Friday, 2 October 2015

Making Dublin the capital of Ireland

James Wickham: Two opportunities are about to be lost for dramatic improvements to Dublin. There seems to be considerable push-back against Dublin City Council’s plan to turn Trinity Traffic Junction (officially still known as College Green) into a civic space worthy of a capital city.

Meanwhile the proposed DART Underground project has been deferred again.  Although both issues may appear to be just about transport, they also involve fundamental questions about social inclusion and social cohesion.  In this post I look at the first of these.

Dublin City Council has published plans for College Green which would make it only traversed by buses and the new Luas line. This would allow the creation of a much larger pedestrian area and a real public space in front of the best and most imposing Georgian buildings in Dublin.

At the moment of course the Green is still essentially a traffic junction.  Pedestrians cross the road at their peril, there is nowhere for people to sit, to chat, to imagine themselves at the centre of the city.  Of course, the area is hardly an attraction for tourists or even for Dubliners wanting to shop in nearby streets.  It is obvious that with relatively minor alterations (such as those proposed by the City Council) College Green has the potential to be one of the most beautiful urban spaces in Europe.  If this opportunity is thrown away, the City should rename College Green Trinity Traffic Junction.  Then we could stop being embarrassed about it.

Part of the opposition comes from the Irish Parking Association who argue that the plan would make it more difficult for car drivers to enter the city centre and so shops in the city would lose customers.  This is not a trivial issue. The city centre would be much less attractive if Dundrum Shopping Centre replaced Grafton Street.  However, there is no reason why pedestrianising a bit of College Green should reduce city centre parking spaces.  The existing level of car parking for shoppers could perfectly well be maintained and even increased, for example through re-allocating some of the free car-parking currently enjoyed by many city centre workers.

Anyway, turning Trinity Traffic Junction into College Green would make more people, including tourists and high value shoppers, actually want to visit this part of town.

However, the very fact that the debate is carried out in these terms shows the level to which discussion of urban planning in Dublin has sunk.  Famously, Yeats characterised political debate of his time as that of the ‘greasy till’.  Certainly, greasy tills are usually more desirable than empty tills.  However, what the city centre should look like and how it should be used is a question of urban planning, urban design.  It’s about values and aspirations.

The great squares and piazzas of European cities are above all public places – spaces that are open to all citizens.  While a more attractive city centre would probably bring economic benefits, this is hardly something that can be decided by the balance sheets of companies or by economic cost-benefit analysis.   Do we want a beautiful city?  How do we make our city enjoyable?  Do we want a city for its citizens?

There is another perhaps even more fundamental issue.  Most countries identify with their capital city. French people may moan about the domination of Paris, but they are also proud that Paris is their capital city.  You can hardly be proud of a city where public spaces are given over to traffic.

Finally abolishing Trinity Traffic Junction would be a significant step towards making Dublin the Capital of Ireland.

Professor James Wickham is Lead Researcher on TASC's Working Conditions in Ireland Project 

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