A public-engagement installation running throughout the St Patrick’s Day festival entitled ‘What if Dublin’ aims to directly ask citizens of Dublin about what the city could be. The approach is a relatively straight-forward one: benches with imagined futures have been located in five locations throughout the city centre. On each bench is a piece of information about the specific location with an image of possible transformations placed on a screen. Viewers are then asked to engage in discussion via twitter. In opening up the possibility of citizen engagement, ‘What If Dublin’ challenges both existing power structures and us as citizens to think about what type of city we desire. This in itself raises deep-rooted questions about the political economic structures of the city and the politics of citizen engagement.
In asking questions about a variety of spaces, whether they be about the re-use of vacant sites, the transformation of former public toilets, or the possibilities for new public spaces, the ‘What if Dublin’ project taps into what could be referred to as a ‘political economy of place-making’. The asking of what at face-value may seem like the relatively straight-forward question of ‘what if’ opens up questions that go to the very core of our political and economic system. To take one example, reading a city’s spaces through its levels of vacancy and dereliction points to the dominance of a highly speculative approach to city-building, where vacancy emerges through a never-ending seesaw of disinvestment and reinvestment. With such processes at the core of Dublin’s social and spatial reality, it is hard to escape the direct connection to the transformation of public space, whether it be the gradual erosion of public services such as public toilets, or, indeed, the wider socio-economic transformation of the city.
In projecting a design-led approach of promoting public engagement, ‘What if Dublin’ raises the broader need to question an approach dominated by land-assembly and market-oriented city-making. Yet, we must also recognize that spatial imaginaries do not happen in a political vacuum. Design and related forms of engagement are part of a much wider set of processes that have deeply rooted economic, political and social dimensions. In seeking to question our future city, we must also ask what type of city ‘we’ desire. This in itself is perhaps one of the hardest questions we can ask ourselves, and is only a short step to asking who has the right to define who the city is for and what form it should take. In the words of David Harvey, drawing on Robert Park:
“… the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of daily life we desire, what kinds of technologies we deem appropriate, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire.”
The opening up of public dialogue around different spatial typologies by ‘What if Dublin’ allows for discussions that go beyond surface images, and opens up the potential to question directly the forms of politics that city might necessitate for an open, engaged and ‘just’ city. Yet, in so doing, we must be aware of the politics of our own desire. Spatial renderings are embedded with a set of political meanings or economic imperatives that can often come to represent the interests of one core group over the interests of wider society. ‘What if Dublin’ can be read as a call to embrace the multifaceted politics of urban space. That is a debate worth having and one that is urgently necessary.