There is a certain hostile feeling in the city, particularly when it’s mid-winter, you are down to your bus fare and you have wet socks, as I was last week. It’s then that the spikes of Dublin’s defensive architecture start to look menacing.
As Willy Simon noted in his 16 December article, “Please Can We Have Some Place to Sit Down in the City”, there are precious few places in the city centre for people to sit down. Well, for some people to sit down. There’s €4 euro coffee with big comfy chairs, warm scented air and a sense of safety for those who can afford it, but less privacy and comfort for those who can’t.
The usual suspect standing between the public and adequate public facilities, ever-present in the mind and fears of the state, is the hooded spectre of anti-social behaviour. A very small minority of the population might mess about a bit, or might have been made homeless. And that’s enough to ensure that there are few if any places for us to sit down and talk to each other and rest a bit and watch the world go by.
The issue is framed in terms of fear and the fear of how anti-social behaviour may affect businesses and residents. The implication is that these businesses and “residents” have paid – probably through rent – for the privilege of being considered. It’s all about the monetisation of social relations.
And this is why we aren’t allowed to have nice things. The needs and fears of business and the public are treated as one and given equal importance, although it could be argued that the public well-being is a secondary concern in maintaining Ireland’s reputation as a low-cost, low-labour-law, tax-efficient – if you want to efficiently avoid paying it – place to do business. Just don’t expect to find a public toilet.
So why do we put up with this kind of city planning, this type of public policy? After spending a cold day in town bothering people for their thoughts on the lack of public seating, in preparation for this article, I read “Cognitive Dissonance and Non-adaptive Architecture: Seven Tactics for Denying the Truth”, by Nikos A. Salingaros of the University of Texas.
Salingaros’s article asked why we unquestioningly accept market rule of the public sphere, and allow “defensive architecture”, like spikes on flat spots where people might want to sit down without paying for a €4 coffee. His answer is that we’re designed to be followers, really, rather than to think for ourselves.
According to Salingaros, who drew together work from the fields of psychology, urban planning and economics to attempt to understand why we accept a lot less for more these days, why we accept insecure employment, he found that going along with the majority and engaging in groupthink is not a new phenomenon; it is a part of human nature and self-preservation.
“Cognitive dissonance” creates a state of physical anxiety to which we instinctively react in a defensive manner. We are programmed to counteract its occurrence, and it occurs when we are faced with evidence which challenges our beliefs. So we tend to stick to what we think we know, and agree with others around us.
“Such conformity has its benefits,” Salingaros writes, “when there is any chance of a genuine threat to the social group: it is better to flee than to stand around and try to figure out whether you are really in harm’s way.”
He continues: “The problem is, such crowd behavior has a way of working against what may be in our best interest, by motivating us to cling to fixed ways of thinking rather than accept better alternatives . . . history is full of instances where this tendency was used to manipulate and coerce people to do things that just didn’t make sense.”
And, Salingaros writes, “Once the majority has accepted misinformation, it is almost impossible to correct it in the public consciousness. Even in an educated democracy, a person naturally decides to accept majority opinion, irrespective of truth, in order to continue enjoying the benefits that society offers.”
When did it become normal for our city to defend itself against us? If this is normal now – the architecture of our city being designed to induce a fear response if you happen to be looking for somewhere to wait without spending money, paying for relief from unending consumption – what will be normal in ten years?
Will the anxiety of bearing both the moral cost of austerity and a society where your value is determined by your bank balance start to outweigh the benefits of going with the majority consensus?
Will the reality of the debt left to be paid and the implications of public services suffering from chronic underinvestment coupled with the anxiety of losing your job, falling through the last of the safety nets and onto those homeless spikes lead to a self-defence mechanism of a different sort as people become open to alternatives?
Luckily, it seems that some of us are not yet too far gone to see the alternatives. Shae Fitzgerald of the Liberties told me he didn’t buy the idea that we shouldn’t have public seating because it might attract anti-social behaviour.
“If it’s going to happen,” he told me, “then hire people from the local community to look after the area. My biggest problem is all these vacant properties. The council could hire them out cheaply . . . it would help everyone.”
Not only do some people see alternatives to the status quo, some improvements to our public spaces have already arrived.
As I found shelter outside a Spar while waiting for the bus, I got talking with a man who didn’t want to be quoted by name here. I’ll call him John. He became homeless a number of months ago after a fight with his girlfriend. “Eventually, the couches ran out,” he said.
Even during the day, he told me, it is difficult to find safe shelter, free from drug use. I didn’t want to ask John how he felt about being conjured up as a bogey man to prevent the creation of proper public spaces, as I suspected that society had done more harm to him than any temporary damage he could do to profit margins.
But he did mention that he was impressed with the new Talbot Memorial Bridge during summer, and all its free public seating. “It was lovely, there were packs of people sitting around together, different types,” he said. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as nice in the winter.
Maybe there will be more places like the bridge soon, though. Maybe even somewhere we can stay out of the rain and keep our socks dry in the cold months.
In Simon’s article, Dublin city councillor Andrew Montague, of Labour, said he wants to see the city’s open spaces improved with the type of seating that “you would almost have in your house.” We’re waiting.