Dun Laoghaire: Social Change in a Historic Town

Philip Lawton, Geography, Trinity College Dublin

Dun Laoghaire town is often represented within the media through a narrative of a thriving seafront and a struggling town centre, with a long-held desire to tie the two together. Socially, it is the focal-point of one of the wealthiest parts of Ireland, yet, at the same time it also reflects the actually-existing social unevenness of its surrounding area. As a point of departure, the relationship between social change and consumption patterns can be witnessed in the landscapes of the Dun Laoghaire area, such as in the nearby smaller villages of Monkstown and Glasthule, that have been significantly remade into spaces of conspicuous consumption over the last two decades. This transformation of social space is also increasingly relevant to Dun Laoghaire town.

Mellifont Ave, Dun Laoghaire

In keeping with its long history as a port, the town is playing out through a myriad of processes that are local, regional and global in scope. The transformations taking place in Dublin since it has emerged from the 2008 recession are perhaps exemplified through the locations such as the ‘Silicon Docks’. However, these spaces cannot be seen as a single point on the map, and must be seen in the context of complex socio-spatial networks at an urban-regional scale, that connect data centres around the M50 to broader economic transformations and associated residential changes. As an historically established population centre, and by virtue of its social context, this is manifest in particular ways within Dun Laoghaire town.

Residential Transformations

A cursory glance at the CSO census data from 2016 demonstrates that recent years have witnessed a number of significant demographic and social changes within the town (map excerpts located at the bottom of this blogpost). As a starting point, in the period from 2006-2016, the population of the two Electorial Divisions’s (ED’s) that roughly comprise the centre of Dun Laoghaire town – Dun Laoghaire-East Central ED and Dun Laoghaire-West Central ED – increased by 34.18% and 32.58% respectively. Meanwhile, in the context of the construction of Honey Park on the former Dun Laoghaire golf course, the ED of Dun Laoghaire-Sallynoggin West has increased by 45.31%. While it is hard to extrapolate directly, the recent CSO data suggests that parts of locations such as Honey Park are becoming focal-points of those working in professional occupations, and are thus socially differentiated from their immediate surroundings. Furthermore, in the context of the time-lapse between 2016 and 2019, this pattern seems likely to be repeated in the newer development of Cualanor, which lies between Honey Park and the town centre. This chimes with research I was involved in on the residential preferences of workers in the creative-knowledge economy from a number of years ago where professional groups seek out greater amounts of space, yet in a manner that retains proximity to transport nodes and amenities. However, is is also worthwhile to examine the changes taking place within the town centre itself, where, in the context of new-build apartment developments, 36% and 37% of residents at the Small Areas (SA’s) scale work within professional occupations. In as much as these areas contain a highly diverse population group, they also chime with the internationalized image of the new economy. Moreover, in both the town centre and in the case of the newer developments of Honey Park and Cualanor, the shift towards higher-density living in close proximity to services and infrastructure can be seen to play out.

These current changes, including a significant shift towards residential uses in the town and associated strategies of reinvestment can be perceived as a boon for the town. These changes, however, also present significant challenges for the future questions of affordability and inclusion. Although arguing through a very different context – that of the San Francisco Bay area – geographer, Richard Walker highlights the key role of ‘growth, affluence, and inequality’ in housing crises, to which he adds: ‘finance, business cycles, and geography’. While impacts of the crisis in Dublin can be seen across the urban region, the example of Dun Laoghaire and surroundings is perhaps of particular note given the extremes in both high prices and, as pointed out by Dylan Connor earlier this week, high levels of inequality. If, in following from Walker, albeit accounting for significant differences in context, we can look at the ways in which the residential choices of the wealthy influence the dynamics of housing, then the Dun Laoghaire area presents significant challenges for issues of housing affordability and inclusion. Yet, preferences don’t just materialize out of thin air, and the intertwining of market actors, social norms, and urban form needs to be more fully understood. In the context of Dun Laoghaire, the extreme edge of this is perhaps the recent granting of Co-Living at the centre of the town, where the invocation of cities such as London, New York and Vienna has been used as a means of selling a particular notion of urban living. While these forms of transformations may take a relatively long period of time to become fully manifest, there is need for significant care in how they are considered from the perspective of promoting an inclusive approach to housing.

