BeyondPebbleIn May 2011, I posted a review of the book Redrawing Dublin by Paul Kearns and Motti Ruimy (Gandon Editions, 2010). In it I critiqued some of its arguments and its wider approach to urban regeneration. In recent weeks, the authors of Redrawing Dublin have published a follow-on book – Beyond Pebbledash  (Gandon Editions, 2014). The book offers a re-working of some of the arguments contained in Redrawing Dublin and has been published to parallel an artistic installation involving the recreation of a façade of a pebbledash house in Collins Barracks (see more here). Given this publication coincides with some of the key challenges of the present time and that in the introduction to the new book the authors have also made reference to my original critique of Redrawing Dublin, below I have taken the opportunity to engage in some of the arguments it presents. This is particularly focused upon the newer parts of the text.

As with the timing of Redrawing Dublin, this is an apt time to question the future of the built environment in Ireland, albeit for what are now largely different reasons to 2010. The built environment encompasses and is bound up with so many of the challenges facing Irish society that it becomes difficult to untangle the various elements. That the Beyond Pebbledash project seeks to engage with these challenges – not least through engagement with local schools – and the wider challenge of urban discourse should be commended. Moreover, that the project challenges the dominance of the three-bed semi-detached house and its relationship to market-led approaches within debates about housing should also be welcomed. However, I contend that from the perspective of creating a socially balanced and sustainable city, the central arguments contained within Beyond Pebbledash offer a questionable policy approach. Although setting out to be somewhat playful in its approach, the driving force, or central premise, of this book is to promote the city for middle-income and upper-income family living. While I don’t take issue with this in and of itself, I argue that the manner and extent to which it is being pushed is in danger of exacerbating the very problems the authors seek to challenge.

In setting out this critique, it is acknowledged that Dublin, as with other urban centres in Ireland, faces considerable challenges. The following is therefore not in defence of urban sprawl or, indeed, opposed to the densification of the city. There is a significant amount of merit to a dense city core, including walkability, the potential for cycling infrastructure etc. That increased apartment size would improve quality of life is also something worth taking very seriously. However, it is one thing to promote high-density living, but to fetishize it as being representative of the virtues of middle- and higher-earner lifestyles enters dangerous territory. Instead, as briefly outlined at the end of this review, we need to look very carefully at the connection between factors of governance, justice and their relationship to the city in addressing the future of the built environment in Dublin and other Irish towns and cities.

As argued above, the central premise of Beyond Pebbledash is to promote the city for middle- and higher-income earners. This is used in conjunction with high-density living as a means of conveying what the authors perceive as a more livable city. This is most strongly articulated through the representation of the future of the Georgian core. Here, the authors argue that policy should promote Georgian Dublin as a living quarter for middle-income and, more particularly, higher-income families. This, they argue would help to promote social-mix in the city through a form of trickle-down effect: “Attracting higher-income families back to the city would assist in consolidating, often fragile, residential living elsewhere in the city centre and inner city. Dublin’s Georgian red-bricks along Upper Mount Street and other streets may, in time, become the fashionable equivalent of the New York brownstones” (2014, p.158). That this is fostered as being the end-state of Dublin is severely questionable policy-making. That one particular social group, who already have a significant advantage in the selection of housing, would become the central feature of policy making represents a severely imbalanced approach to urban regeneration – not the social mixing they seem to believe it will result in. Furthermore, that this is being promoted at a time where housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable for many raises further doubts about its merits as a policy objective. If anything, placing such debates in the context of the recent social trajectory of New York brownstones highlights how such approaches result in an increasingly unequal city, something that the authors of Beyond Pebbledash state themselves to be opposed to.

In pursuing its arguments, Beyond Pebbledash is in conversation with a number of urban discourses, all of which remain somewhat invisible or implicit. As an example, their perspectives of debates about anti-social behavior and gentrification are summarized as follows: “But the very concept of the desirability of living in an inner-city neighbourhood can often provoke illogical thinking. It’s as if certain areas of the city can never really become desirable places to live in; perhaps worse, they somehow shouldn’t. To suggest otherwise is to risk ‘gentrification’. Residential desirability for some is suggestive of something vacuous, unreal, and denuded of the political earthliness of regeneration.” (Kearns and Ruimy, 2014, p.135). Continuing, and to give emphasis to their argument, the authors refer to this supposed perspective as portraying a “profound bigotry of place.” Here, the authors make it explicit that there is a desire amongst an unidentified group to accept the city as it is.

This, however, is a false-representation of debates about urban regeneration in Dublin and other cities. To take the example of gentrification, it should be made clear that it is not that critical urban discourse somehow wants poor quality urbanism or a city plagued by anti-social behavior. Instead, amongst other factors, critical urban discourse argues that attracting the middle- and upper-classes back to the city (a dominant urban ideology of the last three decades or so) does not actually solve complex social issues. Instead, Kearns and Ruimy aim to depoliticize highly charged forms of urban change and perceive urban transformation as a simple exercise of getting on with so-called difficult decisions. This perspective ignores how bound up these issues are with social class and power. To ignore or dismiss this is not just a matter of dismissing academic arguments, but is in danger of ignoring how the city is shaped, for whom the city is for and who the city should be for in the future. These debates are also not something isolated to one particular section of enquiry, but, as is emphasized by the so-called ‘poor door‘ discussions in the UK lately, are becoming central to debates about the nature of current approaches to urban transformation.

