In May 2011, I posted a review of the book Redrawing Dublin by Paul Kearns and Motti Ruimy (Gandon Editions, 2010). In it I critiqued some of its arguments and its wider approach to urban regeneration. In recent weeks, the authors of Redrawing Dublin have published a follow-on book – Beyond Pebbledash (Gandon Editions, 2014). The book offers a re-working of some of the arguments contained in Redrawing Dublin and has been published to parallel an artistic installation involving the recreation of a façade of a pebbledash house in Collins Barracks (see more here). Given this publication coincides with some of the key challenges of the present time and that in the introduction to the new book the authors have also made reference to my original critique of Redrawing Dublin, below I have taken the opportunity to engage in some of the arguments it presents. This is particularly focused upon the newer parts of the text.
As with the timing of Redrawing Dublin, this is an apt time to question the future of the built environment in Ireland, albeit for what are now largely different reasons to 2010. The built environment encompasses and is bound up with so many of the challenges facing Irish society that it becomes difficult to untangle the various elements. That the Beyond Pebbledash project seeks to engage with these challenges – not least through engagement with local schools – and the wider challenge of urban discourse should be commended. Moreover, that the project challenges the dominance of the three-bed semi-detached house and its relationship to market-led approaches within debates about housing should also be welcomed. However, I contend that from the perspective of creating a socially balanced and sustainable city, the central arguments contained within Beyond Pebbledash offer a questionable policy approach. Although setting out to be somewhat playful in its approach, the driving force, or central premise, of this book is to promote the city for middle-income and upper-income family living. While I don’t take issue with this in and of itself, I argue that the manner and extent to which it is being pushed is in danger of exacerbating the very problems the authors seek to challenge.
In setting out this critique, it is acknowledged that Dublin, as with other urban centres in Ireland, faces considerable challenges. The following is therefore not in defence of urban sprawl or, indeed, opposed to the densification of the city. There is a significant amount of merit to a dense city core, including walkability, the potential for cycling infrastructure etc. That increased apartment size would improve quality of life is also something worth taking very seriously. However, it is one thing to promote high-density living, but to fetishize it as being representative of the virtues of middle- and higher-earner lifestyles enters dangerous territory. Instead, as briefly outlined at the end of this review, we need to look very carefully at the connection between factors of governance, justice and their relationship to the city in addressing the future of the built environment in Dublin and other Irish towns and cities.
As argued above, the central premise of Beyond Pebbledash is to promote the city for middle- and higher-income earners. This is used in conjunction with high-density living as a means of conveying what the authors perceive as a more livable city. This is most strongly articulated through the representation of the future of the Georgian core. Here, the authors argue that policy should promote Georgian Dublin as a living quarter for middle-income and, more particularly, higher-income families. This, they argue would help to promote social-mix in the city through a form of trickle-down effect: “Attracting higher-income families back to the city would assist in consolidating, often fragile, residential living elsewhere in the city centre and inner city. Dublin’s Georgian red-bricks along Upper Mount Street and other streets may, in time, become the fashionable equivalent of the New York brownstones” (2014, p.158). That this is fostered as being the end-state of Dublin is severely questionable policy-making. That one particular social group, who already have a significant advantage in the selection of housing, would become the central feature of policy making represents a severely imbalanced approach to urban regeneration – not the social mixing they seem to believe it will result in. Furthermore, that this is being promoted at a time where housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable for many raises further doubts about its merits as a policy objective. If anything, placing such debates in the context of the recent social trajectory of New York brownstones highlights how such approaches result in an increasingly unequal city, something that the authors of Beyond Pebbledash state themselves to be opposed to.
In pursuing its arguments, Beyond Pebbledash is in conversation with a number of urban discourses, all of which remain somewhat invisible or implicit. As an example, their perspectives of debates about anti-social behavior and gentrification are summarized as follows: “But the very concept of the desirability of living in an inner-city neighbourhood can often provoke illogical thinking. It’s as if certain areas of the city can never really become desirable places to live in; perhaps worse, they somehow shouldn’t. To suggest otherwise is to risk ‘gentrification’. Residential desirability for some is suggestive of something vacuous, unreal, and denuded of the political earthliness of regeneration.” (Kearns and Ruimy, 2014, p.135). Continuing, and to give emphasis to their argument, the authors refer to this supposed perspective as portraying a “profound bigotry of place.” Here, the authors make it explicit that there is a desire amongst an unidentified group to accept the city as it is.
This, however, is a false-representation of debates about urban regeneration in Dublin and other cities. To take the example of gentrification, it should be made clear that it is not that critical urban discourse somehow wants poor quality urbanism or a city plagued by anti-social behavior. Instead, amongst other factors, critical urban discourse argues that attracting the middle- and upper-classes back to the city (a dominant urban ideology of the last three decades or so) does not actually solve complex social issues. Instead, Kearns and Ruimy aim to depoliticize highly charged forms of urban change and perceive urban transformation as a simple exercise of getting on with so-called difficult decisions. This perspective ignores how bound up these issues are with social class and power. To ignore or dismiss this is not just a matter of dismissing academic arguments, but is in danger of ignoring how the city is shaped, for whom the city is for and who the city should be for in the future. These debates are also not something isolated to one particular section of enquiry, but, as is emphasized by the so-called ‘poor door‘ discussions in the UK lately, are becoming central to debates about the nature of current approaches to urban transformation.
There is a pressing need for policy discourses about city life to challenge the notion that cities can be ‘saved’ by making them more attractive to middle-income and higher-income people, and not to continue reproduce such perspectives. This is a somewhat nuanced debate, but solutions to the tangled-web of urban change – including the social problems discussed in Beyond Pebbledash – need to be led through structural approaches (both in urban and suburban contexts), some of which might be contradictory. In setting out what we as citizens want Dublin to be, and thinking through what might make it better, there is a need to think about for whom it is better for. This would bring us to questions of, for example, justice, land ownership, affordable rents/ownership, and wider questions of governance (including a significant increase in integrated decision-making within Dublin’s four local authorities so to promote inclusive decision-making). Such approaches would not preclude social mix, but would be aware of the importance of looking at social context when implementing such policies. When taken in combination, such approaches must also be seen in the context of wealth redistribution and its impact upon reproducing urban society.
There is already evidence that policy is seeking to look at alternative models of urban transformation, and possible departures in this regard have recently been outlined by Dublin City Council. There is no reason that these approaches could not include the re-use and densification of development parcels in the city centre. However, in so doing, it must seek to achieve a balanced approach and not an approach that is based on the philosophy that the attraction of middle-income and high-income residents will solve its issues. While Kearns and Ruimy perceive their approach as leading to a balanced social structure, evidence from cities such as London would point to the opposite. Indeed, unless policy seeks alternatives to this discourse, we may well be looking at a greater level of social polarization in the coming decades. Given its levels of vacancy, Dublin, of all cities in Europe, has a chance to take a different approach. The answers to this involve looking at alternative structural models which question the roots of challenging social issues such as inequality and promote the means to alter them.