A week ago, after Dublin city centre was left knee-deep in litter and awash with urine, calls rose up for Dublin City Council to solve the problem by providing more bins and toilets.
The council initially resisted, saying it would be an “invitation” to mass congregation in narrow city streets, contrary to Covid-19 restrictions. However, the political pressure mounted and by midweek an edict had come from central Government to provide the facilities.
The council acquiesced providing barrel bins as well as giant plastic “eurobins”, the type usually found in the basement of apartment blocks. Portaloos were lined up in banks, festival style.
“We said putting out the toilets and bins would encourage wholesale non-compliance with the Covid regulations and unfortunately we have been proven right,” a council source said.
The mistake, he said, was allowing pubs to serve outdoor drinks in the city centre, when street drinking was prohibited under the council’s bylaws and before regulated outdoor drinking was permitted under the lifting of restrictions.
“This isn’t something that started this week or last week, it’s something that has been building up for a few weeks. It doesn’t make any sense to facilitate takeaway pints while delaying licensed premises from opening in a controlled way outside.”
This mixed messaging extended to the suggestion from some politicians that the council should have stewards on the street, as they would for an organised event, the official continued.
“The suggestion was made that we should have event managers, but you can’t do that when the Covid guidelines state you can’t have events. All concern about Covid seem to have been abandoned. It seems that the council is at fault for taking Government policy seriously.”
As the blame game continues for the weekend disturbances, the Office of Public Works – which is responsible for two of the city centre’s largest green spaces, St Stephen’s Green and the Iveagh Gardens – has also been criticised, in its case for not extending its opening hours.
A spokeswoman said on Sunday it had "no plans to extend opening times at either location" but was "working closely with An Garda Síochána in relation to visitor management and policing of both Iveagh Gardens and St Stephen's Green".
Urban planner and president of the Irish Planning Institute Conor Norton said there was "latent demand for street life" in the city.
“What happened over the last couple of nights was a bit predictable. People have a need for street life. Parks and formal spaces are important, but it is no surprise we see young people congregating in Drury Street or South William Street, in the very small space available to them.”
The problem, he said, was the council’s much vaunted pedestrianisation measures in the city were for the most part “very modest” and apart from on two streets, South Anne Street and Dame Court, amounted to footpath widening.
“The most dense street network in the city is around South William Street. It is natural that street life will develop around these areas. We have a situation where these streets can’t be pedestrianised because of multi-storey car parks. It means a very small number of people, using cars, have access to a disproportionate amount of public space.”
‘A few rowdies’
On-street parking presented a similar problem, he said. “One car parked in the street takes up 30sq m of very precious public space. We haven’t successfully dealt with traffic in the city. The pedestrianisation of the streets has been compromised by allowing traffic to remain.”
There was, he said, a place for a “transitional strategy” for some streets, where traffic was banned in the evening, as was planned for Capel Street and Parliament Street at weekends in June and July.
“It can change people’s mindset about public space. Their perception changes when they are suddenly able to walk straight down the centre of street that was the preserve of cars.” However, he said, what was more important still was to shift the emphasis from the use of public space solely for the “evening economy” to one that was open to all people at all times.
He drew a distinction between those who came into town to socialise and those intent on causing trouble but he said facilitating one would militate against the other.
“At the moment you just have a certain cohort, and it only takes a few rowdies to get headlines. When the full demographic comes back into the city, families, older people, younger people, the atmosphere will change.”