25 June, 2014

Regeneration for Dún Laoghaire?

There was a packed out tent for the debate about the future of Dún Laoghaire that formed part of the Dún Laoghaire Writers Festival last week. The debate was titled 'Dun laoghaire: Slow Death or Rapid Recovery?' Hats off to David McWilliams for organising the event, and coming up with the catchy title. On the panel were Bruce Katz from Washington’s Brookings Institution; historian Peter Pearson, actor Eamon Morrissey and cafe owner Derek Bennett. The discussion was chaired by journalist Ann Marie Hourihane.

Dún Laoghaire has a lot going for it, but has its fair share of challenges. The town has had been linked with Dublin for better or worse for much of its history. Three hundred years ago according to the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company, verses were written inviting the ladies of Dublin "to repair to Dunleary where they would find honest residents and could procure good ale."

Dún Laoghaire and Dublin have been connected by rail for almost two hundred years (since 1834 to be precise). Interestingly the good people of Kingstown originally objected, and put together a fighting fund of five hundred guineas to try and stop its construction. However the railway, and the harbour's construction led to the town's expansion.

The release of some of the de Vesci lands for development appears to have precipitated an early version of the Celtic Tiger between 1890 and 1910 when much of the mile-long Georges Street was built, and dates often grace the engravings and plasterwork on the upper floors of these buildings. It could be questioned with hindsight whether a mile long retail street was ever a commercial proposition, and undoubtedly there were winners and losers in the retail market. My memory of Dún Laoghaire as a child in the 1960s and 1970s was of a bustling market town, although new shopping centres such as Stillorgan and Cornelscourt chipped away at Dún Laoghaire's retail base.

The opening of the DART commuter rail service in 1984 brought closer links between the Dublin City and Dún Laoghaire. The dependable regular service allowed workers to choose rail rather than face traffic jams, but it also attracted shoppers out of Dún laoghaire and into Dublin city centre. The town's pleasant location boosted house prices, but high demand and a lack of affordable smaller houses priced many couples out of the environs of the town and towards new estates of semi-detached homes in the west of the County. This shows in the demographic mix today which has 15% less young people and 15% more retirees than the County average. This lack of spending power hits hard.

The creation of the awkwardly titled and shaped new county of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown did little to boost the town although the administrative offices were placed adjacent to the reconfigured town hall. The opening of Dundrum Shopping Centre in the west of the county was a body blow to the town, and its offer of free parking and indoor malls attracted shoppers from the coast. Dún Laoghaire's 1970's shopping centre began to show its age, and its absurd design with a multi-storey park-park blocking the view of the sea failed to attract a new generation of shoppers. Even Marks and Spencers only lasted a few years on the main street before closing its doors as the Celtic Tiger came to an end.

Peter Pearson in his book 'Between the Mountains and the Sea (1998) states that:
"Dun Laoghaire is a residential town and part of the greater suburbs of Dublin, but it has lost many of its commercial enterprises and educational establishments and has relatively few cultural attractions for a place of its size and importance." He goes on to say "It has all the benefits of a town, and ... (it) is always a joy to walk the magnificent piers and see the terraces and church spires against the backdrop of the Dublin mountains."

Perhaps the building of the heavily criticised new County Library on the waterfront will attract more people to the town again, if even to visit and wonder what all the fuss was about. I suspect it will be a bit like the Eiffel Tower - a construction of much controversy that slowly was adopted by the citizens. Certainly the covering over of sections of the railway has been welcomed, and the landscaping is of a high quality. However this has led to a divided town - the Monaco/Beirut effect as Derek Bennett termed it.

Bruce Katz had some good advice. He started off by saying that Dún laoghaire wasn't that bad compared to many American cities. One could hardly disagree! He went on to give three pieces of advice.

1. Form networks to promote the town's rejuvenation. He acknowledged the passion at the debate, and felt that this combined with the strong heritage or cultural memory could only be a good thing. He said that the Public, Private and Civic spheres needed to co-operate.

2. He said the town needs a vision, grounded in evidence. Again, a good clear proposal that met with broad agreement. The County Development Plan is one thing, but you need a vision to get the ball rolling.