There is a pressing need for policy discourses about city life to challenge the notion that cities can be ‘saved’ by making them more attractive to middle-income and higher-income people, and not to continue reproduce such perspectives. This is a somewhat nuanced debate, but solutions to the tangled-web of urban change – including the social problems discussed in Beyond Pebbledash – need to be led through structural approaches (both in urban and suburban contexts), some of which might be contradictory. In setting out what we as citizens want Dublin to be, and thinking through what might make it better, there is a need to think about for whom it is better for. This would bring us to questions of, for example, justice, land ownership, affordable rents/ownership, and wider questions of governance (including a significant increase in integrated decision-making within Dublin’s four local authorities so to promote inclusive decision-making). Such approaches would not preclude social mix, but would be aware of the importance of looking at social context when implementing such policies. When taken in combination, such approaches must also be seen in the context of wealth redistribution and its impact upon reproducing urban society.

There is already evidence that policy is seeking to look at alternative models of urban transformation, and possible departures in this regard have recently been outlined by Dublin City Council. There is no reason that these approaches could not include the re-use and densification of development parcels in the city centre. However, in so doing, it must seek to achieve a balanced approach and not an approach that is based on the philosophy that the attraction of middle-income and high-income residents will solve its issues. While Kearns and Ruimy perceive their approach as leading to a balanced social structure, evidence from cities such as London would point to the opposite. Indeed, unless policy seeks alternatives to this discourse, we may well be looking at a greater level of social polarization in the coming decades. Given its levels of vacancy, Dublin, of all cities in Europe, has a chance to take a different approach. The answers to this involve looking at alternative structural models which question the roots of challenging social issues such as inequality and promote the means to alter them.

Philip Lawton

Since its publication in late 2010, Redrawing Dublin by Paul Kearns and Motti Ruimy, has received a considerable amount of attention from the architecture and planning community in Dublin. For example, in supporting its publication, the Architecture Foundation drew on aspects of the book in formulating questions for their online polls. This was furthered by an evening of commentary by 20 ‘Dublin Voices’ in early March. Roughly a week later, the book also formed the focal point of a seminar organised jointly by Gradcam and UCD Humanities Institute. This high-profile status is also evidenced by the list of sponsors outlined in the opening pages of the book, such the British Council (presumably linked to their opencities project), The Arts Council, and Dublin City Council, along with a number of property companies, such as Urbancapital, Henry A Crosby, and CBRE. It is rare that a book about urban planning and urban design in Ireland receives such a level of attention.  It is therefore likely that this book will have some form of influence on Dublin’s future development. Yet, I find it hard to accept that this would be a positive outcome.

As outlined by the authors (p.15), the book seeks to “…explore the city’s psyche and identity…” and prod and probe “…suburban assumptions and urban prejudices”. The book is heavily illustrated with high quality images and graphics. Moreover, it contains some useful data about the city centre. This includes an examination of the amount of open public space in Dublin, (39%) compared to that which is private (46%), or in institutional ownership (14%). It also stresses the need for a focus to be placed upon more open space for young people within the city centre. These points are well made. However, from a broader perspective, the predominant theme of the book is too focused upon the author’s personal ideals of city-living and it lacks any in-depth background data to illustrate its arguments. These factors detract severely from the book. Indeed, the expression of the authors personal prejudices, which are presented in a manner akin to research findings, becomes tiring and tedious after a time.

At its most severe, the underlying theme seems  driven by a desire to take a cheap-shot at those whose opinions or perspectives the authors disagree with. For example, in discussing the areas of Dublin 1, 7 and 8, which are referred to, collectively and interchangeably, as the ‘Arc of Disadvantage’ and the ‘Arc of Opportunity’, the authors bemoan the lack of attention amongst those on the ‘Academic ‘Left’’ towards issues such as housing and public space: “There may also be a tendency amongst those on the academic ‘left’ that undue concern or interest in clean and safe streets, the delivery of quality homes and affordable local shopping doesn’t quite fit well with any grand ‘structural model’ or academic theory” (p.37). Not to mind the validity of the statement, the authors fall short of stating who the ‘academic ‘left’’ to whom they refer are. The reader is instead left to assume or guess what it is the authors are actually talking about. This is followed up by yet another  gibe: “The elite of the ‘academic left’ in Dublin invariably live somewhere else. It is usually suburban somewhere else, and usually one with clean, green and safe streets.” This tone continues throughout the book, with different groups picked out for attack.