Commercial Vacancy and Uneven Development

Overlapping with the unevenness at work in the residential sphere, a significant level of attention has also been paid towards the levels of vacancy on Georges Street, the main street of the town. This was recently highlighted in The Irish Times, but in a manner that quickly became somewhat sidetracked by essentialist notions of other locations as frames of reference, with Puerto Banus, Spain as ‘good’, and Beirut or anywhere in the Midlands or West of Ireland as ‘bad’. This approach was furthered in the same edition through David McWilliams’ invocation of the dated notion of ‘broken windows theory’, without recourse to its draconian reality via Rudolf Giuliani. Furthermore, through the use of terms such as ‘contagion’ or ‘endemic’, it was implied that vacancy can be perceived as something almost disease-like. Fundamentally, the problem with these narratives is in the degree to which they reproduce particular myths about a place without engaging in any meaningful manner with the day-to-day realities or intricacies of everyday life that exist within.

Recently refurbished shop unit and upper floor, Upper Georges Street

Units Beside Dunnes Stores on Upper Georges Street have been vacant for a number of years

There are other ways of understanding vacancy. Debates within urban studies have long highlighted the challenges of disinvestment and reinvestment over a prolonged period of time in the context of the market-oriented dynamics of urban change. This ‘seesaw’ is not just a question of theoretical interest, but has significant implications for the lived reality of towns and cities. This can be viewed as a combination of booms and bust cycles, urban-regional economic processes, and the ongoing social reconfiguration of the town centre and surrounds. Vacancy in this regard is not an anomaly, but the social and physical manifestation of how these contradictory forces play out. The role of governance is important here, and it is crucial that debates over a main street should go beyond that of functionalist notions of ‘mixed use’, but seek to understand the role that streets play in the daily lives of people. The mantra of consumption-oriented transformations has been all too dominant in the spatial imaginary of urban renewal in recent decades, and is a limited, if not socially questionable, ideal of urban change. An approach is needed that instead seeks to understand the dynamics of the everyday life of the street in all its complex forms.

The Lexicon Library, Dun Laoghaire

In the context of Dun Laoghaire, the challenges of the commercial role of the town are intertwined with that of the residential challenges outlined above. With the recent example of both the Lexicon library and the development of housing on Georges Place in the centre of the town, Dun Laoghaire continues a long history of providing for the public good. These are important steps that should be continued.

 

Appendix: Map Exerpts/Screenshots (Source: CSO)

AIRO Census Mapping: Population Change 2006-2016. http://airomaps.nuim.ie/id/Census2016/

Airo Census Mapping: Small Area data for Professional Occupations (1): Area encompassing Harbour Square Apartments

Airo Census Mapping: Small Area Statistics for Professional Occupations (2): Area Encompassing The Lighthouse Apartments

Airo Census Mapping, 2016: Small Area Statistics for Area Encompassing Part of Honey Park

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The conference “Towards a Real Housing Strategy–Solutions to Ending the Housing Crisis” held in SIPTU Liberty Hall on Saturday, 3 October 2015 opened with a declaration of a housing emergency in Ireland. This declaration came from the likes of Dr. Rory Hearne, a housing expert and previously a Lecturer at Maynooth University, Fr. Peter McVerry of the Peter McVerry Trust, and public representatives from Dublin City Council and Galway City.

Dr. Rory Hearne notes that the most recent government reports released show the severity of the situation: over 100,000 households on the social housing waiting list; 80,000 households on short-term rent support, half of whom aren’t on the social housing lists; 30,000 households on the long-term RAS rent supplement; 50,000 households have received a repossession notice on their mortgage in 2014 and another 100,000 households are in mortgage arrears; and a further uncountable number of households are in poor quality public and private accommodations, possibly tens of thousands. These numbers start to tell the many stories of a deep structure of housing distress in Ireland.

The conference was called by Housing Action Now to create a dialogue, conversation, and ultimately to create strategies and goals for a real housing solution. This agenda created space for conversation in smaller groups for this conference open to the public. The entire afternoon at the conference was devoted to small group conversations to create a list of short and mid-term goals, of strategies for achieving those goals, and to report back to everyone to create a larger call for action.

The outpouring of powerful personal stories shook me, and the tremendously powerful statements by academics and activists well-versed in the issues and possibilities instilled me with a hope, that a right to housing can be brought about by careful planning, good organizing, and deep passion for the issues and for the rights of all people of a place to live, a place to flourish, and a place to call home. (more…)

Watching from afar, I have been interested in a number of the debates taking place about Dublin over the last number of years. The most recent example of such is the Reinventing Dublin series currently running in The Irish Times. The focus of this series, as with discussion taking place through other forums (e.g., the city intersections talks), is about making Dublin a better city. The series puts forward a number of interesting suggestions such as the library on College Green (Something discussed previously on this blog), and touches on some pressing social issues, such as is illustrated by Fr. Peter McVerry’s comments on homelessness and Fintan O’Toole’s analysis of the social structure of the city.