3. Set up a series of interventions to move things on. He suggested that what was needed was the infrastructure that attracts the 'Young Millenials' as he termed them. Free wi-fi on the main street was mentioned, but he also said walkability, cyclability and liveability are crucial.

He suggested that maybe a three day 'hackathon' or charette might produce a few good ideas. Finally (and I may have misquoted him), he said a Dolly Parton approach was required - Figure out who you are and do it - be yourself! Regeneration is a multi-faceted challenge - whether it be in the inner city or the suburbs. In the Dublin Institute of Technology I've set up a new Masters programme in Urban Regeneration and Development, and you can find out more about the Programme here.

Derek Bennett of Harry's Cafe asked if anyone from Council management was in the room. One hand went up. He painted a fairly bleak picture, suggesting that footfall was continuing to decline, and that the Council appeared to have a hand-off approach,. However he had met the new County Manager Philomena Poole and was looking forward to working with her. He talked about how he had to reduce the wages he pays his staff by 20%, and suggested that a bit of innovative thinking was needed on parking. He said that the Council doesn't understand the link between parking, footfall and revenue.

Peter Pearson said that the town was always in the shadow of the Capital. It has also been in the shadow of Monkstown, Glasthule and Dalkey. On parking he felt that there should perhaps be two hours free parking in the morning, as they offer in Skibereen.

Eamon Morrisey had some great memories of sea-faring types in the rare old times but he put his finger on the button when he stated that Dún Laoghaire never really had a 'centre' and perhaps this was part of the problem.

In the medium term term perhaps the vision for Dún Laoghaire could start with the preparation of a Local Area Plan and/or Architectural Conservation Area for the town. This could tie in with the making of an Economic Plan for the County that is mandated under the 2014 Local Government Reform Act.  I'd also like to see someone at a senior level within the County Council given the role of Town Manager.

However I'd start with tackling the problem identified by Eamon Morrisey. Sit down with the owners of the old Shopping Centre (apparently a hard-to-contact group of investors from around Galway) and convince them of the merits of blowing up or demolishing their building. 

As part of the re-building I'd suggesting putting in a decent-sized town square just opposite St. Michael's Church that would provide some breathing space in the centre of town. Imagine catching the last of the sun on a Summer's evening as you look down from your balcony at children playing in the centre of a car-free new Town Square with a breeze blowing in the trees...

I'll leave you with that.

21 May, 2014

An Open letter to the City Engineer


I thought I'd drop you a line just to share my experience of walking and cycling around Dublin with my kids over the last few years. There has been improvements but it still is a huge challenge.  You’re spending €80 million every year on transport in the city and I’m not convinced that the money is being spent correctly. We’ve had some good policy documents in recent years: Smarter Travel from 2009, and the Design Manual for Urban Streets and Roads which came out last year. Even if we go back twenty years the Dublin Transportation Initiative promised a significant move towards sustainable travel, and yet things seem to be moving slowly in the city.

 Maybe if I describe my journey from home to school to give you a flavour of the challenge…

I live in Stoneybatter, and our eleven year old is in school on Parnell Square.

If we’re cycling we leave the house on our bikes around 8.30 am and there’s a steady flow of cars rat-running through the area. There is a right turn ban off Infirmary Road, but it’s not really enforced.  Every few weeks a Guard might pull in a few cars, but if you’re driving you’d be more than likely to get away with it, so there’s a lot of cars streaming through the residential area.

At Temple Street West there’s a footpath on only one side of the road. The road is fairly wide and this means that traffic speeds up on to Arbour Hill before heading down into Stoneybatter itself. A footpath on both sies of th road shouldn't  be a luxury, but hey...

There are no traffic lights where Arbour Hill meets Stoneybatter so we generally turn left on to Arbour Place to avoid the traffic, and get to the pedestrian crossing near Mulligan’s Pub. The only problem is that the cars also follow us to avoid the traffic, so as we cycle down the back lane there are cars revving up behind us trying to get past.

Once we get on to Stoneybatter we press the button on the pedestrian lights. Incidentally why is the default position green for cars? Just asking.  Anyway, after waiting for a hundred seconds (I’ve timed it) we get five seconds to cross. It could be eight seconds, but it feels like five. You should know that people tell me their parents don’t go out walking much anymore, because they don’t have enough time to cross the road. A longer Green Man signal would be good.

