Dublin has a lot of growing up to do

If the success of its shared public spaces are the measure of a mature city, our capital has a long way to go

There were grand plans for Smithfield but, due to bad planning and a lack of commercial or public investment, what evolved was a depressing, Stalinist space. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

There were grand plans for Smithfield but, due to bad planning and a lack of commercial or public investment, what evolved was a depressing, Stalinist space. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Wed, May 14, 2014, 01:00

For a city founded 1,026 years ago, Dublin still has a lot of growing up to do. The city council, which obviously reckons the time has come for a new, more mature capital to emerge from its shabby chrysalis, unveiled a plan this week for a series of summer markets and festivals. The initiative involves street theatre, stalls of “high-end bric-a-brac”, and the opportunity for the public to behave like worldly, well-behaved Europeans on a Sunday stroll. Stop sniggering down the back.

If the proposal – like so many other well-intentioned ideas based on the conviction that there is a “cafe culture” buried within the capital’s grimy heart – doesn’t quite materialise as intended, then it won’t be exclusively the council’s fault.

The mark of a grown-up city is the ability of its residents to share public spaces. By this measure, Dublin is like a teenager suddenly endowed with long limbs and hair in unexpected places. It has the attributes of an attractive European city, it just hasn’t quite worked out what to do with them.

In the unofficial lexicon of our capital city, a plaza is somewhere to deal drugs or scurry briskly across on your way to the bus stop. A canal is the place you deposit your unwanted shopping trolleys. A park is somewhere to drink cans and get sunburned. Dublin has the largest walled park in Europe – 707 hectares of it, complete with frolicking deer, a zoo and a live-in President – but most of us ignore all that, and treat it as a leafy rat run connecting the city and the northside.

During the boom years, we began to pay more attention to our public spaces. There were grand plans for Smithfield but, due to bad planning and a lack of commercial or public investment, what evolved was a depressing, Stalinist space. Likewise, the Liffey Boardwalk: although inspired by the Seine walkways, the reality has more in common with the underside of a bridge in Detroit. It goes on, this litany of good intentions lost in a sea of cider cans and the stench of urine: O’Connell Street, Wolfe Tone Park, swathes of Temple Bar. Even our success stories are only moderate successes: Grafton Street is a busy shopping street that offers little to distinguish it from any busy shopping street anywhere in the world.

This is the point at which it is customary to launch a tirade against the city council, the years of disastrous planning, the lack of imagination by successive governments, Nama. But I think that’s letting the culprits off too easily.

In the end, it’s up to us, the citizens, to shape our city by the way we use and abuse it. It is not that Irish people aren’t capable of civic-mindedness, as the Dublin Bikes scheme has proven. But we are still locked in to the notion that “ownership” means having your name on the title deeds. If we can’t legally graze our sheep on it, we’re not much invested in its fate.

It’s never fair to compare one city with another, especially when one has the advantage of year-round sunshine and a thriving economy, but it can be instructive. In Sydney, where I now live, public parks boast barbecue facilities, spotless toilets and fountains offering filtered drinking water. Amazingly, no one ever feels the need to smash them up, urinate on them or gouge their initials into them.

Paris’s city-centre parks are immaculate: the only thing littering the lawns are deckchairs, which never end up in the duck ponds. Cities from New York to Melbourne, and tiny towns in France and Italy, are all comfortable with the idea that some spaces are designed to be shared. Their citizens seem to have grasped what makes a city successful.

It’s never just about a collection of attractive spaces; it is about a body of people, shaping their city by using it the way they want it to be used. Owning their city, for better or worse.


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