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Inclusive spaces for a permeable city

Future Reference
Raissa Machado
Cormac Murray

The quality of the public realm and the provision of open spaces for congregation have long been recognised as having an important role in contributing to liveability in urban agglomerations. The climate crisis and COVID-19 pandemic have shifted our priorities when it comes to the design of our cities. In the planning context, priority is now increasingly given to active modes of transport, such as walking and cycling [1]. These points were eloquently covered in an article earlier this month on Type with observations regarding various spaces in Dublin. This piece looks specifically at the themes of permeability and inclusion.

Numerous studies have shown the negative impacts of car-dominated cities [2]. With the added urgency of a climate crisis, urban planners and associated disciplines are now striving to create more accessible and safer environments for pedestrians and cyclists. Many areas of Dublin city centre are becoming, or going through trials to become, fully or partially pedestrianised. These include Capel Street, Parliament Street, South Anne Street, Dame Court, Drury Street and South William Street. Dublin City Council has had a long-held ambition to pedestrianise College Green. These initiatives will provide additional open spaces in the city, as well as enhance permeability at different scales.

In broad terms, permeability can be understood as “the extent to which an urban area permits the movement of people by walking or cycling” [3]. Permeability relates to pedestrian freedom and street-level experience. It should encourage easy access with multiple options. Once emphasis is given to both pedestrian and cyclist movements, some controversial opinions have been raised by those affected by the proposals. The many issues raised include: the need for additional transport to access establishments; the lack of signage informing people about the extents of traffic diversions; a perceived lack of safety due to conflict with cyclists, to mention only a few.

These arguments raise the ongoing debate of the ‘right to the city’, a concept explored by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in his book The Production of Space. In this, he argues that the city is an oeuvre, which means a collective work in which all its citizens participate[4]. As a collective work, cities should be accessible to people of all abilities and backgrounds. In practical terms, the ‘right to the city’ approach contradicts the intention to filter users of the public realm. Public space should be, in essence, a space of inclusion. However, the compulsory nature of having to own a car in order to have either access, or priority of access, to certain places creates exclusion.

Through this lens, it is possible to argue that a car-free zone is simply a measure to give citizens the right to appropriate space (occupy, use, work, live, etc.). Lefebvre calls this 'representational space'. He refers to the right to participate in decision-making at various political scales as 'representations of space'. Lefebvre argues that cities are 'socially produced' through their use as public spaces, as a result they become representational, appropriated in use [5]. 

Whether these spaces are inclusive to allow social interaction to happen or not, is also closely related to their management [6]. In this case, spatial management refers to the way a space is physically and psychologically controlled and maintained. In other words, it refers to the methods used by owners to establish their rules.

Concerns and disputes around pedestrianisation schemes in Dublin are directly related to a crucial part of any design proposal, which is the quality of being cyclical. Implementing, testing, and managing are critical stages for any design development. These need to be founded on solid analysis that will, as a consequence, support safety, economy and vibrancy. 

Drawing on an analysis of the Irish planning system hierarchy, from top to bottom, it is possible to see an overall recognition of the importance of improving the existing public realm and the provision for active modes of transport, such as walking [7]. In theory, all stakeholders should support a better distribution of and greater accessibility to these spaces as part of move towards more permeable and inclusive environments.

Aligned with the climate crisis, the issue is far from being solely about a desire for more pedestrianised areas. In fact, it is about the provision of additional public open spaces in the city, and the need to address possible limitations in management of spaces over time. This way proposals can achieve their full potential and create a more inclusive city for all.

Indicative proposal for a backlands site, part of a larger study in Dublin city centre. The study considered a number of operational standards, as defined by the New York Planning Department, to ensure an overall good quality of space. Image by Raissa Machado

For the first time in decades, urban planners are designing for people first, before cars. Dublin’s pedestrianisation isn’t about enabling a certain lifestyle, it’s an empowering act, making an accessible city for all people. This article demonstrates how the permeability of spaces can foster social inclusion.

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How can farmers be better supported by our urban centres?

