I have commented on Grafton Street before (here and here), while also discussing Schemes of Special Planning Control (SSPC) and Architectural Conservation Areas (ACAs) (here). In light of the current draft for the renewal of the Grafton Street SSPC, there are, I feel, a number of elements that need to be discussed about the relationship between land-use, social space, and heritage in Grafton Street, which are, to a certain extent, reflective of wider dynamics in Dublin more generally. The revision of the Grafton Street SSPC provides the opportunity to redress the bias towards elite notions of heritage and instead celebrate the role of contemporary social life in the street.
The current draft of the Grafton Street SSPC opens with the following vision: “To reinvigorate Grafton Street as the South City’s most dynamic retail experience underpinned by a wide range of mainstream, independent and specialist retail and service outlets that attract both Dubliners and visitors to shop, sit and stroll, whilst re-establishing the area’s rich historic charm and urban character.” The language of such documents tells a very interesting story. There is an explicit perspective within the Scheme of Special Planning Control that the area of Grafton Street has somehow lost some form of character that needs to be re-established or reinvigorated. How this is to be achieved is perceived to require a set of processes that promotes certain forms of land-use over and above others.
In drawing on an imaginary of some unspecified ideal time, the document naturalises the connection between elements such as prestigious forms of consumption and architectural conservation: “A number of uses on Grafton Street are of special significance through their long association with the street. Businesses such as Brown Thomas, Weir and Sons and Bewley’s Cafe are now an essential part of the street’s character and continue in the tradition of providing prestigious products and fine service in high quality surroundings.” When taken at face-value, such language might seem innocuous, and it is difficult to dispute the relative importance of such establishments to the commercial core of Dublin. However, when looked at in more detail, I would argue that in privileging the connection between what are deemed as prestigious land-uses with notions of ‘character’, the SSPC presents an elitist ideal of what the street should be, and, by connection, whether it is intended or not, who Grafton Street is for.
This is not a desire to argue for the retention or promotion of poor signage and shop fronts (however they may be defined), but to seek to expand the remit of what is valued beyond the supposed virtues of exclusive high-end retail and a loosely defined notion of what the street is imagined to once have been. From a broader perspective, it can be argued that in light of the evolution of Dublin over the last number of decades, Grafton Street – and Dublin city centre more generally – has to distinguish itself to compete with the out-of-town centres. Yet, there is also a need to at least try to imagine or think through what the social life of the street might actually look like if the vision of the SSPC, as it currently stands, is achieved. Would it still be a container of a rich variety of social life that it is today? Would it be the street of buskers and flower sellers? Would it still be the street on which younger age-groups gather outside McDonald’s?
The street has and will evolve in response to the dynamics of wider social and market changes. Yet, there also seems to be a need to actually think through what the social dynamics of such streets are beyond the conception of notions of urban character and heritage-value as being directly connected to upmarket land-uses alone. Celebrating those social dynamics of the present and recent past which serve to define the everyday life of Grafton Street rather than decrying some loosely defined imaginary of what has supposedly been lost would be a start to such.