North Brunswick Street is a racetrack. Once cars get past Grangegorman Lower they put the boot down. If cars time it right they can be doing about fifty as they pass the ‘Brunner’ - the Christian Brothers School. Thankfully the road narrows and slows the cars as you approach Church Street. However there’s no cycle lane, but there is enough space for two lanes of cars. Turning right can be a challenge, on a bike though. If you’re walking the pedestrian crossing heads off toward Phibsborough, which probably explains why most people on foot run across when they get a chance. Jan Gehl, the great Danish Planner  says that walking routes should follow the ‘desire lines’ but that’s another day’s work. On the right hand side is a derelict site, owned by the City Council, and full of litter. As a matter of fact the Council sometimes puts up ads saying you shouldn’t litter on the palisade steel fencing, hiding the litter and dereliction behind it. Nice.

There’s a left turn filter lane on to North King Street from Church Street. These are a nasty piece of work for pedestrians and cyclists, in fact they’re downright dangerous, but I’m sure the accident figures show you that. They’re great for cars though. North King Street is pretty wide, one of those roads where the City Council pretty much knocked down everything twenty years ago to get two lanes of traffic (and a bike lane I hasten to add) in both directions. The road narrows as you approach Bolton Street, and there’s generally a car or two parked on the cycle lane as people pull in for their morning coffee and paper. I don’t mind pulling out into the traffic, but it’s not that easy for an eleven year old. Incidentally, a loading bay or two might help things? I wish I knew what is it that you have against installing them.

As we head past DIT on Bolton Street there’s another coffee shop and a shop or two. The Guards stopped parking in the cycle lane once I sent several pix to the Super, but the City Council trucks have a habit of pulling in for a cuppa, maybe that’s something you could work on.

We cycle up toward Dorset Street. You used to allow parking on the cycle lane during rush hour in the morning rush hour, but after a year or two of writing to you, you were nice enough to change the parking hours so it is generally clear of parked cars. We’d turn right onto Dominick Street, but the traffic speeds are generally too high. Maybe a 40kph speed limit would calm the traffic, but the existing 50kph limit means cars generally do 60 or 70, so it’s a bit risky.

We pull in on the left near the Maldron Hotel where the Wax Museum used to be, and use the footpath from then on in. There’s generally a taxi parked on the footpath there,  picking up guests from the hotel but we can usually squeeze past.  Did I mention loading bays?

We get back on the bikes at Parnell Square. That corner of the square is a real race-track, Formula One style, if you really want to know. Cars start accelerating once they’ve passed the Rotunda, and because the street gets wider and wider, they’re generally speeding big-time by the time they get to the corner near the Hugh Lane Gallery. The Council has published three or four plans for narrowing the road here over the last twenty years, but who knows, maybe the next one will be implemented. Every year people put flowers up on the railings to commemorate the loss of 16 year old Adam Moran who was knocked off his bike here a few years ago  .

There’s another filter lane as we head down towards O’Connell Street. My biggest worry here is that cars will rear-end us, but so far so good, fingers crossed. We can relax once we get to the school, but I thought I mention one thing: it would be great to have a bikes stand or two outside the door of the school, it might even encourage more cycling.

I won’t bore you with too much detail about the journey home, but I you should know that we avoid Parnell Street. Why you might ask, given that there’s a cycle lane most of the way? Well, the bike lane is actually a glorified parking lot, so it is best avoided. Another thing, people living nearby  in Greek Street flats are concerned about the plans for making the  surface car park permanent where the Fish Market used to be; They’d prefer a soccer pitch for the kids. Thought I'd say it to you.

Oh, one more thing, I know there’s a lot of road works needed on North King Street, to get a new storm drain for Grangegorman, but the sign telling cyclists to get off their bikes sends out the wrong signal to those of us who try and choose a sustainable way to travel.  I just thought I’d say all of this to you, as I notice that one of the bike lanes planned for Rosie Hackett Bridge didn’t seem to make it through the construction process.