Present Tense
Alma Clavin and Carla M. Kayanan
Michael K. Hayes

Recent debates around farmers, food production, and climate action have, at their core, a plethora of varying and conflicting imaginaries about rural landscapes, rural livelihoods, and an imagined divide with rural areas pitted against urban areas. In the provocatively titled article, ‘Townies v culchies’, Flynn and Lavin reference the culture wars unfurling around agricultural emissions reduction in Ireland in our preparation for a just transition [1]. Similar debates are happening right across Europe with media in the Netherlands recently drawing attention to this perceived binary. To have a just transition means to put in place the framework to support workers and communities susceptible to risk as we move towards a low carbon economy. Deciding what structures to put in place necessitates rupturing the rural-urban binary to achieve fresh thinking on the connection between rural spaces and urban centres. Problematically, as Flynn and Lavin astutely conclude, ‘the urban rural divide may only deepen in years to come’.


Whether we recognise it or not, people’s ideas about cities and urban centres are shaped by grievances, desires, and fears. Farmers travel to Dublin to protest in front of the government buildings they see as staunch representations of centralised power. Understandings of the urban are often reduced to ideas about high-density inner-cities juxtaposed with ‘remote’ rural towns and villages. And even though the ‘rural idyll’ is not accepted by all rural dwellers (nor all urban dwellers), it remains a strong geographical imagination that impacts where people choose to live, visit, and locate themselves.


Inherently, these bifurcated imaginaries are not a bad thing. Place and our surroundings shape who we are as human beings traversing variegated landscapes. However, what is problematic is the influence the rural-urban binary is having on shaping policies that impact our potential for a just transition. A just transition that incorporates decent jobs and a better quality of life appears to be a ‘no brainer’. Yet accomplishing this requires a paradigmatic shift in our historically entrenched and collective imagination about ‘the rural’ and ‘the urban’. It means accepting that, fundamentally, the rural and urban are inextricably linked and deeply interconnected. To negate and deny this complex relationship opens the possibility for problematic, fragmented policies. Alternatively, accepting this relationship and seeking ways to strengthen it will result in policies that enhance livelihoods and wellbeing for all.


This is already happening in some places. The Northern and Western Regional Assembly’s (NWRA) Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy (2018) embraces thinking beyond the traditional rural-urban divide to consider enhanced forms of interconnection. NWRA’s map of their sub-regions acknowledges existing links to Dublin as an urban centre and draws on them as potential ‘catchment’ areas to enable economic opportunities. While we would push for greater balance between the sub-regions and nearer, smaller urban centres (i.e. Donegal Town, Sligo, Letterkenny, etc.), the point is that regional flows exist – from our most rural spaces to urban centres – and these can and should be leveraged to produce more just futures.


At county level, there may be erroneous sentiments that ‘urban’ measures are foisted upon rural areas. For example, urban containment policies can be seen to be ‘anti-rural’, and yet, urban centres are key for farmers and food enterprises to access local markets and sell and produce locally. Pathways for a just transition involve diversification and re-localisation, to view interlinkages and value chains for farmers first in their local area, then in their nearest urban centres, and later larger metropolitan areas. Re-localising and focusing on value-added and shorter value chains requires integrated thinking, rather than silo thinking.


Examples of dependencies on the rural-urban continuum include: enhancing the dynamism and attractiveness of urban living to contain urban centres and maintain their vibrancy; improving broadband connection to expand remote working options and revive small towns and villages; and creating strong farm-to-city table access links through shared food processing units, farm shops, farmers markets, and market gardening to widen the farmer’s economic reach and sustain urban centres. However, enhancing and availing of this continuum requires appropriate policy, vision, finance, and placemaking support at both the local authority and central government level to attract people into towns and villages and open up markets and spaces.

Oat in the City, an oat milk from Co. Westmeath. The Lynam family have been living and farming in the townland of Ballybroder, on the border of Westmeath and Offaly with each generation passing it onto to the next. After much research, they decided to take a step back from intensive commercial farming to farm alternative, low-input, sustainable crops such as oats. They are now retailing in urban centres across the midlands, Galway, and Dublin


To think about and foster a cohesive regional imaginary and bring the above examples to fruition, we need to acknowledge that urban and rural areas are both products and shapers of economic, political, and social processes that operate at varying scales. Yes, just transition solutions grow from place and, yes, local place-based solutions are important, but we need new imaginaries that also go beyond the ‘local’. Place is important in identifying just transition solutions but all parts of Ireland – rural, villages, small towns, and metropolitan areas – have different existing relationships to each other. New and existing organisations focusing on novel models of food production, forestry, and agriculture need flexible forms of support to cater for growth and creativity [2].


