By Joe Brady, School of Geography, University College Dublin

The City Council has decided to persist with its plans to turn College Green into a pedestrian plaza. It seems a nice idea – currently it is not a place to linger despite having one of the best vistas in the city, and Dublin, unlike many European cities, does not have many squares or plazas.  The original plan was rejected by An Bord Pleanála in October 2018 but the City Council has decided to resubmit the application.

The Wide Streets Commissioners did a great job in making the present-day city centre, especially the wide and spacious route along Dame Street into O’Connell Street. They wanted their new streets not only to be routeways but to facilitate business and shopping, the latter by putting shops on the ground floors.  They were not as good at planning for traffic.  Cities, like Dublin, which develop on both banks of a river always have issues in managing crossings.  Almost as quickly as traffic began to flow along College Green, it was realised that it was a pinch point; a bottle neck.  Though the Liffey had more than fifteen bridges, most were to the west of the new city centre and largely irrelevant in dealing with traffic flows.   College Green became the focus of much of the south city traffic – from Lord Edward Street, George’s Street and Grafton Street to name but three routes – with traffic being forced to flow parallel to the river before it could cross it.  For traffic coming from the north side, College Green became a major (though inefficient) distribution node.  The widening of Carlisle Bridge (O’Connell Bridge), the building of Butt Bridge and the opening up of Tara Street and Lord Edward Street in the latter decades of the nineteenth century were all attempts to get the traffic moving more freely. While each of these initiatives was useful, the problem remained and there is an important map in the 1925 Civic Survey which shows the scale of flows and the congestion points.

 

Figure 1: The Civic Survey map showing traffic flows (1925)

Traffic movements hinge in large measure on College Green. Not much has changed since then, despite the opening of the Talbot Memorial Bridge because not much has been done to redesign and reimagine the routes leading in and out of the city centre to provide better flows and access.  The city is fortunate that the era of the international traffic consultant (the 1960s) did not result in inner city motorways but some of their ideas were useful. Recently, access for private traffic to College Green has been limited at certain times during the working week.  Yet, even with this restriction, the introduction of the Luas has made congestion even worse and you have only to be there at 9.00 a.m. on a workday to see the chaos with D’Olier Street full of buses.  Yet it is still the best route available for traffic trying to get from north city to the south city centre.   Try, for example, getting to the National Concert Hall in Earlsfort Terrace or the Grafton Street shopping district from the north city without using College Green. There are no good alternatives. The north and south quays are regularly jammed, even at the weekend, and getting to any of the shopping districts can be mind numbing.

So, to close off College Green requires a lot of thought.  There needs to be a sensible solution to the bus routes that go cross-city and for which this is the natural route.  Some have suggested cutting the cross-city element of such routes and forcing people to change buses – that will really encourage public transport use!  Thought also needs to be given to how people access the south city for shopping and recreation.  At the moment, it is only difficult and annoying but the proposal if implemented will make it an expedition.  The glib answer is to tell people to use public transport but that is going to be even less attractive if what is outlined above happens.  Plus… if you are going shopping, you do not envisage carrying your shopping by bus.  Similarly, many people, with good reason, will not use public transport at night. Now.. cities adapt!  If College Green is closed off without a radical redesign of the central city circulation system, the city will adapt; flows will readjust. It is the nature of that adaptation that is of concern.  If we are content that the city centre becomes nothing more than a tourist centre, then by all means we should proceed as we are. However, if we believe that the city centre should be a vibrant place where Dublin’s citizens go to enjoy culture, dining, shopping, then a lot of work needs to be done and to be done BEFORE the plan is implemented.  There are plenty of alternatives to the city centre for all of the activities mentioned, a concern as the proportion of Dubliners who NEVER go to the city centre is rising.

For more on the Making of Dublin City, see the book series here edited by Joe Brady and colleagues.

Following from the recent post on this site about Dublin’s urban heritage, a number of recent news stories may be of interest to some readers. The first of these is the announcement, as reported by the Irish Times, that the government may seek to repossess the Bank of Ireland building on College Green. From a broader perspective, the reclamation of the bank building would be  a hugely significant and symbolic statement by the current government about its new-found role in the banking sector. More particularly, it would present the opportunity to create a new public use for a historically and architecturally significant building.

The proposed repossession of the bank would provide the potential to create a public building facing onto what has been seen by many, going back at least to the Metropolitan Streets Commission in the late 1980s,  as a central public space for Dublin (something which perhaps has increased currency with the recent visit of the U.S. President, Barack Obama). While the full pedestrianisation of College Green may prove somewhat difficult to implement, new uses for the former parliament building would certainly help to promote its position as a central public space within the city. As mooted within the Temple Bar Framework Plan of 2004 (available here), it also presents the opportunity to promote pedestrian connections between Temple Bar and the Trinity/Grafton Street area. The question remains, however, as to what use the building should be put to?

Proposed links through Bank of Ireland, College Green. Source: Temple Bar Framework Plan, 2004 (Howley Harrington Architects)

Following from Eamon Ryan’s call for the bank to be transformed to an elibrary a number of years ago, Labour TD for Dublin North  Central, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, has recently opened an online survey seeking public views on its transformation into the Dublin City Library. Meanwhile, in its own poll, the Archiseek website is broadening the question somewhat, with  the library option included with a number of others, such as a Dublin City Museum, or the location of the Irish Senate. If the repossession goes ahead, such discussions could perhaps be broadened to provide the opportunity for the public to present their ideas on what its use might be through an ideas competition or similar.

I would argue, as I have before with regards to Smithfield, that if College Green is to become a central public space, which is at least given pedestrian priority, then the location of a public building with full public accessibility is of significant importance. I would also argue that while the transformation of the bank may certainly boost Dublin’s tourist industry,  we should not solely seek what is primarily a tourist function as its use. Thus, in as much as it fits within Dublin’s designation as a UNESCO city of literature, the movement of Dublin City Library to this location might tick a number of boxes, so to speak. Particularly given that the proposed move to the Ambassador cinema seems to have fallen through (as mentioned on the poll being run by Aodhán Ó Ríordáin).

Meanwhile, and in a similar vein, as also highlighted by the Irish Times in recent days, the announcement by Dublin City Council that it is to carry out the rejuvenation  of numbers 15 and 16 Henrietta Street may come as good news for those interested in the preservation of Dublin’s Georgian heritage. Pointedly, the redevelopment of the site, which is the outcome of a design competition from 2008, will include the development of a theatre and, according to the original design proposals, a craft training centre focused on stone and brick masonry trades. That this project is currently going ahead highlights the potential for the future use of interventions, such as the Derelict Sites Act, or, indeed ownership of land within NAMA, for the delivery of positive publicly orientated outcomes.

When taken together, both interventions indicate the potential that the public ownership of land, when orientated for the public good, presents in terms of the protection and use-value of the heritage of our towns and cities.

Philip Lawton