Council strategy for capital casts 'public realm' of river and quays in leading roles


Dublin is aspiring to be “a sustainable, dynamic and resourceful city . . . renowned internationally for its unique character, vibrant culture and a diverse, smart, green, innovation-based economy.” And Dublin City Council’s vision is that it would have a “world-class public realm . . . to support and foster this aspiration.”

That’s what the council’s “Your City, Your Space: Dublin City Public Realm Strategy” has to say anyway. The recently adopted strategy concedes that Dublin’s public realm is “uneven in quality and clearly not yet reaching its full potential [due to] underinvestment, poor or unco-ordinated decision-making”.

Significantly, the document admits that “the redevelopment of significant central streets and historic arteries (such as the quays, Parnell Street and Clanbrassil Street) as primarily vehicular routes had a significant negative impact on the quality of the public spaces”.

The council, the same one that was behind the redevelopment of these streets for cars, now says the city centre in the future “will be predominantly accessed by sustainable means . . . On foot, by bicycle or by public transport will be the main modes of access and through-traffic will be pro-actively discouraged.”

Liffey as vital landmark

The strategy identifies the Liffey as “the most important landmark public space in many people’s understanding of the city’s public realm”, and promises that “the Liffey Corridor will be the subject of an urban design and landscaping proposal to improve the quality of experience”.

However, before heavy goods vehicles were finally banished from the quays when the Dublin Port Tunnel opened in December 2006, we were promised that a plan would be drawn up to recast the space freed up by their departure for the benefit of pedestrians and cyclists, rather than allowing it to be colonised by cars. We’re still waiting. Apart from the Liffey boardwalk and two pedestrian bridges, the quays remain clogged by traffic.

Dublin City Council doesn’t even control the river. It remains under the jurisdiction of Dublin Port as far west as Rory O’Moore Bridge not far from Heuston Station. This bizarre situation was confirmed by the 1996 Harbours Act, even though ships no longer travel beyond the East Link bridge – a more realistic demarcation line.The Royal and Grand canals are under the control of Waterways Ireland, a North-South body headquartered in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, which operates restrictive policies that discourage their use by boats. That’s why the Grand Canal marina has been so empty of craft most of the time – at least until recently, when it was opened on a “trial” basis.

Dublin Docklands Development Authority, now in the process of being wound up, is responsible for the Custom House Docks. And it can no longer be used by boats at all – because George’s Dock, the one nearest the river, was filled with sand and gravel to reduce its water depth to less than a metre for “health and safety reasons”.

Excess of street furniture

More positively, the city council’s public realm strategy highlights the “proliferation of street furniture, signage and other forms of street clutter in recent years”, and says this clutter has “negatively affected the accessibility of spaces and their visual quality”. Removing or reducing it “where possible” is one of the objectives.

Generally, maintenance is abysmal. The Millennium Bridge, opened in December 1999, is constantly scarred by graffiti, sections of the Liffey Boardwalk are in decay and the 12 gas braziers in Smithfield have not been lit for years; if they are redundant, they should be removed, like the failed retail units on Grattan Bridge.

Smithfield is a lopsided legacy of the boom, the modest scale of the 1990s on one side and the swaggering bulk of the bubble era on the other. It had been likened to Rome’s Piazza Navona, but there is no relationship between them.

Now, under draft bylaws, the council plans to bring an end to the much-criticised horse fair that’s been held on the first Sunday of every month in Smithfield since time immemorial. In future, it would be limited to two Sundays per year and all the dealers would be required to produce tax clearance certs.

Prompted by excellent groundwork done by Dublin Civic Trust, the council’s public realm strategy proposes a “Street Charter Pilot Initiative” for Thomas Street, in the Liberties, collaborating with interest groups to define a vision for it and then working proactively with them to “improve all aspects of the urban environment”.

O’Connell Street is exemplar

“It is complex but it can be done – as O’Connell Street demonstrates”, the strategy says, citing it as “proof that a balance of traffic management, access requirements and public realm enhancement is possible”.

The plan now is to “extend the integrated landscape of O’Connell Street through the rest of the Civic Spine” But there’s a note of caution. “Funding of public realm improvements or maintenance is an issue in the current economic environment and new methods of funding need to be found”, the strategy says. It adds that the potential for publicly accessible areas to be privately managed – as in the case of New York City – “needs to be encouraged”.

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