The scholar Yi-Fu Tuan (1977) has likened space to movement and place to pauses – stops along the way [3]. Our locations, locales, and our sense of place are hugely significant in supporting a just transition, but equally significant are the spatial flows of transport, infrastructures and investments. Rather than perpetuating an urban-rural binary in policy and identity, a just transition will be most effective when we adopt more dynamic and integrated approaches. Only then are we able to effectively answer the question of how farmers can be better supported by our urban centres. In doing this, we can also determine how best to support farmers as food producers and their continued identity as custodians of our landscapes.

Recent debates around farming and climate action have, at their core, an imagined divide between rural and urban areas. Rather than perpetuate this urban-rural binary in policy, a just transition will be most effective when we adopt a more integrated regional-scale understanding of city and country. Only then can we determine how best to support farmers as food producers and custodians of our landscapes.

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The road to a better public realm

One Good Idea
Frank McDonald
Michael K. Hayes

A decade ago this month, Dublin City Council published its first-ever public realm strategy, Your City, Your Space [1]. It drew particular attention to historic paving as “a fundamental part of the identity of the city centre”, pledging that “mapping and maintaining this to agreed standards must form part of the city’s overall approach to the public realm”.

The “floor” of Dublin’s historic core – especially what survives of its granite footpaths, kerbstones and diorite street setts – was to be treated with respect, rather than remaining “vulnerable to damage and incremental loss” or, worse still, casually discarded as these elements were in the past, after concrete and asphalt became the standard materials.

The Dublin City Development Plan 2016-2022 also pledged, in policy CHC15, to “preserve, repair and retain in situ, historic elements of significance in the public realm including … any historic kerbing and setts”, identified in two long schedules of streets, and to “promote high standards for design, materials and workmanship in public realm improvements”.  

This is repeated in policy BHA18 of the draft Dublin City Development Plan 2022-2028, which goes even further in pledging to promote “conservation best practice” in public realm improvements within areas of historic character, “having regard to the national advice series on Paving: The Conservation of Historic Ground Surfaces”, published in 2015.  

Yet anyone who takes a casual stroll through Dublin city centre would surely see that the state of its footpaths and carriageways is extremely poor, with missing granite kerbstones and holes dug in cobbled streets crudely filled by asphalt that’s left in situ, not for days or weeks, but rather months and even years before the surface is properly reinstated.

There is no sense that the public realm is cared for or looked after. Along with the endless proliferation of bollards, poles, traffic signs, and utility boxes that litter Dublin’s principal streets, the slapdash treatment of historic stone paving compares very unfavourably with other European cities that cherish their heritage, such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen.

As I noted in A Little History of the Future of Dublin, the council itself continues to be the worst offender, with little or no evidence that its Road Maintenance division has paid any attention to national-level guidance or the high aspirations of Your City, Your Space or, indeed, the declared policies of successive democratically-adopted development plans.

“RM”, as it is known with dread among professionals, operates under its own Construction Standards for Road and Street Works in Dublin City Council (October 2015), which runs to 249 pages. Contrary to best conservation practice, it recommends using poured tar (“50-pen bitumen”) to finish the joints between street setts that were laid too widely apart and now pockmarked by bottle caps.

Differences in standards and priorities is certainly a factor in the city's poor-quality public realm. One such example is the long-running renovation of Temple Bar Square: a bureaucratic “turf war” in Dublin City Council resulted in GKMP Architects and Amsterdam-based REDscape being dismissed from the project in December 2019, when the Roads division wrested control of it from the Parks department [2]. A revised version of the scheme is meant to go ahead this autumn, but don’t bank on it.

There are exceptions to these frustrations. O’Connell Street was re-paved more than fifteen years ago, with wider granite-flagged footpaths and a square of limestone street setts in front of the GPO, defined by clipped and pleached lime trees. Despite carrying heavy traffic, these setts have fared remarkably well because they were properly bedded to withstand years of pummelling.