One final plea: why not reinstate the post of Cycling Officer for Dublin? You could even throw in responsibility for walking as well. Somebody needs to ensure that walking and cycling are higher up on the City Council’s agenda.



28 March, 2014

It's Time for a Greater Dublin Mayor

In 1991 I was elected as a councillor onto Dublin City Council. Before we took our seats on the new City Council we were issued with robes to wear for the formal first meeting. As a councillor my robes were green and blue. Councillors first elected in their ward were referred to as aldermen and wore the same robes but with an extra yellow strip indicating their status. 

However, as I walked into my first meeting in Council Chamber I spied someone wearing bright purple robes. This was Frank Feely the unelected City Manager, whose self-chosen robes summed up the anti-democratic nature of local government in Ireland since the 1920s. Not only did he get to choose his own robes, but he, and all other unelected city officials then and now have huge powers over decisions that affect our lives.

A year ago I tweeted that the “Dublin Mayor idea will die a slow painful death by way of committee. Bad for Dublin, bad for Ireland.” Unless there is a change of heart by Fingal councillors this may well be the outcome. Apparently they aren’t overly enthusiastic about a directly-elected mayor, and have the power to block the proposal. Asking the sitting councillors of Dublin whether they want a directly elected mayor is like asking turkeys for their views on Christmas. They may well decline, given that their status depends on the status quo. Had the Green Party’s proposals for a directly elected Mayor for Dublin come to fruition we would have had a Mayor for all of Dublin directly elected by the people of Dublin next May, rather than the Fine Gael proposals that at best will result in a mayoral  election in five years time.

The blame can be firmly put at Phil Hogan’s door for setting up a process that seems doomed to fail, unless there is a change of heart. Even his master-plan for local government reform “Putting People First” contains a breath-taking anti-urban bias as he proposes giving Dublin City equal powers to Westmeath on regional issues.  It seems clear, that although Phil Hogan is Minister for the Environment, he is also a Fine Gael TD for the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency, and doesn’t want to devolve power to Dublin or other cities.

Currently national government decide on the important issues that cities should be deciding, and councillors are mostly left to sort out issues of maladministration. It doesn’t have to be this way; around the world great cities have good mayors. There are many examples of mayoral vision from strong and coherent city leaders. The challenge in Dublin is that the current divide and conquer approach of four different local authorities with four different agendas, managers and mayors elected on a revolving basis is confusing and dysfunctional. Henry Kissinger asked who he would talk to if he wanted to talk to Europe. We need someone to talk to when we want to talk to Dublin. The current mayoral system operates on a revolving door basis every twelve months, and ensuring a disturbing lack of continuity in city governance. We need a strong voice, an Ed Koch, a Pasqual Maragall or, whether we like him or not, a Boris Johnson. We need someone who has a strong, coherent vision for Dublin.

All across the world, strong cities have directly elected mayors. Georges Frêche one of the most colourful and controversial voices in the south of France was mayor of Montpelier for 27 years. Under his mayoralty the city thrived. That is why most French people when asked say they would like to live in Montpelier. Barcelona would not be the same without the legacy of Pasqual Maragall, who transformed that city from industrial backwater to hosting the 1992 Olympics. He made the city tick, and work effectively because he was a strong and dynamic civil leader who united the city and brought the Games to Barcelona. We all remember the scenes at the diving events, where the divers competed with the city as a backdrop. That was no accident, it happened because there was a strong mayor. We need such a mayor in Dublin.

We need the strong strategies and policies, which come with a directly-elected mayor. Four separate systems are not working. When Fingal speaks with one voice, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown with another, South Dublin and Dublin City with others still, there is no coherence, and no metropolitan vision for the nation’s capital. Visitors who come to Dublin are constantly confused about the various mayors from each of the city’s local authorities. It is not just visitors but Dubliners who do not understand how the mayoralty chain revolves every 12 months between different people who are briefly a voice for Dublin and then disappear from public view. However, against the odds though we have had some great mayors in Dublin city. I have strong memories of Carmencita Hederman and her fantastic contribution to the city during its Millennium year. Half way through the millennium year, she was replaced. That is no way to run a city or a region. Dublin is the driver for so much of the nation. We cannot change leaders every 12 months and expect coherent and effective leadership for the city.

