Opinion

Who Has Their Eye on the City as a Whole?

Eoin O'Mahony and Philip Lawton portrait
Eoin O'Mahony and Philip Lawton

Eoin is teaching fellow in geography at University College Dublin, whose interests include the process of urban change; he is a member of the Workers' Party. Philip is an assistant professor in human geography at Trinity College Dublin, whose research focuses on the economic transformation of cities.

After a period of stagnation, Dublin is currently undergoing another round of significant physical change. This reflects a combination of economic, social and cultural forces at work within the city.

The cranes are back on the skyline, office blocks are completed at a rapid rate, and there are new plans for sites leftover from the previous economic crash.

Yet, and in keeping with wider trends, certain parts of the city are changing rapidly while others remain mostly unchanged; one city market sits in dereliction while the other is being prepared for redevelopment; the docklands are glistening with new glass boxes as nearby older houses get squeezed out.

While the overall image is presented as one that occurs to the city as a whole, the reality is highly uneven and fragmented, both in terms of policy and everyday experience.

Privatisation of the Public

The type of city we want in Dublin is directly tied to the social forces that are at work within it. The significance of these forces is in their ability to include and exclude people, both socially and economically.

This has been brought into sharp relief in recent decades as cities throughout Europe and elsewhere have shifted from being primarily focused on activities such as manufacturing to those focused on services and consumption.

Furthermore, this shift has gone hand in hand with an intensification of the role of private bodies in shaping urban space, ranging from service provision, to the privatization of public space, to the intensification – since the 1980s – of the role played by housing within the global economy.

In recent years, research by sociologists such as Saskia Sassen and others has emphasized how the increased role of private actors in urban space. While the privatization of public space and the dominance of market forces in housing are stand-out examples of such, for Sassen, these forces raise questions over the very ownership of urban space itself.

In further emphasizing these factors, geographer Ugo Rossi has drawn on the example of the tourist industry as a means of highlighting the wider challenges of allowing markets a high degree of free rein. Of particular note here, is the extension of the sharing economy, such as Airbnb, into various aspects of everyday life, such as housing.

While such approaches are accepted to a degree, they have also been subjected to a significant amount of public critique and protest. In some cities in Europe this year, small social movements against tourism bubbled to the surface, highlighting fears around housing provision and the dominance of tourist accommodation.

The approaches outlined by Rossi can be witnessed through a number of recent examples in Dublin, including the extended role of Airbnb in local tourism. While such approaches have become normal, they are not without their challenges.

This model of the city raises questions about the future role of private bodies in the provision of public services as well as the dominance of market actors in influencing how our city is changed.

Wanted: A Vision for the City

While for some, the increased role of private actors has become an essential element of urban change, it is deeply uneven in its influence. Whether it be in terms of the breakdown in communication over the division of duties, or the production of vacant and derelict sites over prolonged periods, urban change does not happen everywhere equally.

Recently, public discussion has intensified about how the city should look and feel. There is, for example, a desire for a better quality of public realm – including bike lanes, better-quality paths, improved accessibility, and seating opportunities.

As we saw with “Luas-henge” over the summer – the row of control boxes at the corner of Grafton Street and College Green – people are really concerned about the look and feel of place. While the discussion over the control boxes may seem like a micro-scale debate about the public realm, there is a need to query their broader significance.

It is of key importance to note that these micro examples belie a much deeper issue around fragmentation of duties: each of these is managed by several actors, crossing public and private companies. For example,Transport Infrastructure Ireland has its contractors for road schemes and public transport; Dublin City Council has a road-maintenance section but also hires road contractors to repave streets.

But who has their eye on the city as a whole? Who is answerable to the elected councillors (and what powers do they have to engage with such)? While it may well be something that a directly elected mayor could have an impact upon, it is unclear, from a governance perspective, how they might ensure a more cohesive approach to the forms of fragmentation discussed here.

Monetisation of Life in the City

It is important to state that the argument is not about denying that the city could benefit from a better-quality public realm, but one of how space is shaped and by whom. While planning bodies like An Bord Pleanála and processes like the Development Plan have an influence here, these are only a part of a wider set of factors.

Furthermore, this is not only a question of the management of key infrastructure projects per se, and questions also arise as to who shapes the city and who, primarily, benefits. In particular, there is a need to closely observe what an intensified overlap of public and private bodies might mean for everyday life in the city.

Returning to Rossi and Sassen, the ways in which private forces are becoming embedded in the everyday life of urban space must be met with trepidation. For all its worth, “place-making” has become increasingly embedded within real-estate investment strategies of companies such as CBRE and Frank Knight.

The increased extent to which the meanings of place are used for such purposes is of significant concern in that it results in the monetisation of virtually all aspects of urban life. This, as is made explicit by these actors, has significant implications for who can and cannot avail of the benefits offered by urban space itself.

In this way, the promotion of a good-quality public realm does not sit outside the wider social and economic realities of the city. We need to be mindful of the forces at work at shaping the city, from the micro to the macro scale, and the long-term consequences of such from the perspective of who is included and excluded from the city.

Larger Government Role Needed

With these factors in mind, arguably, there is a need to return to building much greater capacity within the local state to make real the vision for the city that many wish to see. This goes from the management of the streets to the renewal of the city markets and the provision of housing, such as is highlighted by plans to build rapid-build housing.

In this regard, recent urgency around market development on both sides of the river are welcome and provide a real opportunity to rearticulate the role of public bodies in everyday management roles. Indeed, the provision of city green spaces like Weaver Park can be seen as providing future impetus for the role of public bodies.

However, as we have seen in Newmarket Square, these are political struggles where resources and their allocation are fought for over long periods of time. They are also often dependent on private developers making the first move, and this has implications for the long-term sense of ownership within urban space.

As has been argued by Mick Byrne in this paper recently, it can look as if public-resource scarcity is policy. The development of a more inclusive and better-functioning city is dependent upon the joining up of these fragmented elements.

This means we need to turn away from assumptions about “cutting red tape” so that private business can do its work. It is important that we instead understand how the local state can be better equipped to promote a more inclusive urban society.

 

Comments

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  2. Joe C
    11 October at 15:26

    Dara, I’m sure you would appreciate debate on the matter and I’d recommend describing what you’re linking to. Unfortunately not all who see a link will necessarily view it without knowing what it is.

    It’d also be good if you offered some thoughts on it, and the original article, as it’s likely you have some if you were aware of the published masterplan and have linked to it here. It would benefit the discussion immensely.

    I’ve only just seen it myself and will read it later when I have the opportunity to. But I’ll just add that the existence of a masterplan survey (having been involved in some myself in this country) is not an indication of appropriateness, intent or achievements of its subject. It certainly can be, but as many are utilised as as many are discarded, drastically changed, or without intent to properly use from the beginning. Sometimes they just tick a box to ease pressure on doing more. Again, I’m only just aware of this document now so don’t know where it falls in terms of what I’ve just discussed but I’d appreciate any thoughts you have.

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