May Lane, Dublin 7. An example of a high-quality public realm finish involving a carriageway of mixed granite and limestone setts

Another exemplar is little-known May Lane, linking Bow Street and Church Street, where a cambered carriageway of mixed granite and limestone setts was expertly laid by Sisk’s in 2008 following completion of the colourful King’s Building on its southern side. The contrast between this and Temple Lane, in the midst of Dublin’s “cultural quarter”, is very stark. However, in the absence of council-wide standards that consider material wear and tear, historical context, and pedestrian safety, such interventions will remain irregular and scattered across the city.

The best results are produced by local authorities where there are the structures and personnel in place to support good public space design, such as in Waterford. Here, City Architect Rupert Maddock leads a team dedicated to developing and improving the urban public realm, with the result being a cohesive and connected series of pedestrian-focused spaces that have transformed the city centre.

What’s needed in Dublin is a similar approach to urban design, one which breaks down DCC’s “silo mentality” by setting up an inter-disciplinary team of dedicated officials drawn from different departments — City Architects, Parks, Planning, and Roads — to take charge of public realm projects. Only then will there be a chance of implementing a coherent strategy to upgrade the city’s neglected public spaces.

A decade ago this month, Dublin City Council published its first-ever public realm strategy, yet anyone who takes a casual stroll through the city centre would surely see that the state of its footpaths and carriageways is extremely poor. What the city is missing is an inter-disciplinary design team of dedicated experts to reimagine our streets and squares. Only then will we see meaningful change.

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Whose streets?

Working Hard / Hardly Working
Aakriti Sood
Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell

Streets are the elemental public resource that every citizen can enjoy. William H. Whyte describes streets in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces [1] as the “connectors” within the urban structure or, “the rivers of life of the city - the places where people come to participate in urban life.” Cars have been dominating the streetscape of our cities in the past decades, pushing people inside their homes. Local authorities saw the lack of vehicles during lockdowns as an opportunity to initiate plans for people-centric spaces in their cities and towns. Dublin reassessed its relationship with the public realm with increased pedestrianisation and cycle connectivity and improvement to the green spaces within the city. This article discusses how the provision of street furniture has a distinct impact on the reshaping of the urban fabric within the capital of the country.

 

At first glance, the transformed South William Street looks pleasantly busy. During the pandemic, the street promised a glimpse of the normality that everyone was craving. But behind the hustle-bustle, there is just one lone bench that forms somewhere to rest as part of the street’s public fabric - discounting the Powerscourt steps, where you might be hosed down unceremoniously. The rest of the street furniture is privately owned by restaurateurs. This issue of the hazy ownership of the city’s fabric is analogous to many other streets in the inner city. While the repaving and increased footpath that many streets have seen since March 2020 allows people to socialise outdoors safely, many of these streets project the narrative that the city is only accessible to a specific group of people; those who can afford to, the patrons who can go to these pubs and restaurants. These new urban measures haven’t taken into account groups such as teenagers or the elderly, who may not have the disposable income to frequent the spots they wish to be in to experience the city. They have no place on these streets and face the risk of social exclusion. 

How democratic are these spaces? In her book Purity and Danger [2], Mary Douglas writes about the history of the city and its ambition to keep the centre of the city clean and pure, discarding the other, less desirable, elements of the city to the peripheries. This ambition heightens the rose-tinted image of the colourful, manicured appearance of the city and is promoting the contemporary condition of the city as a space for consumption. Pedestrian measures within the inner city have been exemplifying the obsession with the central spaces of the city and the ignorance towards the areas that the working class inhabit. Richard Sennett, Professor of Sociology at LSE, claims that the key issue with urban spaces in our cities is civility. The key element that needs to be embedded in the urban fabric is enabling different types of people to come together within the complexity of the city. At its core, a city should be welcoming, accessible and diverse. 

Dún Laoghaire Coast Road, Dublin [5]

The streetscape of the coast road in Dún Laoghaire saw transformation with redesigned pedestrian paths and a greenway connecting the Coast Road of South Dublin from Blackrock to Dalkey. Here the transformation of the street aims to improve the relationship of the people with the coast. The simple gesture of creating the pedestrian zone along the coastal end allows for opportunities for the street to spill out, and to create pockets of parks. Frequent street furniture allows citizens to take a moment to pause to simply observe the city and occupy their streets or catch up with their neighbours and friends. These micro public spaces provide habitable space for different people all through the day; joggers and parents in the morning dropping their kids off to school, the elderly during the middle of the day, and the teenagers, young adults and professionals later in the evening- all the while improving the green footprint of the city. 

