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

Advertisements

In the last number of days, The Irish Times has launched a competition seeking to designate the best place to live in Ireland. I have to admit to having mixed views about this competition. On one hand I feel perplexed about the need to attempt to measure the attributes of place to the extent to which, ala the X Factor, one place can be deemed ‘the best’, yet on the other hand, it forms a useful example of how to enrich discussion and debate about the importance of place and place attachment in Ireland. Each of these perspectives are discussed in turn below. (more…)