New Paper: ‘Urban Governance and the ‘European City’: Ideals and Realities in Dublin Ireland’ by Philip Lawton and Michael Punch published in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Available here (If you cannot access please email philip.lawton (at) maastrichtuniversity.nl)

Absract:

Throughout recent decades, a significant amount of attention has been given to the notion of the ‘European city’ within policy formation and academic enquiry. From one perspective, the ideal of the ‘European city’ is presented as a densely developed urban area with a focus on quality public transport and a more balanced social structure. More recently, however, the particular elements of the ‘European city’ associated with pedestrianized public space, urban design and image-making strategies have become central features of entrepreneurial urban policies throughout Europe. This article undertakes an examination of the notion of the ‘European city’ in urban change in Dublin since the 1990s. Specifically, the article illustrates the degree to which a wholly positive spin on the urban design and image-making elements of the ‘European city’ in Dublin has served as a thin veil for the desired transformation of Dublin according to neoliberal principles.

The recent occupation of Stapleton House by the Occupy Movement in Cork points to the relationship of such a movement to a wide-array of overlapping groups, emerging in various locations, who are seeking to transform the everyday use and meanings of the built environment by active and participatory means.  The more politicized of these groups are focused upon activities aimed at subverting the normalized fashion in which the built environment is regulated. Their activities include the unofficial transformation of public and private spaces, as expressed by the recent Unlock NAMA event in Dublin. Others are perhaps more playful in their approach, such as is emphasised by activities discussed on the Urban Garden Dublin blog. The more officially sanctioned examples include ‘pop-up’ shops, space for arts, and the establishment of temporary parks within undeveloped parcels of land, which, as municipalities seek stop-gap measures in the face of the unknown, have now become common aspects of current ‘fast policy’. Given the broad-range of activities, to refer to such groups collectively as a ‘movement’ would be misleading. However, whether they be official or unofficial, such endeavours represent a common desire to seek out new ways of relating to our built environment. A recent exhibition at the NAIM-Europa in Maastricht, entitled ‘Common Ground’ (Gedeelde Grond), served to highlight a sample of such initiatives. The exhibition drew on examples from Detroit, to London and Maastricht itself. The broader context was illustrated through an animated version of David Harvey’s commentary on the crises of capitalism, while greater detail was given through the presentation a number of urban farming initiatives and projects focused upon creating temporary public spaces. One of the local examples of the latter was the ReSphinxed  project, which aimed at transforming part of the  land at the former Sphinx ceramics factory (as part of the currently delayed Belvedere regeneration project) in Maastricht into a temporary park in November 2011.

Former Sphinx factory in Maastricht which was used as temporary park in November 2011.

As I have alluded to before with relation to the example of the half-built Anglo Headquarters, the bringing together of different projects also served to highlight some important questions about the long-term impacts of such endeavours, and particularly those that are now more embedded within mainstream planning practice. Terms such as ‘meanwhile’,  ‘in between’, ‘slack spaces’ and ‘pop-up’ are all now firmly embedded within the lexicon. Given the commitment shown to various projects, there is no doubting the motives of those involved. However, it still seems important to question whether such activities will have a long-term impact on our relationship to the built environment or not. It would seem like a lost opportunity if such initiatives discussed above were to wane at the first sign of an upward swing in the property market.

Some pointers towards the long-term potential of such initiatives are given in the documentary Grown in Detroit, which was featured within the NAIM exhibition. Linking the educational welfare of teenage mothers – living in the archetypal post-industrial city, Detroit – with the emergence of the urban farming movement within disused suburban lots, the documentary evokes the potential for a new urban future. It is one that in re-adapting vacant land seeks not for temporary solutions but re-embracing the land as a resource for this generation and perhaps the generations afterwards. Grown in Detroit gives an insight into the means by which the connections can be made between education, productivity and land-use in ways that remind us of what creative processes can initiate when viewed outside what Martha Rosler recently referred to as Richard Florida’s ‘gospel of creativity’, which has so dominated urban policy agendas of recent years.