The city is a living organism and not a static entity, sensitive to external stimuli. The role of public space is constantly evolving with the socio-economic ebbs and flows of a place. We need to mobilise the recently reinvigorated global interest in public space to enable different groups of people to occupy and in doing so celebrate the complexity of our cities and towns. The Danish urbanist Jan Gehl in his book Life between Buildings [3] classified people's activities into three categories: necessary activities (such as going to work or running errands); optional activities (such as going for a walk or standing around); and social activities (such as children playing or people talking). He concluded that social activities are far more likely to occur in places of high quality; in well-designed urban spaces. Dublin needs more spaces that focus on social regeneration, on spaces that do not depend on spending money just to sit and catch up with a friend. 

The change in perspective that the “stay home, stay safe” Covid-19 experience provided accelerated the manifestation of the urbanist ideas of the liveable city. While some could enjoy their back gardens, for others, public space presented the only opportunity to relax and socialise outdoors. Many cities and towns of Ireland had to physically transform as a reaction to the pandemic, to provide better access to the public realm allowing people to connect in a new way.

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City Edge, Dublin

Future Reference
Cormac Murray
Cormac Murray

What 

The ‘City Edge’ project is a strategic framework for the regeneration of 700 hectares of land to the south-west of Dublin city centre. The lands span between the Naas Road, Ballymount, Park West and Cherry Orchard, an area which is currently predominantly industrial estates. The framework sets out to transform the familiar yet unremarkable landscape of cars, tarmac and sheds into a thriving green suburb, a new city within the city. The size of the framework area is roughly that of Dublin city as bounded by the canals. Its ambition is to increase the living population by fifteen times, from 5,000 currently estimated to between 75,000 and 85,000 people, rivalling Galway, Ireland’s fourth largest city. It sets out targets to be a zero-carbon city, with localised energy production, carbon-negative buildings and a circular waste ecosystem. 

How

The plan aims to grow this new city through transport-orientated development. Amongst the many initiatives outlined in the development, there are proposals for a new Luas and rail interchange at Kylemore with the potential extension of the Luas line to Lucan and a new Luas stop on the Naas road. The development area is imagined as more than just a satellite to Dublin, it is a self-contained green neighbourhood, with all liveable amenities available with a short walk for residents, a form of compact growth described in Project Ireland 2040. 

Who

The project is a joint venture between two local authorities, Dublin City Council and South Dublin County Council as it spans over both of their lands. The framework is being developed by a design team lead by Rotterdam- and London-based MacCreanor Lavington (architecture and urban design), Dublin-based Urban Agency (architecture and urban design), Avison Young (land use planning), Grant Associates (landscape), SYSTRA (transport planning), RSK / Nicholas O’Dwyer (engineering/environmental), and IAC (archaeology and heritage).

Why 

The ‘City Edge’ plan is significant in that it is one of the largest urban regeneration projects ever undertaken in Ireland. The design  process was ignited using the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund established by Ireland 2040. It will be a key test of the promise of Ireland 2040 for these two Irish local authorities to deliver in concert. The site’s proximity to Adamstown, another new town planned using principles of transport-orientated development, is a reminder of how good design needs to be matched with good and speedy implementation. Much of Adamstown’s physical, social and community infrastructure is still in the process of delivery after more than fifteen years. 

Similarly, the bureaucratic complications of falling between the jurisdiction of two separate local authorities will mean the scheme will need to be sure of its identity, it might even need its own development authority, such as the Dublin Docklands. Is the city-edge too self-effacing a title? It will need to extract the character and heritage of the existing area and be more than just the edge of something greater. 

When

The project was published for four weeks of non-statutory public consultation, ending on 6 October 2021. By the end of this year, the Strategic Framework Plan is expected to be finalised with a preferred scenario for development put forward. In 2022 a statutory plan will be drawn up based on the strategic framework. Once this plan has gone through the statutory processes and formally adopted, key projects and infrastructure from the plan will be implemented. 

