By: Niamh Moore-Cherry, School of Geography, University College Dublin

Today traditional markets are under significant threat from displacement in many cities as urban renewal in support of economic development becomes prioritised. Balancing the needs of the local population with wider metropolitan or city-wide objectives is often a very difficult thing to achieve. In the context of the closure this week of the Victorian Dublin Fruit & Veg markets, it is timely to reflect on the kinds of economic (market) forces exerting pressure on the traditional markets in Dublin.

Figure 1: Moore Street market 1976. Credit: David Davison.

For many decades, the future of Dublin’s markets has been a concern of planners, local politicians and street traders culminating in a new Markets Framework Plan (initially proposed in 2002) by Dublin City Council in 2005. Ambitious though they were, the plans remained unrealised in part because of the economic downturn and subsequent recession. In 2013, partly inspired by participation in a European URBACT project, new plans for the regeneration of the almost 126-year-old Victorian fruit and vegetable market at St. Mary’s Lane were drafted, but with little activity – due in part to legal issues – until recent months. Dublin City Council are currently in the process of launching a tender to “design, build and operate” the market, indicating that the council will play no part in its future operations. What this will mean for the wider markets community in Dublin is not clear, as suggestions have been made that the successful tenderer will not necessarily be required to operate the wholesale function. The Victorian markets could become a retail-only space, which in other cities has translated into gentrified spaces of middle-class consumption rather than places of more broad-based urban social infrastructure. Remaining wholesale traders believe they will not be accommodated in any new development and that it will become a ‘destination’ market for tourist and leisure activities.

Figure 2: Victorian Fruit and Veg Market, Dublin. Credit: CC BY-SA 2.0

While there is an obvious impact on the wholesale traders that were occupying the traditional Fruit and Veg market, what this will mean for traders in other parts of the city, who already find their attempts at livelihood-building under pressure, is unclear. Markets are far more than simply places for commodity exchange, but promote socio-economic inclusivity. During the 1980s when male unemployment was at very high levels, the Moore Street market became an important source of flexible, female employment and food provisioning for inner-city families. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, recently arrived migrant began trading adjacent to the street market mixing with traditional market families, and bringing new life to the market that had been in significant decline following decades of disinvestment. Over the past thirty years, this market has been under significant pressure from redevelopment agendas in the surrounding districts. Despite the central place of Moore Street in the minds of Dubliners and its historic reputation as ‘the heart of Dublin’,  the survival of any form of street trading in the area is more a marker of the resilience of the traders in the face of significant disinvestment and challenge than it is of any supportive public policy. Over the last decade, the historic place and voice of traders has been further diminished as attention shifted – almost exclusively – to focus on narratives of ‘national history’ and the role of Moore Street during the last days of the 1916 rebellion as discussed here in a full paper by myself and Christine Bonnin.

However there are some positive indications that the market and its traders may be about to  experience some revitalisation and support, through new urban development plans for the district commissioned by Hammerson and Allianz, owners of the neighbouring buildings and sites. The British-based developers commissioned German Architect Friedrich Ludewig to design a new urban quarter from O’Connell Street through to Parnell Street. The outline plans launched in May 2019 indicate an intention to retain old street patterns, reduce the scale of development proposed by earlier development consortia and support the unique character of the Moore Street markets. Critically, they state the desire of the developers to work with stall holders to “respect and enhance street market trading”. What this means in practice for the future of the market is not entirely clear, but it is the first time that the importance of the traders voice in the future development of the area has been publicly acknowledged.

There is a certain irony in the emerging picture of a private developer saving the place of, and supporting, traditional street traders on Moore Street, while the local authority removes wholesale trading activity from the Victorian Fruit Markets. The role and responsibility of public authorities and other actors is becoming increasingly blurred, as our cities change rapidly and are shaped by local, national and international contexts and funding.  How market forces interact with public policy, planning, and broad-based publics in the contemporary city is something worthy of much further study!