Philip Lawton

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

Re-evaluating Public Space

Throughout the boom years, the redevelopment of urban public space in Dublin took on a very particular image. Through the influence of cities such as Barcelona, this included wide-scale physical improvements to the pedestrian environment of the city (eg, Meeting House Square, Wolfetone Square, The Boardwalk and O’Connell Street). There was also a direct association with investing in public space and the attraction of further investment into an area. This was highlighted in the example of Smithfield, where the regeneration of the public space, which was part of the Historic Area Rejuvenation Project (HARP), was followed by the development of the west side of the square. There are a number of aspects to the redevelopment of Smithfield. First, it was to act as a focal-point in the area, with a mix of residential, commercial, and cultural functions, such as the Lighthouse cinema. Secondly, it was to be a central events space for the city, which, for example, has included Smithfield on Ice and the celebrations of the Chinese New Year. Other events have included the already established horse fair, and, more recently, a market (there is a lot more to be said on these topics which I do not have space to go into here). Outside its use for events, the everyday use of Smithfield is influenced by both the surrounding land-use and a wide variety of other uses which occur in public spaces. More particularly, however, at ground level it was envisioned that commercial uses would directly influence the use of the public space.

Wolfe Tone Square. Photo by Philip Lawton 2010

Smithfield Square. Photo by Philip Lawton, 2010

While activities such as retailing, bars, coffee shops and restaurants can, and often do, animate a public area, there are also possible down-sides to their being a central element of land-use surrounding a public space. The first of these is the degree to which private uses can dominate public space. The evolution of Temple Bar Square in recent years provides an illustrative example of this tendency, with the increase in tables and chairs from surrounding cafes and restaurants becoming the  prevelant function of the public space. This is not to say that all public spaces have become dominated by such functions. To say so would be to exaggerate the situation. However, the second down-side to the reliance on commercial functions in the development of public space, which is currently illustrated by the vacant units in Smithfield, is that private investment may not materialise over a prolonged period of time.

Temple Bar Square, 2007. Photo by Philip Lawton

Paddy Power Bookmakers amongst vacant units on Smithfield Square, 2010. Photo by Philip Lawton

With direct reference to the above factors, it is currently possible to take the time to think of alternative ways in which new urban public spaces can be developed within urban areas in the future (Here I am referring to small-scale spaces as opposed to larger parks). To this end, the redevelopment of Peckham Square in South London from the 1990s up until today presents a useful case-study. In the context of the regeneration of the area, Southwark Council invested in the construction of a public square which was surrounded by public buildings: Peckham Arch, Peckham Pulse leisure centre and Peckham Library (Currently, an arts centre called Peckham Space is being added to the square). Through research that I carried out on Peckham Square in 2005 (Including interviews with planners and architects as well as users of the square), the benefits of having such a space became apparent. The bringing together of the library, which also acts as a ‘one stop shop’ for information on Southwark Council, the multi-functional arch, and the leisure centre form a central point for people living in Peckham. The space provides an informal area to meet others between home and the shopping district, as well as providing an area for hosting locally organised activities, such as festivals. Thus, Peckham Square can be seen as a focal point in community life in Peckham.

Peckham Square, London, 2005. Photo by Philip Lawton

Peckham Square, London during the 'I Love Peckham' festival, 2005. Photo by Philip Lawton

This is not an attempt to look at public space through rose-tinted glasses, as it is in these spaces that conflicts of interests between different groups and individuals often emerge. It is however, important to think of ways in which we can develop public spaces in the coming years in a way that is primarily orientated towards public functions and uses. While surrounding land-use does not, nor should it, wholly dictate the use of a public space, it is evident that there is a clear relationship between the two. The example of Peckham Square illustrates how this relationship can reinforce a sense of belonging and public ownership amongst different groups and individuals. Perhaps in the long-term the development of public spaces on this basis could be one form of social benefit to emerge from a small portion of the land that comes under the control of NAMA.

