On Sunday afternoon – a sunny day with a clear blue sky – the steps leading down from Powerscourt Centre onto South William Street were unusually empty of people, and wet.
As the steps began to dry up, at about two o’clock in the afternoon, a staff member, a man in a blue t-shirt, came out and watered them again, with a hose that is kept off to the side.
On Monday, the steps were occupied again, by people taking the weight off their feet for a few moments in the bank-holiday sunshine.
For years, the steps of the Powerscourt Centre have been a popular sitting spot and sun trap for people on lunch breaks, or others enjoying a pint from one of the local pubs.
The manager of Powerscourt Centre says they do it because the way people use the steps when they sit there can cause heath, safety and litter issues.
A Sun Trap
It doesn’t really affect his restaurant at all, says Simon Hanlon, manager at Gourmet Burger Kitchen across the street. But he doesn’t really see the point of watering the steps, he says.
“They want to stop people sitting and enjoying the sun,” says Hanlon. But people have been doing that for years.
It seems a waste of water, too, he says. As far as he knows, people seem to clean up after themselves, and don’t cause any harm.
“There’s always a good vibe in the area,” he says.
Public seating is “very limited” around there too, says Hanlon. “It’s a pity there’s nowhere for people to sit down. It’s such an interesting street.”
Hanlon picks up a regular refrain among Dubliners. That there should be more public seating in general across the city, and that it would draw more people in.
On Monday, Tara Raftery was sat on the steps alongside a friend. Above them, the Powerscourt Centre had already closed for the day.
It’s a relaxing place for couples, or groups, to meet to talk, she says.
“The thing is, in Ireland, it’s so rare to have this weather,” said her friend Olga Sestaka.
The two have been walking around, looking for a place in the sun. “This was the only spot we could find,” she says.
Raftery says she has seen rubbish left there. “I have seen broken glass here before, some people deliberately smashing a bottle,” she says. That was teenagers playing a drinking game.
“Obviously, that type of behaviour wrecks it for everybody, but most people are just here to have one or two socials [drinks],” she says. “We definitely need more public seating.”
“Look around, there’s a recycling bin, but this is terrible, what people do,” says Sestaka, pointing to a few discarded cigarette butts on the steps, at her feet. “This, I totally dislike.”
“Even if they hose the area down, they’re just pushing the butts onto the footpath,” says Raftery.
A petition might be in order to stop it, she says. It’s not often that the weather is so fine.
Health and Safety
The steps are watered every day and all day, says Philip Flannery, from Farrier and Draper, the restaurant next door. But “it’s private property, it’s not public seating”.
“The steps are the main fire escape for the entire shop,” says Flannery. It’s one of the main entrances and exits.
“Fifty, sixty or seventy people with pints will stop people entering and exiting the building,” he says.
They leave glasses so people have to step over them, he says. “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”
Flannery likens the situation to the banks of the Grand Canal, or the lawns of Stephen’s Green, where people often leave rubbish at the end of a warm day. “If people had respect for the space, a compromise could be reached,” he says.
Customers feel intimidated when they have to walk around people, says Powerscourt Centre Manager Mary Larkin.
“People are sitting there and leaving stuff,” she says, so they have to be careful. Broken glass and leftover food left on the steps is a continuous issue.
“There are a lot of people leaving glasses. If someone steps on them, it’s on the centre, not on the council,” she says.
Larkin says she understands that people want to sit there when it’s sunny, but it’s the entrance to a shopping centre, not a public park.
It’s not the first time that Powerscourt has dealt with the challenge this way, she says. “We’ve had complaints [from customers] that they can’t get down.”
A Need for Seats
Labour Councillor Andrew Montague says people sitting on the Powerscourt steps is really a reflection on the lack of public seating in Dublin.
“The city isn’t providing enough,” says Montague, the chairperson of the council’s planning committee.
Perhaps Powerscourt could be a bit more accommodating. But “it just highlights a real lack of facilities in the city centre”, he says.
Dublin City Council’s “public-realm strategy,” does include adding more seating, says Montague. “It’s full of good ideas but it’s got a really long time frame,” he says.
Dublin is an old city, and “to that end pressure of space for all the functions to be accommodated on a public street is a challenge”, said a council spokesperson, by email.
The city’s public-realm strategy “identifies the need for small lingering and rest spaces around the city which allow for rest and unique experience of the city”, said the spokesperson.