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Una Mullally: Urban design is an afterthought in Dublin

Luas Cross City’s messiness proves our planners do not care about visual pollution

It's not healthy to go out of your way to annoy yourself, but should you be so inclined, I recommend a stroll. Specifically, I recommend a stroll in Dublin from the corner of Dawson Street and Nassau Street, around Trinity College, through College Green, and then directly to the nearest pub to drown your sorrows.

Spokespeople from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, or the Luas Cross City Project, or Dublin City Council, can defend what has happened here all they want, but the results are plain to see.

This beautiful area of Dublin’s city centre has been highjacked by a mess of poles and overhead wires necessary for the new Luas line. Surely something better could have been designed.

There’s a mess of metal boxes scattered on the pavement with all the care and consideration of a child throwing toys around a playroom. There are thick poles interrupting the landscape – some of the 126 Luas poles that will now stand between St Stephen’s Green and Parnell Square.


There is a spiderweb of overhead wires, the poles clumsily hoisting the web up. The previously barely interrupted curve of the Old Parliament building is now broken up by said ugly poles.

The view of Trinity College’s front gates from Dame Street will now be criss-crossed with wires. And like all the shoddy design and street clutter that Dublin excels at: it’s done now. The results are painful.

Visual pollution

There are always going to be issues of adjustment when massive changes are made to very familiar streets.

One of the reasons why the two existing Luas lines didn’t raise similar alarms is because many of the streets and roads they used were relatively minor ones, although it has to be said, the side of St Stephen’s Green where the green line begins and ends was made far less attractive by the addition of a Luas stop.

Clearly, the concerns of those who wondered whether a Luas should indeed travel through an area of such architectural significance, due to the potential visual pollution that would cause, had well-founded reservations.

How the city looks and feels has not just a profound impact on how the city functions, but also on how we feel

“Once we are up and running, maybe we can discuss options for minimising their visual impact,” a spokeswoman for Luas Cross City said last week of the metal boxes that caused outrage. Now, I’m no designer, but I’m not sure that’s how you should approach things.

Meanwhile, up the road, it has been declared that the only way to complete a cycle path between Clontarf and the city centre is to chop down 62 trees, 49 of which are in Fairview Park. It's very obviously an ill-advised thing to do, and Dublin City Council said the plan could be scrapped. Some councillors, along with environmental groups, residents, and even cyclists themselves are against felling the trees.

This cycle path has been talked about and designed for four years. Can you imagine the waste of working hours and resources that concludes with the offering of a design nobody wants?

Shoddy design is a characteristic of Dublin. Ugly shopfronts, plastic signage, hideous Celtic Tiger-era apartment and office buildings are everywhere. These things aren't limited to rushed boom-time building, however, as the new, ugly Holiday Inn building on O'Connell Street shows.

The temporary design for Luas stop signs which popped up around the city recently, were almost confrontational in their ugliness, evocative of bargain shop signage, all gaudy in blue, green and yellow.

Profound impact

Many of those responsible for how the city looks and feels clearly still position design as an afterthought, when it has not just a profound impact on how we negotiate the city and how the city functions, but also on how we feel. There are sparks of niceness, however.

The 2009 Bord Gáis above-ground installation on North Wall Quay by John McLaughlin and Martin Richman is an excellent example of how to make something that is almost bound to be ugly, beautiful.

The combination of shimmering sequins and reflections on the glass skin makes this a gorgeous and playful piece. It is considered, imaginative and functional. If only a similar thought process could go into College Green’s mini metal Stonehenge, however temporary that is.

DCC Beta Projects, which trialled various aspects of on-street design, began in 2012, was paused in September 2015, and in December 2016 it was announced that the initiative was over.

One of its triumphs was the simple act of allowing artists to paint traffic light control boxes around the city. Dublin Canvas continues this brilliant project today. Thankfully, (in part due to the work of Green Party councillor Claire Byrne), Beta is coming back this September, sounding better-resourced and staffed.

But cool and fun and smart design shouldn’t just be small-scale. The Luas is an excellent transport system, but this crucial part of the new Cross City line is a sight for sore eyes.

There are other problems too being drip-fed to the public, including the suggestion that cyclists will no longer be able to access certain streets that the new Luas will soon be trundling down. That too must have been obvious at an early stage.

With contemporary street lighting often evocative of abandoned tent poles on a music festival campsite, ugly rubbish bins and run-down street furniture, the capital and other Irish cities needs to up its design game.

Let’s just hope it’s not too late for College Green, but those bloody poles look like they’re here to stay.