Una Mullally: Reverse return of the car to Phoenix Park as a matter of urgency

The OPW must not throw away the opportunity for the park – the lungs of Dublin – to become car-free

Mike Murray runs through Phoenix Park with his son Donnacha and spaniel Pip. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

Mike Murray runs through Phoenix Park with his son Donnacha and spaniel Pip. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

 

Today is the day the OPW’s reclamation of the Phoenix Park for cars begins. Instead of learning a very obvious lesson. Instead of seeing the magic in what has happened in the Phoenix Park over the last two months. Instead of understanding and appreciating what a brilliant path forward the park being closed to traffic offers it, the office is reverting to a shortsighted and ignorant approach.

Without any consultation with people who use the park or live in the area, the cars will come back. The OPW is prioritising those who merely drive through the park over those who use it, and over the wildlife that has been flourishing inside it.

If any of us had fears about the negative aspects of urban life returning, then the OPW is manifesting just that. This decision must be reversed as a matter of urgency. 

By Friday, the car traffic was already ramping up. The silence in the park enjoyed by both people and animals was shattered.

Why can’t the park be kept as an essential amenity for the families, older people, younger people, joggers, cyclists...?

By Saturday, it was clear that the convenience extended to motorists to use the park as a throughway was being prioritised over the physical distancing requirements of pedestrians and cyclists.

With both lanes relatively busy, pedestrians could no longer step out on to the road to allow two metres between others crowding the paths. The entrance at Parkgate Street was bustling, and it was almost impossible to give people the distance they needed. 

At times the park was so peaceful that you could hear the sound of swallows cutting the air as they swooped, the flapping of wings of magpies, jackdaws and crows, the distant quacking of ducks.  Photograph: Getty Images
At times the park was so peaceful that you could hear the sound of swallows cutting the air as they swooped, the flapping of wings of magpies, jackdaws and crows, the distant quacking of ducks.  Photograph: Getty Images

Why is this happening?

With most people still being told to work from home, or out of work entirely, and with exercise still limited to 5km from home, why can’t the park be kept as an essential amenity for the families, older people, younger people, joggers, cyclists, walkers, people kicking a ball or throwing a frisbee, people knocking a sliotar around or doing yoga, people needing quiet space and reflection time, the kids on scooters and the couples walking at sunset, the early-morning sprinters and those who just need a little time out to sit on a bench in peace?

Perimeter 

Why can’t the OPW find a way to provide parking at the perimeter for those who need to drive to the park to enjoy it? Why can’t it say that the park is access-only in terms of motorists? Why can’t it continue to allow emergency vehicles and, of course, the Garda on the roads, and not just anyone who wants to drive through?

Being back in the park over the weekend with cars zooming through was depressing. The spell had been broken

Over the past two months the maintenance of the park has been excellent, and the wardens and those who work within it have done a brilliant job.

The decision to close off the park’s main road to traffic has had a remarkable impact. The deer in the park often wandered close to the main road to graze. Herons nesting high up in trees chattered away.

A sign notifies passers by of the 2 meter social distancing measures in place, as people exercise in Phoenix Park in Dublin, on March 25th. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images
A sign notifies passersby of the 2-metre social distancing measures in place, as people exercise in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

At times the park was so peaceful that you could hear the sound of swallows cutting the air as they swooped, the flapping of wings of magpies, jackdaws and crows, the distant quacking of ducks. 

Being back in the park over the weekend with cars zooming through was depressing. The spell had been broken.

At a time of high stress we should be doing everything possible to create calming environments that can act to counter the extraordinary and often overwhelming context we are living in. It’s not just about something being preferable or pleasurable – which are reasons enough for the OPW to do the right thing – it’s also a collective wellness issue. 

Politicians need to step up and protect our quiet, public spaces for the good of our health

There is a political and bureaucratic culture in Ireland which often feels geared to knowing the cost of everything (generally over-budget!) and the value of nothing. Keeping the Phoenix Park as a quiet, stress-free environment is not just a “nice” thing to do, it’s necessary from a health perspective.

It was in a calm and empty Phoenix Park I went for a run one night this week.

Noise induces cognitive impairment in children, and noise-induced cardiovascular disease shortens people’s lives. Noise-induced annoyance decreases our quality of life. Traffic noise increases one’s blood pressure and heart rate. You don’t have to be working all your life in a noisy factory or with a jackhammer for this to have an impact. Even low environmental noise levels impact on concentration, relaxation and sleep.

Lessons

This moment is offering us lessons. It is exposing faults and demonstrating alternatives. Even Dublin City Council, hardly a bastion on innovation, is taking this moment to improve cycle lanes in the capital and to begin a process of long overdue pedestrianisation, which will, hopefully, be permanent. For a couple of months we have been offered a window into how the Phoenix Park – the lungs of the city – could progress and realise its potential. 

The OPW has an opportunity to enhance a pleasant environment, not destroy it. Without streaming car traffic the park has been safer for children. Everybody who wants to use the park should be facilitated as best as possible, including those who need to drive to the park to use it. For the OPW to throw away this opportunity is mind-boggling.

Politicians need to step up and protect our quiet, public spaces for the good of our health, and give the OPW the permission and opportunity to reverse its decision, something it would be celebrated for.

These things really matter right now.

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