In Barcelona every night, guys in yellow overalls from the city’s sanitation department can be seen power-hosing footpaths to get rid of dirt and make them presentable to pedestrians every morning. The same happens in Paris and in many other European cities.
In Dublin, however, we expect rain to clean the streets. So when there’s a long dry spell, particularly in summertime, the footpaths become filthy with all sorts of grime and gunge, including the disgusting, sticky silage-like effluent that leaches out of litter bins.
We think nothing of dumping paper coffee cups, aluminium cans, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and other rubbish on the street, even within metres of a litter bin. The other day in Temple Bar, I saw the wicker basket of a parked ladies’ bicycle used as a litter receptacle.
If you walk around the streets, especially around 6pm, you can see lots of waste bags on city centre pavements tagged for collection, or untagged black plastic bags simply dumped on side streets and even on stone steps in front of Georgian houses in the north inner city.
Dublin must also be in the running for the title of World Capital of Public Urination, given how prevalent this disgusting practice is in parts of the city centre, notably Temple Bar. Mostly it’s done by men, but I once saw a drunken young woman squatting on a footpath to pee.
It’s no wonder there’s been a debate about Senator David Norris’s characterisation of us as a “genuinely filthy nation”. But even he overlooked the filthy state of our footpaths in saying that O’Connell Street was “kept really clean and wholesome all the time”.
It is not. No more than Grafton Street, where the new grey Iberian granite paving is pockmarked by dirt, including black stains left by discarded chewing gum; it has become “a blank canvas for filth”, according to one eagle-eyed citizen, Maureen Duckenfield.
In a letter to the Irish Times last month, the Ballinteer woman queried whether she was the only person to notice this problem. “I have never seen the pavements so dirty . . . This is the height of the tourist season. Have we lost all pride and respect for where we live?”
The pavements and gutters are swept alright, but there is no commitment to “deep cleaning” by power-hosing. Expecting rainfall to do the job is about as naive as former City Architect Jim Barrett’s initial belief that the stainless steel Dublin Spire would be “self-cleaning”.
“Think of your kitchen sink!” I remember saying to him. And yes, it’s true that a film of brown slime covers most of the Spire, above the shiny surface at the lower level. Yet the 120-metre monument has only been cleaned once (in 2008) since it was completed in 2003.
The cleaning cost, at €240,000, is obviously the main reason why it’s not done more often. But then, nobody gave much thought to the ongoing maintenance of the slender structure. The debate was all about its appropriateness in the context of O’Connell Street.
Let’s face it, we’re not good at maintenance. Millions of euro are spent on providing public amenities, but they’re simply not maintained. Look at all the graffiti on the bronze handrails of the Millennium footbridge or on the new opaque glass on the seats on Grattan Bridge.
Dublin City Council doesn’t even have a consistent programme of graffiti removal from buildings in its ownership, including the cultural institutions in Temple Bar; it merely responds to complaints from individual citizens, does a bit of painting and then forgets about it.
The only deterrent to graffiti vandals is to clean off or paint over their “tags” within 24 hours, as we do with our own building in Temple Bar. Eventually, the vandals get the message that there’s not much point in hitting us and they go off to daub another building instead.
Trees planted less than a decade ago on a central median dividing Dorset Street are dying, if not already dead, yet nothing is done to put this right. Elsewhere, the Parks Department often cuts down trees and leave their stumps in the ground for months before replacing them.
Or take the brace of 12 tall lighting masts in Smithfield topped by gas braziers that haven’t been lit for years because it costs €300 per hour to fire them. If they’re now useless, why not take them down, leaving the uplighters to provide public lighting for the re-ordered “plaza”?