For more on research currently underway on this and similar topics at UCD School of Geography, please see here.

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In a paper from 2010 entitled ‘Can Planning Affect the Economic Crisis? Barely, and not unless planning changes radically’, the esteemed Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University, Peter Marcuse outlined potential for change within the planning profession. As is evident from the title, the paper deals with the potential role for urban planning in the context of the global financial crisis, with discussions of the role of cycles of investment in the built environment brought to the fore: “Planning is hardly an independent force in urban development; our long history shows how dependent, indeed, generally subservient, planning is to the market, barely influencing it at the margin. “The Market” is not considered an actor, and we avoid facing reality when we glibly speak of “the market” doing this or requiring that. There are specific actors in the market: developers, builders, bankers, Wall Street traders, investors, residents of various kinds, marketing firms, tenants and owners, and of varying economic positions, of various enthnicities, with various preferences. All significantly influence and are influenced by public portrayals of what is desirable (and what is not desirable) in cities.” When presented in such light, current debates about the future of planning in Ireland are worthwhile, but there is a danger that in seeking to redress the inadequacies of the last number of decades some key issues may be overlooked.

As is evidenced by a number of posts on this blog in recent weeks and days (see here and here), a strand of debate is currently emerging around the future need for housing, and where that housing should or should not be built. Moreover, while there remains a significant level of vacancy in most parts of the country, a form of rhetoric is emerging which upholds, if not furthers, a particular mythology around housing as being, above all else, a commodity, with quality of life either implicitly or explicitely related to market forces. One specific example of this is the manner in which The Irish Times Property Supplement every so often seems to deem the supposed shortage of ‘good quality family homes’ on the Dart line and elsewhere in Dublin as being a symbol of some impending crisis. It is perhaps somewhat inevitable that those areas that have historically been sought after in Dublin will be the first areas in which market demand will return, yet on a  fundamental level there is perhaps no better time in our recent history to challenge the dominance of the market within housing provision.

The current discussion points to a need for a broadening of the debate about the form that future planning policy will take in Ireland, and, more specifically, how it relates to the provision of housing. In short, where to build, what to build, and who to build for will become key factors within the evolution of planning in the coming years. There is no doubting the link between poor planning regulation and the current challenges facing Ireland, yet there is a need to ensure that we are not blinded by the search to get back to more ‘sustainable’ forms of settlement while ignoring a wide set of other issues. Returning to Marcuse; “… whether the “bubble” is centred in residential construction, high-rises or low-rises, in the central business district or the inner- or outer-ring suburbs, is only a question of where the bubble will appear or how it will look, not in whether there will be a bubble of some form somewhere”. Thus, there are a number of dangers attached in seeking out a solution by solely looking towards where we should or shouldn’t build housing in the future, whenever that future may be. In as much as it is important to support more sustainable forms of settlement patterns, there is also a danger of misplacing the image for reality, and ignoring the dangers of running for shelter in the rhetoric of high-density urban development in the ‘right places’ as the cure for all urban ills, or, indeed, simply accepting that market demand will return to some places prior to others. The social consequences of the boom years, and indeed a prolonged period of severely imbalanced approaches towards the built environment, as linked to negative equity and half populated and abandoned estates, are only really now beginning to become manifest, and are likely to dominate the social agenda for years to come.

Not withstanding the importance of debates about the availablity of housing and zoned land, it also seems important to ensure that such a debate is not dominated by market-oriented discussion of supply and demand. There is a clear need for policy attention to examine such issues from a social perspective without simply focusing on what the market does or doesn’t do. The entire connection between housing, planning, and market forces needs to be fundamentally addressed. This begins with a shift in perspective from one which upholds housing as yet another cog in the wheel of the market to one which views it first and foremost as a social good.

Philip Lawton

Peter Marcuse blog posts are available at: http://pmarcuse.wordpress.com/