Council top culprit in degrading public spaces

Wed, Jan 4, 2012, 00:00

ANALYSIS:IT’S A bit rich for Dublin City Council to be rabbiting on about the need to improve the city’s public realm – roads, streets, lanes, parks and squares – when the council itself has been the principal culprit in degrading it over the years.

If Christchurch Place – a “key civic space . . . marking the heart of the medieval city” – is “suffering under the weight of significant through-traffic”, as the council’s draft public realm strategy says, it’s because the roads engineers carved the area up for traffic.

This also explains why crude sheep-pen railings are used to corral pedestrians in the middle of dual-carriageways catering for obscene volumes of traffic, and why pedestrians are forced to wait for so long at designated crossings, even in College Green.

“Too much traffic (and its controls, such as pedestrian barriers) impacts negatively on the street environment because of noise and the compromise in air quality,” the draft says. “Pedestrian congestion itself is also proving to be a growing challenge in some areas.”

Yes indeed. Because in some places, such as along sections of Dame Street, footpaths are too narrow to accommodate pedestrians – and are made even narrower by outdoor cafe-bar enclosures licensed by the council, which makes a lot of money from this business. In the draft, however, the “proliferation of street furniture, signage and other forms of street clutter” is attributed to legal requirements or “low controls on informal installations”. There’s no mention of the council’s vested interest in intrusive cafe-bar enclosures.

All it says is: “The recent proliferation of terraces outside bars and cafes has led to a perception that public space is under threat of privatisation. This concern should be addressed, without losing the benefits that such street activity can bring.” Given the conflicting agendas, there is real truth in one statement it makes – that “the process under which the public realm is created, managed and maintained needs to be reworked to ensure an optimum approach across all Dublin City Council departments”.

Take trees, for example. “Planting trees on city streets is important because they alleviate noise and air pollution, provide habitats for wildlife, and improve resilience to climate change,” the draft says, extolling the benefits of “greening” Dublin’s streets.

But when residents asked for trees to be planted on the wide footpaths of Cecilia Street, in Temple Bar, we were told “the parks division is satisfied that, due to the level of street furniture and services on Cecilia Street, the location is unsuitable for street trees”. When I sought an on-site meeting with the senior executive parks superintendent to discuss this, I was told “the removal and relocation of street furniture and services is not an option that could be considered at this time due to financial constraints”.

The street furniture in question includes three lamp standards, three traffic signposts, two cafe enclosures, a litter bin and 10 bicycle stands. If even two of these stands were removed, there would be room for four trees. But it’s not even open to discussion.

Yet the draft says: “The public realm is vital to our city life. This importance requires Dublin City Council to understand it and influence its future through the development of a vision, appropriate policy, and through a collaborative approach that has people at its centre.”

It also notes that “the design and use of the public realm affects how safe and secure people feel”.

Thus, “particular consideration needs to be given to how spaces are experienced at night and how design can improve this experience”. But while it says that “design and management actions exist which can help reduce other antisocial activities such as fly-tipping, graffiti and vandalism”, it is quite unspecific about “alternative approaches” to deal with “the roots of some of this behaviour”.

The public realm is also polluted by amplified music from licensed premises and even some shops, often using outdoor speakers. But the strategy merely talks about developing “service level standards . . . for air quality, noise control and pedestrian volume and safety”.