If one does not like what the mayor does, one can still kick him or her out by using one’s vote. Under the current system this cannot happen. This gives the permanent government of county managers who in place for seven years the upper hand, and diminishes the role of elected representatives.

The legislation introduced by the Green Party in the last Government provided for a mayor who would co-ordinate water, waste, transport and planning policies. Time and again, we return to the legacy of bad planning decisions across the country. The people of Dublin are still picking up the tab for mad rezoning decisions that took place in Dublin County Council in the 1980s. Councillors were allowed rezone land without any sense of responsibility and without a mayor who had the bigger picture about what the city might be. When it comes down to strategy, plans and implementation, a directly elected Dublin mayor will have a coherent voice and will be there for the long haul.

In many places, a city’s lifeblood - its economy, cultural life and sense of place - is channelled through its mayor’s office. One only has to look at Shirley Clarke Franklin in Atlanta, Martin O’Malley in Baltimore, and Fiorello La Guardia in New York City, all strong dynamic people who made things happen. I can easily recall the last four mayors of New York City – Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani.  They all contributed to making New York great. The same kind of voice is needed in Dublin. The nations’ capital needs a directly elected mayor. Such an office will be good for Dublin City, the four counties of Dublin, and for Ireland. With the election of a mayor, democracy would be transformed and the days of unelected managers who could chose to wear purple robes will be gone for ever.

26 January, 2014

Answers needed on Ballymount Fire

Like many Dubliners I woke up on Saturday to the acrid smell of smoke. At first we thought there was a fire in the house, but as dawn broke we could see a large dark plume of smoke in West Dublin coming from the Oxigen plant in Ballymount. It soon became clear that one of Ireland’s largest buildings had gone up in smoke. The Recycling facility accepts waste from all over Dublin and beyond. Most of the contents of the  city’s green bins ends up being processed there. Thankfully, no-one appears to have been injured in the immediate blaze, but as the fire smoulders on 48 hours after the blaze there are many questions for the Environmental Protection Agency and Oxigen to answer.

A minimalist statement on the Oxigen website states ”Oxigen Environmental would like to assure all customers that the fire at our Ballymount, Dublin site will not disrupt any services.”  Their Twitter feed was last update on 18 December last. This lack of information is entirely unacceptable for a company that accepted over three thousand tonnes of hazardous waste at their site in 2012.

Thousands of people live close  their site at Ballymount near the Red Cow Interchange, and if I was woken by the smell in Stoneybatter siX kilometres away i can only imagine what the smells and fumes were like in Crumlin and Bluebell that lay in the path of the smoke cloud.

Thankfully the Environmental Protection Agency issued advice stating that those in the path of the smoke plume should  stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed. However people need to know how dangerous the smoke is, and whether parents should move young children or elderly family members away from the area. It is unacceptable that more detailed information is not available two days after the blaze. The EPA also doesn’t appear to have up to date information available on their air quality website although their air quality Twitter feed gave some information, but no detailed breakdown of the type of pollution.

There are also questions to be answered from Ballymount as to why they were storing so much inflammable waste on the site without adequate fire breaks between stacks of material wrapped in highly inflammable plastic. An image of the plant taken from above last Summer shows a huge amount of material in rows over a hundred metres long.

South Dublin  County Council needs to comment on whether their Fire Certification allowed such a large amount of flammable material to be stored in close proximity to the plant itself.

Another worry is how much pollution of groundwater and rivers has occured. The run-off from fire-fighting has potential to kill fish life and pollute the Camac River and the Liffey, and it is unclear whether measures to retain this contaminated water were in place.

Dubliners are entitled to more detailed information about what has occurred in Ballymount. Parents with young children who live close to the Plant are justifiable afraid and concerned for their children. The company and the various local authorities and other agencies need to make available clearer information to the general public

Looking ahead there are questions about the cause of the fire and whether all permits and permissions were in order. We do know that there were two fires at the plant in 2012. South Dublin County Council must state whether Planning Permissions and Fire Certificates were in order. The EPA must consider whether the storage of so much waste on the site was compatible with the Waste License that they issued.