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The road to a better public realm

Frank McDonald

12/9/2022

One Good Idea

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.

Example of a poor-quality street surface at Temple Lane, Dublin 2. The joints between street setts that were laid too widely apart are filled with poured tar, now pockmarked by bottle caps. See also "temporary" tarmac inlay

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.

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.

... 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.

One Good Idea is a series of articles which focuses on the simple, concise discussion of a complex spatial issue. Each piece is presented as a starting point towards a topic that the author believes should be part of broader public discourse. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact info@type.ie.

One Good Idea is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.

References

1. Available at: https://www.dublincity.ie/sites/default/files/media/file-uploads/2019-01/Your_City_Your_Space_Public_Realm.pdf

2. C. Dalby, “New Plan for Temple Bar Square Backtracks on Past Push for Walkability, says Architect”, Dublin InQuirer, 13 October 2021. Available at: https://www.dublininquirer.com/2021/10/13/new-plan-for-temple-bar-square-backtracks-on-past-push-for-walkability-says-architect

Contributors

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald is an author, journalist, and former Environment Editor of 'The Irish Times'.

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