In as much as it is lacking, the series also points to the need for a greater level of engagement with the wider structural issues that influence the city. That so little attention within each sub-topic is oriented towards solutions that go beyond the accepted largely market-driven norms of urban development seems somewhat of a short-coming. The affording of less attention to alternative approaches to the delivery of housing than the possibility of Elm Park being used as a film-set is a case in point. Can this really be the best solution for an under-occupied development? Indeed, the only mention of housing in the top ten ways to make Dublin Better put forward by The Irish Times is the possible role of Georgian Dublin being returned to residential use. Another piece in the series briefly touches on how this might occur, but it is largely focused on the impact that shifting market forces may have. The desire to see improvement to the physical fabric of the city is understandable, but this also requires some reflection as to what processes might actually bring this about in a more socially equitable and viable manner. Pointedly, it is through the mention of a seemingly mundane example – that of the need for public toilets – that some of the core structural issues become highlighted, if only implicitly. The mention of ‘anti-social behaviour’ here is noteworthy and points to a need to examine the broader factors which serve to influence everyday life in the city. Overall, however, there is little focus upon the societal structures which serve to produce the daily reality of the city or, indeed, how the city itself serves to reproduce or reinforce that same reality.

Widening the discussion out a bit, one of the striking features of current debates and initiatives in Dublin is the focus on the city centre as a distinct and almost isolated entity. While this focus on the city centre is somewhat inevitable given it is the part of the city that citizens can readily identify with, it seems to point to some problematic tendencies about the form that debate is taking at present. From a broader perspective, it is difficult to attend to the needs of the city centre without thinking holistically about the wider city area, if not the city region. Furthermore, the focus on the city centre has, in recent years, become increasingly oriented towards the assumed cultural and social values of the middle classes. This perspective, which was made explicit by the Dublin City Architect, Ali Grehan at a recent TED talk, is a follow-on from the promotion of the supposed virtues of the middle classes that became a hallmark of urban development during the boom years. While on one level there has been a desire to attract ‘talent’ to the city centre so as, it is thought, to strengthen the economic base of the city, such rhetoric also draws upon the notion that that middle class residents will help to strengthen the social fabric of a particular area. That this is being promoted without any real engagement with what its role might be in the creation of a better city seems somewhat perplexing. One needs only to look at the example of Tower Hamlets in London to see that location of different social groups within one geographical area does not necessarily lead to any form of upward mobility or ‘trickle-down’ of wealth. Social-mix as a target in and of itself cannot be looked at as a solution for the problems of the city. This is not, it should be stated, an argument against change in the city centre or the promotion of good design in infill developments discussed in the afore-mentioned TED discussion, but more about the manner of delivery of such.

When viewed from a broader perspective, the focus on the city centre as opposed to the wider city is not all that surprising. Indeed, many of the initiatives currently taking place (such as Dublin City Beta Project and Pivot Dublin) are closely aligned to Dublin City Council, whose remit is, after all, focused almost exclusively upon the city centre. From a critical perspective, the structure of local government has very real implications for the context in which debates take place and the manner in which initiatives become implemented. Arguably, the current structures leave little alternative but for policy makers to think predominantly of their own location without significant consideration of what its impact might be elsewhere. Furthermore, it seems somewhat inevitable that if little action is taken to address wider structural issues on a national scale, urban policy makers will do their best to achieve what they perceive is best for their particular locality. Moreover, if local authorities can have little direct impact upon services such as transport and education, it perhaps follows that the focus will be placed on ‘soft’ factors as a means of achieving change. In short, planning (in the wider sense of the term) is being left to deal with consequences of wider structural issues, one of which is an imbalance in the planning system itself. While there are many initiatives out there which seem very positive in their approach (eg; the recent dublin tagged event), there is space for discussion of how exactly they will come together to improve Dublin in the long-term.

There seems to be urgent need for wider debate about what exactly it is we mean by making Dublin a better city, and, indeed, a broadening of the debate to include an analysis of the social, political, and economic factors that would be necessary to bring about positive change in the city. The approach of envisaging an ideal urban scenario – both in terms of urban form and social life – without confronting the forces which go to produce such seems somewhat insufficient. Ideas of making a better city necessitate an idea of the form of society that is desired. Lasting change in Dublin – at the scale of both the centre and the suburbs – can only be achieved through an active and critical engagement with the forces that shape it.

Philip Lawton