“Think big but always remember to make the places where people are to be, small” – Jan Gehl makes a simple and direct guideline regarding the creation of new public space. However, in order to stimulate the successful design of our cities, we must first be able to identify and interrogate the strengths and flaws of existing public space.
Navitas, Aarhus Docklands. Photography by R. Mossop
A cohesive language can be achieved through small design decisions creating a distinct thread through the city. Of course, mistakes will be made, and taste will change, but sometimes Aarhus’ Viking-shaped traffic lights are enough to remind us to be playful when pondering serious matters surrounding the public realm.
Gehl is also no stranger to criticising the existing either, particularly 20th-century modernist urban design . Within the European context, we in Dublin occupy a specific design culture which can harbour an attitude of scepticism towards the prescription of public space, but as our capital grows and sprawls, and land supply diminishes, the "demand for recreational access can no longer be sustained as an informal activity and demands a managed response": as Robert Camlin explained in TOPOSEuropean Landscape Magazine .
This article aims to identify the current state of public space in Ireland and compare it with Denmark's much-praised urban design culture. In addition, it will explore how we might exercise a more vernacular approach that could provide successful, generous public space with contextual meaning in Dublin. Examples of works from Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council (DLR) and Dublin City Council (DCC), as well as Aarhus Kommune will be used. This of course is a limited survey and does not claim to speak to the wider culture across each respective country.
The inspiration for this piece must be credited to Frank McDonald’s insight outlining local authority spending in Denmark, which accounts for 64% of total public expenditure, compared to a figure of 9% in Ireland . This supported my positive experience interacting with public space and infrastructure in Aarhus and encouraged me to undertake a comparative study into the two similarly sized local authorities of DLR and Aarhus Kommune.
Small and playful interventions
In Aarhus, there exists a strong emphasis on playfulness. Across the city, there are numerous examples of inexpensive, simple public space interventions following basic design principles, which generally nurture a tone of generosity and liveliness in the city and its public space. This echoes the aforementioned words of Gehl on thinking big through small acts.
Among many other interventions, this intent is embodied by a range of wooden structures, which can be found at a few locations across the city, offering some riverside respite in Mølleparken, in the harbour, and surrounding Aarhus Cathedral. Their simple intention of softening the otherwise cold concrete, framing a view, or simply gathering people to one location within a park, particularly on a sunny day, are successful examples of an intervention which works hard to provide a valuable public gesture.
Through my work in urban design in Aarhus, I was briefed on designing a similar structure elsewhere in Denmark; the brief included among its primary intentions "a place to drink a beer". This more uninhibited approach heavily contrasts with the Irish attitude towards oft-described "anti-social behaviour", which has led to the demise of many fine public spaces in Dublin, such as Chancery Park . It is not beneficial to dwell on the particular issue of alcohol consumption as I believe our local authorities require a more general shift towards a more light-handed, generous model. However, while our attitude towards the consumption of alcohol in public has changed slightly since the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains largely prohibited under stringent and dated by-laws across many local authorities in Ireland, limiting how we imagine enjoying our public spaces . As outlined by Tony Reddy in Dublin by Design: "Dublin, and all Irish cities, should be inspired by these best European examples to become an enabler of activity and nurture inclusive dialogue and the power of civil society" – instead of trying to design within the current narrow boundaries of what is viewed as acceptable public space .
Many of these small freedoms are often credited with a greater sense of trust within society across Scandinavia. David McWilliams discusses the effects of this on society and within commerce . While the presence of civic trust is tangible, I suspect greater spending on the upkeep of public space through street cleaning and bottle deposit schemes bear great responsibility as well.
A local context
In recent times, particularly in Dún Laoghaire, it appears there is a tendency to rely on larger public projects to reform our public space. A prime example is the much-anticipated Dún Laoghaire baths project, long overdue and likely to exceed a budget of €13.4 million. Large budgets and long construction times will always be met with some public dissatisfaction, and only time will speak to the success of the project. As the hoarding is removed, an elegant concrete landscape is revealed, and a little time often softens the public reception of this kind of project, as seen in the case of the DLR Lexicon. However, when Senior Architect for DLR Bob Hannan claims "there’s nowhere else where you can sit down in a café so close to the sea", this suggests that greater interrogation into the essence of the project and how it serves the town would be of great benefit. This is related to the fact that efforts to re-establish a bathing place like that of the original 1843 design were unsuccessful, instead offering a rather exposed open-water bathing pier .
I believe this is where we can learn from the Danish approach, marrying it to our own culture and ideally creating a simple, elegant, vernacular design for our public spaces. The new cycleway from Sandycove to Blackrock demonstrates the success of a simple idea using simple means and materials. However, I would argue it is more a public requirement than a public gesture. Furthermore, we need not look back too far to one of our city's most charming urban design interventions, linking public space to architecture and culture. Dotting north Dublin’s coastline are seventeen structures, built by Dublin Corporation throughout the 1930s, which form bathing shelters, kiosks, wind shelters, and miniature lighthouses .
These small unassuming structures are steeped in the wider culture of sea bathing, speaking to the early 20th-century zeitgeist of public sanitation, while also revealing an extremely important intention of democratising sea bathing. Ellen Rowley writes, "Although small and simple in concept, they are robust and their curved lines – both in plan and elevation – give them an air of elegance, reminiscent of the architecture of the grand British lidos" . This, again, I can’t help but relate to Gehl’s statement of thinking big through small interventions.
As outlined by Mary Freehill, among others in Frank McDonald’s A Little History of the Future of Dublin, city and county councils urgently require more power to make decisions affecting planning frameworks, urban design, and the quality of life of all citizens . I also believe that the decentralisation of power would allow our cities and towns to develop their own design identity. A cohesive language can be achieved through small design decisions creating a distinct thread through the city. Of course, mistakes will be made, and taste will change, but sometimes Aarhus’ Viking-shaped traffic lights are enough to remind us to be playful when pondering serious matters surrounding the public realm . Therefore, we must challenge the standardisation stemming from a more centralised system and reflect on how we previously achieved a cohesive sense of urban design, creating an identity greater than that on postcards. Dublin Corporation and notably Herbert Simms have demonstrated that we are capable of creating a cohesive architectural language, beautifully exhibited in Herbert Simms City by Paddy Cahill . We can achieve this once those responsible "maintain a commitment to a vision of our cities where real people live, work and interact" .
We must challenge the standardisation stemming from a more centralised system and reflect on how we previously achieved a cohesive thread of urban design, creating an identity greater than that on postcards.
Working Hard / Hardly Working is an article series designed to promote the use and organisation of public space. By presenting two examples - one which works well, and one which needs to work harder - it highlights the importance of clever design, and how considered decisions can make our shared spaces better. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Working Hard / Hardly Working is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.
Rodhlann Mossop is an MArch student at University College Dublin. Following the completion of his Bachelor programme, he spent a year working in Dublin. During the first year of the MArch programme, while studying an online Erasmus programme at TUM he temporarily relocated to Aarhus, Denmark, where he worked in urban and landscape design.
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