Since its publication in late 2010, Redrawing Dublin by Paul Kearns and Motti Ruimy, has received a considerable amount of attention from the architecture and planning community in Dublin. For example, in supporting its publication, the Architecture Foundation drew on aspects of the book in formulating questions for their online polls. This was furthered by an evening of commentary by 20 ‘Dublin Voices’ in early March. Roughly a week later, the book also formed the focal point of a seminar organised jointly by Gradcam and UCD Humanities Institute. This high-profile status is also evidenced by the list of sponsors outlined in the opening pages of the book, such the British Council (presumably linked to their opencities project), The Arts Council, and Dublin City Council, along with a number of property companies, such as Urbancapital, Henry A Crosby, and CBRE. It is rare that a book about urban planning and urban design in Ireland receives such a level of attention.  It is therefore likely that this book will have some form of influence on Dublin’s future development. Yet, I find it hard to accept that this would be a positive outcome.

As outlined by the authors (p.15), the book seeks to “…explore the city’s psyche and identity…” and prod and probe “…suburban assumptions and urban prejudices”. The book is heavily illustrated with high quality images and graphics. Moreover, it contains some useful data about the city centre. This includes an examination of the amount of open public space in Dublin, (39%) compared to that which is private (46%), or in institutional ownership (14%). It also stresses the need for a focus to be placed upon more open space for young people within the city centre. These points are well made. However, from a broader perspective, the predominant theme of the book is too focused upon the author’s personal ideals of city-living and it lacks any in-depth background data to illustrate its arguments. These factors detract severely from the book. Indeed, the expression of the authors personal prejudices, which are presented in a manner akin to research findings, becomes tiring and tedious after a time.

At its most severe, the underlying theme seems  driven by a desire to take a cheap-shot at those whose opinions or perspectives the authors disagree with. For example, in discussing the areas of Dublin 1, 7 and 8, which are referred to, collectively and interchangeably, as the ‘Arc of Disadvantage’ and the ‘Arc of Opportunity’, the authors bemoan the lack of attention amongst those on the ‘Academic ‘Left’’ towards issues such as housing and public space: “There may also be a tendency amongst those on the academic ‘left’ that undue concern or interest in clean and safe streets, the delivery of quality homes and affordable local shopping doesn’t quite fit well with any grand ‘structural model’ or academic theory” (p.37). Not to mind the validity of the statement, the authors fall short of stating who the ‘academic ‘left’’ to whom they refer are. The reader is instead left to assume or guess what it is the authors are actually talking about. This is followed up by yet another  gibe: “The elite of the ‘academic left’ in Dublin invariably live somewhere else. It is usually suburban somewhere else, and usually one with clean, green and safe streets.” This tone continues throughout the book, with different groups picked out for attack.

Although less personal, perhaps more worryingly, throughout the book the authors constantly display an unwillingness to accept established ways for life, or social realities, whether suburban or urban, and instead perceive their urban vision as representing an enlightened path. For example, in dismissing what they refer to as the ‘Sub-Urbanist’s’ desire to impose a suburban way of life upon the city centre (something that remains completely unexplained, and that the reader is again supposed to just accept as a given) (p.62), the authors themselves discuss their desire to impose their own vision of urban life in the ‘Arc of Opportunity’. Here, everyone is supposed to adapt to the new trendy forms of what are assumed to be the broader tastes of the new urban middle classes. Everything else is dismissed as nostalgia.

The unwillingness to engage with social realities is perhaps best exemplified by the discussion of ‘gentrification’. Here, the authors introduce their own new term; ‘Gentrivilification’. ‘Gentrivilification’ is used as a means of dismissing those  with concerns about gentrification as simply being afraid of change. The very real fears of those people whose communities suddenly became economically valuable again during the boom, and abandoned once again now, are here simplified and dismissed. Instead, the following argument is put forward; “The provision of better food choice in new supermarkets, employment opportunities, new office blocks, or additional local services arising from a growing population are often dismissed or belittled by the adherents of ‘gentrivilification’” (p.56). Again, there is no data presented to support this statement. Were such concerns really the focus of the regeneration of the city centre during the boom?