Future reference is a time capsule where we report on interesting developments and debates happening around the island of Ireland. It is both meant to keep our readers informed on current developments and also enlighten future researchers on what we were thinking about in this place, during this time. For our first dispatch, we’re looking at the significant proposals for the Naas Road/Ballymount area to the south-west of Dublin.

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Domestic industry

Present Tense
Adam Moore
Niall Patrick Walsh

The quintessential Victorian Factory has been a particularly reactive typology. Oscillating between industry and domesticity, these once intimidating laborious behemoths drew masses commuting from rural outskirts to urban centres bringing high-density and mass disease. A place from which to escape.

The industrial decline in the 1980s saw factories across the Island of Ireland ceasing operations with their cavernous rooms being developed into protective apartments. This change-of-use re-situated the factory at the opposing end of the commute; home, a place to return.

However, 2020, the year of working-from-home (WFH), saw the sudden compression of the average commute, a short walk from bed to desk, bringing with it the reintroduction of production to these residential factories of slumber. Fluctuating between the conforming atmosphere of work and the individuality of home has led to the rapid deterritorialisation of domesticity and industry leading to our personal lives percolating through work spheres; bold pets appearing on camera adding frivolous zest and breaking the guard held between colleagues, prosaic office cups replaced by heart-warming ‘Worlds Best Mum’ mugs that brew and leak personality which lines the bookshelf backdrops of ubiquitous Zoom meeting mosaics.

This viral driven explosion of individuality in the new domestic ‘workplace’ contrasts with the sterile offices which often suppress personality, replacing it with abstracted emblems of power and profit. With an office vacancy rate of 4.5% (57,600,000sq.ft) in the UK, it is time to interrogate the workplace.[1] WFH has benefits, but there is distance behind the screen.

Domestic industry permits the office to no longer be an area of sustained engagement, allowing it to become a space primarily for exchange. With excess commercial space and the continued prevalence of hot-desk Teams meetings, urban plots could be freed up for more gregarious, community working-space. Google playgrounds may not be enough - there is potential for systematic change. Leading co-working spaces like Second Home inject domestic kitsch into the office, while others like JuggleHub offer childcare co-working facilities, synthesising life and work.

The Victorian factory has hosted every aspect of human life, once a place of disease, now a place of protection. The varying hues of our lives are separated by walls which COVID-19 have proven, are no longer there. Through questioning the absolutes of building typologies, we could begin to weave together the multiple facets of our lives. Just as work has colonised the home, the home may domesticate the workplace.

Viral outbreaks have historically redefined workplace culture. The impact of the Black Death (1381) on the Peasant's Revolt being only one example. As we surface from the latest viral visitation, architecture is morphing to remain relevant. The home has been colonised, but what will the ‘new normal’ for the workplace be?

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An alternative social imaginary

One Good Idea
Eve Olney
Ciarán Brady

Inside, a gathering of about forty people are being hushed and encouraged to take seats around the circular assembly of chairs laid out by those first in the door. When an air of collective quiet calm has at last settled in the room we look to two figures in the inner central line of the assembly as they begin to chair tonight's main discussion points that directly affect the future of the building and the people who now sit within it. This is one of the first Community Land Trust assembly meetings for this particular inner city community and it is the turn of the local hairdresser and the cobbler to direct the continued discussions pertaining to how the needs of this community might and can align with the opportunities this substantial property offers. Tonight our focus is on the immediate housing needs of those working on the street – whether as employees or local business owners – and what proportion of the building should be allocated to low-rent, high-spec housing. There is a palpable sense of optimism following the success of the previous meeting when the space we are currently in was consensually allocated to daytime childcare needs and an autonomous space for teenagers to meet and create projects in the evenings. 

Eight months previously the seeds for this initiative were sown in a local café through an ongoing conversation concerned with how part of the street was beginning to be redeveloped and how the local media had reported that this was being done with the ‘support of the local community’. Members of said community were wondering why they had not heard of this project, never mind the fact that they were assumed to be part of its inception. Conversations began being structured into discussions and processes put in place to support the development of a real community-led initiative. This small group of people grew into a proportionate body representative of the mixed and sometimes conflicting needs and interests cast across the community of this historic city street.  

