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Whose streets?

Aakriti Sood

5/9/2022

Working Hard / Hardly Working

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.

South William Street, Dublin [4]

While some people can enjoy their back gardens, for others, public space presents the only opportunity to relax and socialise.

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. 

... 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.‍

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 doireann@type.ie.

Working Hard / Hardly Working is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.

References

1. W. H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Conservation Foundation, 1980.

2. M. Douglas, Purity and Danger, UK, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

3. J. Gehl, Life between buildings, Denmark, The Danish Architectural Press, 1971.

4. South William Street, Dublin by Aakriti Sood.

5. Dún Laoghaire Coast Road, Dublin by Aakriti Sood.

Contributors

Aakriti Sood

Aakriti Sood is currently living and working in Dublin after graduating with a Masters in Architecture from UCD in 2021, with her thesis focusing on social sustainability in contemporary cities. Having grown up in Chandigarh and Mumbai, she has developed a keen interest in the urban realm and it’s public space, and the conservation and revival of the historic built fabric.

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