28 August, 2017

Back in Beijing

Greetings from China, where I'm back lecturing at the Gengdan Institute in Beijing for two weeks. The Institute is located off the sixth ring road of Beijing, a city of 22 million people. We're located in Niulanshan about 50 kilometres from the city centre. 

In my day job I teach urban planning and regeneration at the Dublin of Technology, and in recent years we've been attracting international students from around the world. A few years ago a visiting delegation from China sought deeper collaboration with Ireland, and that's why I'm here. The young Chinese students are keen to learn about spatial planning in Ireland, and lessons in environmental management from around the European Union. Lecturing a group of students from a completely different cultural background makes you question your own values and the successes and failures of Ireland inc.

I flew into Shanghai, and took the 300 km/h Maglev train in to the city. I then hopped on a metro that took me to  the waterfront where I admired a skyline of skyscrapers that have almost all been built over the last twenty five years on the walk to my hotel. Thanks to the Man in Seat 61 for recommending the faded grandeur of the Astor House Hotel.  The following morning I took a taxi to a railway station the size of Croke Park, and hopped on a high speed train that covered the 1,300 km to Beijing in under six hours, despite stopping in many stations in cities in between. Along the way I saw new highways and rail lines under construction, and wind turbines and corn fields in between. I knew we were nearing Beijing when a brown haze became visible outside the carriage window. My host Nina (Jiang Tianjie) 蒋天洁 met me at the station and we drove two hours to  Niulanshanzhen 牛栏山镇 in the suburbs, where the air is cleaner, and you can see the mountains on a clear day.

This week I am lecturing about the built environment, and next week heritage appraisal. I've mixed feelings about travelling this far to teach just for two weeks, but I feel there are lessons about environmental management, air quality and public participation that are worth communicating to a Chinese audience. 

I offset my flight emissions through Climate Neutral Now, a United Nations online platform for voluntary cancellation of certified emission reductions. In this instance the money goes to an electric and hybrid  bus rapid transit system in the city of Zhengzhou, south west of Beijing. It would be nice if there was a Dublin option. There's also the thorny question of human rights in China, and I had mixed-feelings about Dublin City's twinning with Beijing some years ago. Yet in my mind it is good to engage with a people who at at the heart of creating the Asian Century. China's been in the news for some of the wrong reasons this week, with Cambridge University Press being criticised for their self-censorship within China, and a note of caution being urged over Greece's willingness to cut deals and bend to Chinese interests in foreign policy.

Yet it is good to be here, lecturing young Chinese students about some of the success stories in environmental management that stem from European Directives, and being frank about the failures too. China continues to grow at around 6% each year, and while the problems that confront migrant workers, Beijing's smog and unaffordable housing persist, it is this generation of young planners that will shape the future of the Asian Century. There's been an extraordinary growth in green technologies in China over the last few years, lot's of solar water heaters on roofs, and electric scooters and delivery vehicles on the streets, mixed in with imported Fords and Range Rovers. The next few years will decide what direction the country will take, and I hope that they can learn from our experience of boom, bust, and partial recovery in recent years.

04 July, 2017

Signs for Improvement

Signs are something we tend to take for granted in the city. 

In Dublin City for some time we've gone for a fairly conventional blue-coloured bilingual street sign that tells you where you are. They're fairly inoffensive, but pretty damn dull. We've moved back to cast iron after a long period of cheap as chips aluminium signs that faded to illegibility after twenty years, but there's still a lot that could be done to improve them.

Last week at Dublin City Council's Transportation Strategic Policy Committee which I chair we considered a report on the issue. I wasn't altogether happy with what was presented and I put a wording to the floor as follows which we agreed:

“That this committee notes the report on Street Nameplates and furthermore:
- recognises the attractiveness of design of early twentieth century Street nameplates in Dublin City and suburbs;
- understands that the ‘Transport Medium’ typeface was developed in the UK for use on their motorway network rather than on city streets;
-commends the inherent beauty of both traditional and contemporary Irish typefaces;
-expresses concern at the use of bold lettering, and recommends that alternative typographical combinations be considered, such as  a combination of upper case and lower case lettering;

and requests that the manager seek the advice of the Institute of Designers in Ireland on this and alternative approaches, and shall revert to this committee again within six months with a further report on the issue.” 

These ideas seemed to go down well and Joe.ie did a little write-up on the issues.

I've nothing against Transport Medium, designed apparently by  Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert in the late 1950s but it sort of screams third motorway exit after Birmingham rather than Stoneybatter or Sandymount. There's certainly room for improvement. These signs for Eblana Avenue and Charlemont Avenue are from Dún Laoghaire. I guess they date from the early or mid twentieth century but they really have a strong sense of style and distinction to them. I'm not a fan of using Upper case all the way through; it is a bit like sending SCREAMING ALL CAPS text messages to someone, best avoided. Besides we recognise the shape of words better when they contain mostly lower case letters. 