The reality of the city image being pursued by the authors is furthered later in the book with a discussion of the importance of the rejuvenation of the city centre: “High-density quality urban spaces is also critical in attracting and retaining creative workers, both Irish and foreign born. Getting the capital city right is a direct investment in Ireland’s economy” (p.123). Again, here the existing field of research is ignored in favour of rhetoric. Research carried out on Dublin in recent years has illustrated that those working in the creative industries have followed a similar path to others; choosing the city centre when younger and then moving to the suburbs at a later stage. Would they continue to live in the city centre if apartments were big enough? Perhaps. However, this highlights the importance of looking at the broader urban region, and developing wider policy solutions, as opposed to just focusing on a particular part of the city. Surely, for example, a bigger question might be about the retro-fitting and updating of existing suburbs so as to promote more sustainable lifestyles? The focus could then gradually be shifted towards higher-densities over time.

While dismissing various perspectives as narrow, the authors themselves constantly display the desire to only look at one aspect of urban life. For example, as a means of illustrating the quality of life of cities throughout the world, the book draws upon the Mercer quality of life rankings, which are wholly focused on ‘expat workers’. The reliance on such rankings gives a skewed picture of life in a city. The authors then use such findings, along with size, connectivity and wealth, to come up with a ‘Supercity’ ranking (p.293). This skewed perspective is taken further when the authors ask the reader to ‘open their mind’ and look at cities that have been “…shunned as being either too exotic, politically incorrect, polluted, overcrowded, dangerous, over-scaled, or just downright inappropriate models of urban living” (p.297). From the central fish market in Tokyo, to the parties of Sao Paulo, the children’s play spaces in Tel Aviv, and the high quality metro system in Mexico City, the descriptions of these cities do indeed sound inviting. However, the authors again seem fixated on ‘detailed design’, ‘the 24 hour city’, ‘a hip sense of style’, and, a desire for public urban order without any detailed analysis of the factors which contribute to such. The factors the authors look at in each of these cities succinctly summarises their ideal urban vision; that which only focuses the parts of cities which are ‘vibrant’ and full of life. The rest is ignored. Indeed, in all the discussion of these cities and Dublin throughout the book, the issue of urban equality is never engaged with in any meaningful manner.

While, from one perspective, the book succeeds in its aim to be provocative, this is merely achieved through its side-sweeps and disparaging remarks about different social groups and professions. It is a form of provocation which attempts to side-line any real debate through the outright dismissal of other perspectives as backward or behind. From a broader perspective, there is very little in the message of this book which is in itself a provocation for a truly new and better type of urban society. Indeed, to a large extent it fits within the dominant policy discourse of recent years (For example, the Economic Development Action Plan is available here).  Combining a mixture of Richard Florida’s ‘creative class’ hypothesis, which includes a heavily diluted element of Jane Jacob’s theories on urban diversity, and a selective slant on the ‘European City’ model, it is a perspective which perceives the city as the playground of those interested in what is considered ‘cool’ and ‘hip’. On one level, it is a perspective which is hard to dispute. Who wouldn’t want to live in safe areas where different people live in harmony? Yet, as witnessed by the total intolerance of any existing forms of place attachment or fears about the future displayed throughout this book, this is less about real diversity and more about the city as a stage-set for those who are ‘trendy’ enough. In summary, what comes across is a city for those who focus on the interplay of old converted warehouses as ‘authentic’ and ‘design-chic’ as the definitive elements of urban life. Most importantly, it is a perspective that never really looks at the development of a more equal city.

While Redrawing Dublin highlights a number of debates which are certainly worth having, such as, for example that on density, its reliance on hearsay and unsubstantiated claims detracts severely from its integrity, both as a source of information and as the focal point for such a debate.

Philip Lawton

About these ads