Watching from afar, I have been interested in a number of the debates taking place about Dublin over the last number of years. The most recent example of such is the Reinventing Dublin series currently running in The Irish Times. The focus of this series, as with discussion taking place through other forums (e.g., the city intersections talks), is about making Dublin a better city. The series puts forward a number of interesting suggestions such as the library on College Green (Something discussed previously on this blog), and touches on some pressing social issues, such as is illustrated by Fr. Peter McVerry’s comments on homelessness and Fintan O’Toole’s analysis of the social structure of the city.

In as much as it is lacking, the series also points to the need for a greater level of engagement with the wider structural issues that influence the city. That so little attention within each sub-topic is oriented towards solutions that go beyond the accepted largely market-driven norms of urban development seems somewhat of a short-coming. The affording of less attention to alternative approaches to the delivery of housing than the possibility of Elm Park being used as a film-set is a case in point. Can this really be the best solution for an under-occupied development? Indeed, the only mention of housing in the top ten ways to make Dublin Better put forward by The Irish Times is the possible role of Georgian Dublin being returned to residential use. Another piece in the series briefly touches on how this might occur, but it is largely focused on the impact that shifting market forces may have. The desire to see improvement to the physical fabric of the city is understandable, but this also requires some reflection as to what processes might actually bring this about in a more socially equitable and viable manner. Pointedly, it is through the mention of a seemingly mundane example – that of the need for public toilets – that some of the core structural issues become highlighted, if only implicitly. The mention of ‘anti-social behaviour’ here is noteworthy and points to a need to examine the broader factors which serve to influence everyday life in the city. Overall, however, there is little focus upon the societal structures which serve to produce the daily reality of the city or, indeed, how the city itself serves to reproduce or reinforce that same reality.

Widening the discussion out a bit, one of the striking features of current debates and initiatives in Dublin is the focus on the city centre as a distinct and almost isolated entity. While this focus on the city centre is somewhat inevitable given it is the part of the city that citizens can readily identify with, it seems to point to some problematic tendencies about the form that debate is taking at present. From a broader perspective, it is difficult to attend to the needs of the city centre without thinking holistically about the wider city area, if not the city region. Furthermore, the focus on the city centre has, in recent years, become increasingly oriented towards the assumed cultural and social values of the middle classes. This perspective, which was made explicit by the Dublin City Architect, Ali Grehan at a recent TED talk, is a follow-on from the promotion of the supposed virtues of the middle classes that became a hallmark of urban development during the boom years. While on one level there has been a desire to attract ‘talent’ to the city centre so as, it is thought, to strengthen the economic base of the city, such rhetoric also draws upon the notion that that middle class residents will help to strengthen the social fabric of a particular area. That this is being promoted without any real engagement with what its role might be in the creation of a better city seems somewhat perplexing. One needs only to look at the example of Tower Hamlets in London to see that location of different social groups within one geographical area does not necessarily lead to any form of upward mobility or ‘trickle-down’ of wealth. Social-mix as a target in and of itself cannot be looked at as a solution for the problems of the city. This is not, it should be stated, an argument against change in the city centre or the promotion of good design in infill developments discussed in the afore-mentioned TED discussion, but more about the manner of delivery of such.

When viewed from a broader perspective, the focus on the city centre as opposed to the wider city is not all that surprising. Indeed, many of the initiatives currently taking place (such as Dublin City Beta Project and Pivot Dublin) are closely aligned to Dublin City Council, whose remit is, after all, focused almost exclusively upon the city centre. From a critical perspective, the structure of local government has very real implications for the context in which debates take place and the manner in which initiatives become implemented. Arguably, the current structures leave little alternative but for policy makers to think predominantly of their own location without significant consideration of what its impact might be elsewhere. Furthermore, it seems somewhat inevitable that if little action is taken to address wider structural issues on a national scale, urban policy makers will do their best to achieve what they perceive is best for their particular locality. Moreover, if local authorities can have little direct impact upon services such as transport and education, it perhaps follows that the focus will be placed on ‘soft’ factors as a means of achieving change. In short, planning (in the wider sense of the term) is being left to deal with consequences of wider structural issues, one of which is an imbalance in the planning system itself. While there are many initiatives out there which seem very positive in their approach (eg; the recent dublin tagged event), there is space for discussion of how exactly they will come together to improve Dublin in the long-term.

There seems to be urgent need for wider debate about what exactly it is we mean by making Dublin a better city, and, indeed, a broadening of the debate to include an analysis of the social, political, and economic factors that would be necessary to bring about positive change in the city. The approach of envisaging an ideal urban scenario – both in terms of urban form and social life – without confronting the forces which go to produce such seems somewhat insufficient. Ideas of making a better city necessitate an idea of the form of society that is desired. Lasting change in Dublin – at the scale of both the centre and the suburbs – can only be achieved through an active and critical engagement with the forces that shape it.

Philip Lawton