I've tweeted a bit about this over the last week or so, and have come to realise that there's a lot of people out there interested in typography. I've met David Wall from Workgroup.ie who suggested that the Institute of Designers in Ireland  might be able to help us out. I also received a nice note from John  Harrington whose firm designed the modern Irish font bilingual typeface Martello used in the 1916 Witness History centenary exhibition which opened last year in the GPO. Rob Munnelly sent me a slide deck with some great advice, and Dave Foley asked how he could support any new initiative. There's a lot of people who would like to see improvements.

I'm in awe of Finland though. They recently commissioned the Finlandica typeface and it gives a fantastic crisp clean identity for that country. I suspect we don't need to go that far, certainly not in Dublin, but we could consider some contemporary Irish typeface for use on street nameplates in the city.

One last gripe about the current proposal is that it makes no distinction between Irish and English other than putting the Irish wording ahead of the English text. This seems to be a response to regulations brought in by Éamon Ó Cuív in 2008. Those regulations however don't insist on the same font. They state that the text in the Irish language shall not be "less prominent, visible, or legible than the text in the English language". It seems to me that the door is open to using a contemporary Irish font for at least the original Irish names on street signs. 

Street signs are a huge part of our city's identity. Think of the wonderful street signs in Paris and elsewhere. I think we can do better than this in Dublin, and I'm hoping that our engineers will step up to the mark on this one.

02 February, 2017

Broadstone Wall for the Chop

I just wrote a note to the Luas Cross City Team, thanking them for sending me on the detailed design drawing for the Broadstone tram station.

It is good to see that the upper section of the concrete wall will be removed to give greater visibility of the old Broadstone Station Building. In summary, the upper 1.2 metres of the wall will be removed and replaced with a railing.

The stone cladding appears to be quite thin, and the final finish seems not to be specified. I'm concerned that a smooth, possibly white finish may be a magnet for graffiti.

It is good though  to see that the outline of the former canal will be shown.

I'm hoping that the box hedging would not completely cover the landscaped area, and that it might be possible to have more grass at the upper, and perhaps lower levels

In overall terms I am disappointed that greater emphasis was not put on green infrastructure, as it seems cities such as Bilbao, Freiburg, The Hague and even Rotterdam manage to cover the space between tram tracks with grass, even in their city centres. Here's a photo that I took in Rotterdam last Autumn.

That having been said, I am conscious that my role is not to attempt micro-managing the details at this late stage.

Here's a link to the full drawings for the future landscaping of the old Broadstone Station forecourt if you'd like to take a look.

16 January, 2017

Too many students?

There's been a lot of Planning Applications for student housing in recent years, particularly in the north inner city. The map above shows some of those planning application that I've noted in the last year or so, and if you click on the link you can zoom in or out. I've counted planning applications for 6,000 bed spaces in the North Inner City alone, and that's just in the last three years. Local residents are apprehensive about the impact of such development, and we need to get it right.

Across the River Liffey in the Liberties, on Bonham Street almost 500 bed spaces have been provided in an impressive development designed by O'Mahony Pike Architects. It seems to fit in well, and provides a nice way to walk from Usher's Island up to James's Street through the Digital Hub past the remnants of the old St. Patrick's Windmill. The first residents moved in six months ago, and I  haven't heard any complaints so far about the impact, and it seems to me to be a good addition to the neighbourhood. Years ago I remember a packed-out meeting of residents when Trinity Hall was being proposed in Dartry. Listening to the nearby residents it seemed like an Armageddon of drunkenness, relocated traffic cones and bus stop signs was about to descend on that fairly well-heeled neighbourhood. It seemed not to have occurred.

It is important that this type of accommodation is really well managed, and that the everyday issues such as waste bins and construction traffic are well taken care of. Some of these proposals are a bit over-scaled for their surroundings, and there are concerns about over-looking and over-shadowing. In addition there is a very real fear that an over-concentration of students in one area might make life difficult for existing residents. 

On the plus side they will take some of the pressure off existing housing, where rents and prices have sky-rocketed again in recent years. The real solution to a housing shortage is to build more housing! In addition, with a large construction phase of the new Dublin Institute of Technology campus at Grangegorman, these new developments will attract students to live near their campus which makes sense.

One of the interesting things has been that the developers aren't looking for vast amounts of car parking, and the planners haven't looked for it either. Some of them have no car parking whatsoever. This makes sense, as journeys in the inner city are more likely to be made by foot or bike or public transport. If we can't get students to travel using sustainable means, then what hope do we have in persuading others to do so? It will put pressure though on nearby areas that don't have a residential disc parking scheme in place, but that's inevitable as the city copes with a growing population.

I've made my own views known on several of these applications over the last few months, and you can see my observations on Prussia Street, the North Circular Road and Stoneybatter at these links. I've invited in our senior planning staff to make a presentation to Dublin City Council's Central Area Committee next month. We'll see what they have to say. One issue that's been on mind is as follows: We set lower space standards for students in our Development Plan (under pressure from the then Minister for Housing Alan Kelly). If the demand for student housing doesn't materialise, will we be easily able to convert these lower-specified units into regular housing for others?