Philip Lawton

This is the first in a series of guest blogs from geographers around Europe. Edward Huijbens is a geographer based at the University of Akureyri in Iceland.

On the Friday before the big weekend in October 2008, when the whole finance sector in Iceland came tumbling down, there was tension in the air. During lunch time news a revered economist at the University of Iceland had stated that the banks were bankrupt with unforeseeable consequences for the nation at large. The was obvious panic in his voice and I rushed back to the office, where we gathered round the computer and listened to a replay on the internet of the news. We had not much to say – we were just numb and awestruck. On the Monday after the weekend big news were afoot and the PM was to address the nation on TV at 4pm. The nation came to a stand-still and we watched as the PM announced that the finance sector had capsized and might suck the whole nation in. He ended with the famous Bushian “God bless Iceland”.

Immediately it was clear that this collapse manifested regional disparities within the country. Around the small villages and towns around the cost people shrugged and said; we have had recession here for 30 years, this will not change much. Whilst in the capital region Reykjavík and bigger towns namely Akureyri and Reykjanesbær, the effect was felt more, but also the need to invest all the bubble capital accumulating was mainly manifest there, in highrises, roadworks, big building projects and new boroughs. Now these are all half-done and on hold.

Mostly people were at first numb, did not know what had happened and how. In August 2008 the nation was on the top of the world, with a booming economy and just having won a silver medal in the Olympics in handball. When the handball team returned home tens of thousands filled the streets in Reykjavík as they received a royal welcome – national pride was rampant and all of a sudden it was all gone. Overnight we became equated with Zimbabwe and the likes in international media.

Then it began to dawn on some that the system we had built was fundamentally corrupt, through nepotism, and the ideological dogma of neo-liberalism was flawed. This was of course obvious to many beforehand, but the debate could never be sustained in the face of the amazing wealth that seemed to be pouring into the country. The only political party (the left green) that raised concern was absolutely ridiculed. As one left green parliamentarian suggested that the banks should just leave the country and set up HQ in London, the media uproar was immense.

As it dawned on the general public, various groups started to emerge and talk on various issues: general mis-trust at the political establishment was rampant so new ones formed. The most prominent one started the first Saturday after the collapse in October to rally people at 3 pm on the centre square in Reykjavík in front of the parliament house. There for 30 minutes 3-4 people would give short speeches on their take on the situation and the organiser, the well known civil liberties activist Hörður Torfason, would talk to people reminding them to come next Saturday. His aim was simple, to come every Saturday until three of his demands would be met: 1) That the director of the Central Bank would be ousted, 2) the government resigns and 3) that a general elections will be called.

The firm use of public space to voice simple clear demands became the platform for the change that would in the end occur. People held on to these meetings, and the media made more and more of them as people started coming in their thousands. What at first was a handful of people had by January 2009 become at least 10,000 people (bear in mind in Iceland the population is 320,000 in total). This mass of people simply could not be ignored and when the parliament reconvened after Christmas mid-January, Hörður urged all to come to the square and bring anything that could make noise – this time they will listen. People grabbed pots and pans mostly and filled the central square banging them along with percussionists and blaring horns. Inside the parliament people needed to shout to be heard, but still the parliament members and PM pretended as if nothing was going on. This so infuriated people that they came back the next day and the day thereafter and what unfolded was what later was called the “Kitchenware” Revolution and the government resigned. An interim government took over and general elections were called. There was change and a left government gained clear majority – but now, almost a year on, we are in the interesting situation that this new government seems to be doing all it can to resurrect the former system that collapsed in all its nepotistic and corrupt glory. We are a bit confused up here now and what next we do not know, except it seems clear that it is the tax-payer who will pay.

The lesson in this for me is that clear demands have to be set, with a clear structure and platform for the voicing of these demands: where come hell or high water, the demands will be voiced, and if not heard accompanied by pots and pans. For me the pivotal role that public space plays in the strategic locations, such as ours in Reykjavík, cannot be underestimated.

A hammer and a thick steel frying pan  can sever eardrums!

Eddie from Iceland