on the main thoroughfares in the city centre. It does not seem enough to conclude that their mere presence is a cause of economic decline. Leading on from this, and to comment briefly on the second sub-issue raised above, another important question might be orientated towards the dominance of temporary stores in recently vacated premises; ie, what are the predominant factors in these premises becoming vacant in the first place? This would include, but expand on, the issue of rents. Moreover, how can those proprietors responsible for the uses which are now there be enticed to take a more active interest in their shop-front and surrounding street.

I am not trying to state that certain parts of the city are inherently suited or given over to particular forms of land-use. Nor am I in favour of a laissez-faire approach. I do feel that there is a need to question with a great level of detail why certain types of retail or related functions are drawn to particular parts of the city,  why exactly their presence is perceived as negative, and what impact their removal might have on the city centre.

Philip Lawton

There have been a number of events in Dublin in recent months aimed at promoting discussion around the current crisis. One such event entitled ‘Promoting the Cultural & Creative Industries & Innovation in Dublin’ was hosted by Dublin City Council on the 19th of January. This involved a panel discussion, chaired by Declan McGonagle of NCAD, followed by comments and discussion from the floor. A number of things struck me about this meeting. The first was the degree to which those working within what might be loosely described as the ‘cultural arena’ don’t seem to see their area as being the answer to the current economic woes in the same way that those working within policy seem to. Here I am referring directly to the hype surrounding the ‘creative city’, as promoted by Richard Florida, which has emerged in recent years as a backbone of economic policy in Dublin. While there was a resounding agreement that this broad sector plays a role in the contemporary economy, many of those present almost seemed to shy away from the manner in which it is being portrayed as an indicator of  broader economic potential. This points to what would appear to be a divide in what is currently being referred to as the creative or cultural industries. At the policy level, there is a cry out for ‘us’ to be more creative and innovative as a means of finding ways out of the current crisis. Here ideals of of innovation and creativity perceived similar to those involved in the artistic process are looked at for their potential to be used for the generation of new ideas and future employment within the ‘creative’ industries. What is not known, as indicated by recent ACRE reports, is the actual contribution made by this sector to the economy, and exactly how they may further contribute to it in the future. Meanwhile, this very focus on culture and creativity may be bringing us to a clash of values within the broader cultural arena. While, as discussed above, one aspect focuses on economic values, the other indicates a desire to look to ideas of culture in terms of its broader manifestation, and, moving beyond the boundaries of the ‘cultural arena’, to recognise the existence of different cultures at the local level in rural, urban and suburban contexts.

Landmark Park of the Future? U2 Tower Site, Dublin Docklands, 2007. Photo by Philip Lawton

During the seminar it also emerged that the potential for the re-use of unused or vacant buildings is being actively pursued with direct relevance to the creative industries within Dublin City Council. There are obvious positives of this in terms of the availability of cheaper land for these industries when they are viewed on their own merits, or in terms of how they might fit within the wider economy. However, there would also be positives to using Nama-bound properties to support a broad range of industries or the provision of affordable housing. Essentially, if efforts are to be made within local authorities to alter the way land is used it must be done in as broad a manner as possible. With this in mind, the current drafting of a new Dublin City Development Plan offers the possibility to significantly rethink our approach to land-use at the local level. Here it is possible to suggest that particular sites, or vacant/half-built buildings, are rezoned to suit new activities. Spaces that are blights within local areas could be rezoned in a manner that allows them to be utilised for a broad range of community activities (e.g., Aldo van Eyck’s playgrounds in post-war Amsterdam). While the rezoning may go against the base-premise of Nama, in as much as such land becomes economically devalued, it would be a symbol that the way in which we think about urban space is shifting away from the naturalised vision of development potential and the constant search for economic value. I don’t want to place boundaries on what may emerge from such a rethink, but simply point to the potential for local democratic processes to promote new potential outcomes. The negative impacts surrounding rezoning became evident throughout the boom years. We are now given the opportunity to use these powers for very different purposes, with far less risk. Through this, other forms of culture may emerge on  its own terms.

Philip Lawton

edit: The use of the docklands image is evidently even more aspirational than the above in as much as any rezoning within the City Council’s Development Plan needs to be consistent with the Docklands Masterplan.

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