In time a tripartite governance structure was secured in the building of a Community Land Trust that included the actual local community, a smaller collective that would be actively living/ working/ engaging with the space on an ongoing basis, and a group representing the local authority. The first achievement of this trust was in obtaining the red brick building from the HSE that had not been in use for many years previously. Taking this property permanently off the market and into the hand of the CLT secures permanently affordable homes, grassroots-led governing structures and creative use of empty spaces led by the immediate needs articulated by this community through a direct democratic process of common assemblies. We are now working on obtaining further empty properties across Cork city. This is only the beginning.

At the top corner of a steep hilly street in Cork city I join a patchy procession of people entering the old red brick building whose doors have been closed for the past five years. The narrow passage into the generously sized meeting room still betrays that musty, stale smell of neglect that such buildings embody through the absence of life and use.

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From Letterkenny to Dundrum

Working Hard / Hardly Working
Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell
Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell

Letterkenny Market Square, in County Donegal, and Pembroke Square, of the Dundrum Town Centre, Dublin, have both undergone a period of change. While the northern square in Dundrum has flourished and been transformed, Letterkenny Market Square has slipped further and further from the busy public hub it once was. Both spaces are lined by a two-storey enclosure and are adjacent to their town’s main thoroughfare. They are also both only accessible on foot and are part of the central commercial area. However, because of the treatment of the squares’ edges, the resulting urban spaces have strikingly different manifestations.


What was once a vibrant, busy public space, Letterkenny Market Square is now barely used. In the past it housed the bus stop to the north, shops, services and eateries line the east and west, and the square was completed with the grandeur of the sandstone bank at the south. However, between this built edge and the square, there is now a road with slow-moving, but constant traffic.

The road pulls the edge away from the square, isolating the green space, removing the surrounding activity. To access the square, pedestrians must divert from the Main Street, meander through the flow of cars, and pass through one of the gates along the fixed low wall at the periphery. The square is no longer accessible in a causal way, only as a deliberate move. And there is little to motivate local residents to do so. Within the square itself, you can find only sporadic seating and some planting.

While the square is edged with a low wall, the tall planting along each side creates a visual blockade and prevents the square from being overlooked. The cover and shading from the public eye has attracted antisocial behaviour. In a downward spiral, because the edge has pulled away, the square becomes less attractive and usable. Because the square is no longer used, the peripheral businesses move their premises elsewhere. And because the square is not used, nor overlooked, and has a visual block, it became a spot for antisocial behaviour. It is a vicious cycle and what was once known for the bustling market hub, has become a place to avoid.

Letterkenny is a busy town. In addition to its own residents, the urban area serves the many surrounding rural populations. The square is a public space that needs to work harder. Currently, all green spaces in Letterkenny are both decentralised and delineated with walls and borders. The square has the potential to provide a well needed free space in a busy town, and with some simple, clever design, it can.

In contrast, the Dundrum Town Centre Pembroke Square has undergone a recent urban renewal. The square was formerly a relatively desolate space, only used to pass through. The monotonous paving was occasionally occupied by a large marquee for events, however, even this did not serve the urban space well, as it created another firm edge within an already lifeless area.

Now the square is a vibrant hub of activity. It provides lots of ways to use the space - pods to gather in, picnic tables to eat on, younger people lounge and socialise on the shaded steps, children play in the central water jets. And this is without taking into account the numerous bustling food trucks, cafes, and restaurants that line the square with tables and chairs.

The edge has remained active. The built periphery has a variety of uses - everything from shops and eateries, to living spaces and bars. The square is occupied and overlooked at all times, and the space remains somewhere safe and sociable. Visiting the Dundrum square now is a pleasure. It is always lively. By keeping the active edge wrapped directly around the open space, as opposed to being separated by a road, it allows the urban realm to thrive.

By keeping the edge active, indulging a variety of uses, and providing liberating free spaces, these squares, which were intended for people, enable the ‘urban’ to be successful.

Public spaces have never before been so valued. As a result of the global pandemic, activity has moved ‘out’, from private dwellings to the public realm. In Ireland, there had seemed almost a reticence to using shared space before the pandemic. However, as we found ways to re-enter society in a safe and social way, our parks, squares, and streets became our urban saviours.

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