Although less personal, perhaps more worryingly, throughout the book the authors constantly display an unwillingness to accept established ways for life, or social realities, whether suburban or urban, and instead perceive their urban vision as representing an enlightened path. For example, in dismissing what they refer to as the ‘Sub-Urbanist’s’ desire to impose a suburban way of life upon the city centre (something that remains completely unexplained, and that the reader is again supposed to just accept as a given) (p.62), the authors themselves discuss their desire to impose their own vision of urban life in the ‘Arc of Opportunity’. Here, everyone is supposed to adapt to the new trendy forms of what are assumed to be the broader tastes of the new urban middle classes. Everything else is dismissed as nostalgia.

The unwillingness to engage with social realities is perhaps best exemplified by the discussion of ‘gentrification’. Here, the authors introduce their own new term; ‘Gentrivilification’. ‘Gentrivilification’ is used as a means of dismissing those  with concerns about gentrification as simply being afraid of change. The very real fears of those people whose communities suddenly became economically valuable again during the boom, and abandoned once again now, are here simplified and dismissed. Instead, the following argument is put forward; “The provision of better food choice in new supermarkets, employment opportunities, new office blocks, or additional local services arising from a growing population are often dismissed or belittled by the adherents of ‘gentrivilification’” (p.56). Again, there is no data presented to support this statement. Were such concerns really the focus of the regeneration of the city centre during the boom?

The reality of the city image being pursued by the authors is furthered later in the book with a discussion of the importance of the rejuvenation of the city centre: “High-density quality urban spaces is also critical in attracting and retaining creative workers, both Irish and foreign born. Getting the capital city right is a direct investment in Ireland’s economy” (p.123). Again, here the existing field of research is ignored in favour of rhetoric. Research carried out on Dublin in recent years has illustrated that those working in the creative industries have followed a similar path to others; choosing the city centre when younger and then moving to the suburbs at a later stage. Would they continue to live in the city centre if apartments were big enough? Perhaps. However, this highlights the importance of looking at the broader urban region, and developing wider policy solutions, as opposed to just focusing on a particular part of the city. Surely, for example, a bigger question might be about the retro-fitting and updating of existing suburbs so as to promote more sustainable lifestyles? The focus could then gradually be shifted towards higher-densities over time.

While dismissing various perspectives as narrow, the authors themselves constantly display the desire to only look at one aspect of urban life. For example, as a means of illustrating the quality of life of cities throughout the world, the book draws upon the Mercer quality of life rankings, which are wholly focused on ‘expat workers’. The reliance on such rankings gives a skewed picture of life in a city. The authors then use such findings, along with size, connectivity and wealth, to come up with a ‘Supercity’ ranking (p.293). This skewed perspective is taken further when the authors ask the reader to ‘open their mind’ and look at cities that have been “…shunned as being either too exotic, politically incorrect, polluted, overcrowded, dangerous, over-scaled, or just downright inappropriate models of urban living” (p.297). From the central fish market in Tokyo, to the parties of Sao Paulo, the children’s play spaces in Tel Aviv, and the high quality metro system in Mexico City, the descriptions of these cities do indeed sound inviting. However, the authors again seem fixated on ‘detailed design’, ‘the 24 hour city’, ‘a hip sense of style’, and, a desire for public urban order without any detailed analysis of the factors which contribute to such. The factors the authors look at in each of these cities succinctly summarises their ideal urban vision; that which only focuses the parts of cities which are ‘vibrant’ and full of life. The rest is ignored. Indeed, in all the discussion of these cities and Dublin throughout the book, the issue of urban equality is never engaged with in any meaningful manner.

While, from one perspective, the book succeeds in its aim to be provocative, this is merely achieved through its side-sweeps and disparaging remarks about different social groups and professions. It is a form of provocation which attempts to side-line any real debate through the outright dismissal of other perspectives as backward or behind. From a broader perspective, there is very little in the message of this book which is in itself a provocation for a truly new and better type of urban society. Indeed, to a large extent it fits within the dominant policy discourse of recent years (For example, the Economic Development Action Plan is available here).  Combining a mixture of Richard Florida’s ‘creative class’ hypothesis, which includes a heavily diluted element of Jane Jacob’s theories on urban diversity, and a selective slant on the ‘European City’ model, it is a perspective which perceives the city as the playground of those interested in what is considered ‘cool’ and ‘hip’. On one level, it is a perspective which is hard to dispute. Who wouldn’t want to live in safe areas where different people live in harmony? Yet, as witnessed by the total intolerance of any existing forms of place attachment or fears about the future displayed throughout this book, this is less about real diversity and more about the city as a stage-set for those who are ‘trendy’ enough. In summary, what comes across is a city for those who focus on the interplay of old converted warehouses as ‘authentic’ and ‘design-chic’ as the definitive elements of urban life. Most importantly, it is a perspective that never really looks at the development of a more equal city.

While Redrawing Dublin highlights a number of debates which are certainly worth having, such as, for example that on density, its reliance on hearsay and unsubstantiated claims detracts severely from its integrity, both as a source of information and as the focal point for such a debate.

Philip Lawton