05 August, 2021

What next for Dublin's Charlemont Street?

 

Looking down Dublin's Charlemont Street, pretty much everything you see was built within the last thirty years. We haven't quite cracked decent modern street design, have we?  I mean, where are the trees!

On the plus side we're at least building (or re-building) streets again. Back in the 1980s many felt that car parking was best placed in front of a new building, and the building itself should be set back from the road. In many parts of Ireland this is still the case and road traffic dominates. However, what struck me is that there isn't a shred of greenery in the image. Best practice these days means at least planting street trees along a road that is twenty metres wide. We could also do with some public seating, protected cycle lanes, attractive streetlamps, less advertising placards, and use decent materials rather than grey concrete for the footpaths and tarmacadam for the roads. and that's only for starters. 

The challenge is that no-one sat down and designed this street. Well, actually Sir Patrick Abercrombie did, back in the early years of the twentieth century, but that's another story. Looking at what you see here, architects designed the buildings on either side, and engineers provided (and designed) the carriageway in between. I doubt that Dublin City Council's urban planners or landscaping staff were even shown the drawings. That is why we need a Head of Urban Design or Public Realm at Assistant Chief Executive level within Dublin City Council. The Chief Executive Owen Keegan should create this post and ensure someone with the ability to knock heads together gets the job. 

What brought me into politics thirty years ago was that the then Dublin Corporation felt that 'sorting out the traffic' was the only game in town. By traffic they meant cars, and they were happy to demolish chunks of the city to make it easier to drive from the suburbs to the city and back every day. When I was first elected as a councillor in 1991 one of my first acts was to seek support from dropping many of these ill-conceived road proposals from our plans and promote light rail instead. As it happens at the end of the view in this photo there used to be another street: 'Charlotte Street', and it was built over by a developer. Dublin Corporation even held a Street Closing Inquiry in the early 1990s, where I presented evidence that the Street should be kept, rather than built on, but my plea fell on deaf ears. 

Problems remain, though in recent years senior Council staff understand that streets aren't just for traffic, they also have a social and commercial function. Over the years we've moved the debate on from providing from cars to facilitating public transport with the introduction of Quality Bus Corridors in the late 1990s. Since then, initially reluctantly, but now with enthusiasm Dublin City Council is rolling out walking and cycling infrastructure. Even now there’s too much emphasis on plastic bollards, rather than on using greenery or planters to separate cyclists from cars. New concerns and ideas about greening our cities, and sustainable urban drainage demand a co-ordinated and design-led approach. In the past, and in some quarters today trees are seen as at best and afterthought, and at worst a problem, this must change. I'm glad to see that the City Council has appointed an arboricultural, or Street Tree Officer. Different players must work together in an inter-disciplinary approach to 'co-create' quality spaces and places. Communities also need to be at the centre of the process, and not just involved through a public submission period after the plans have been drawn up.

We need to adopt a 'whole streets' approach to ensure everyone is focused on improving the public realm: from public lighting engineers to the Parks Department. Far too different staff sit in separate silos and communicate by long-distance semaphore! Within Dublin City Council I struggled to ensure the posts of Dublin City Planning Officer, and City Engineer were filled after long vacancies. We also have a City Architect. We now need to complement these roles with a head of Urban Design. That person could ensure that all these civic officials work together to up the quality of our public realm. Simple tasks, like ensuring that road surfaces are reinstated road works might come under their responsibility. As it happens, we do have a Public Realm Strategy, but it can be hard to know who ensures that all staff are focused on delivering it. Just look at the streetlights in this photo. No-one in the Council woke up some morning and said I am going to give Charlemnt Street the best new street lighting that we can design! The BusConnects project has the potential to dramatically improved the public realm. Some of the draft proposals are good, but others fall far short of what is required. Let's hope that the plans that go to Bord Pleanála are of a high standard. If we try and 'bolt-on' bus lanes by widening streets and maintaining the same level of car-use we will be on a hiding to nothing.

Streets aren't just for traffic, they must provide for social interaction and commercial activity, and this requires a joined-up approach by developers, engineers, and all other disciplines to ensure the public realm is improved. Back in 2010 when I was a Minister of State with responsibility for planning and sustainable transport, I kicked off a process that led to the publication of an Irish Design Manual for Urban Streets and Roads (DMURS). It helps the different players to design a decent street, but it doesn't automatically ensure that good design is achieved. We need to tackle this, from providing decent street signs to getting rid of crappy randomly placed utility boxes that were put in place with the Cross-City Luas.

At this stage in Ireland, we need clearer guidance. Transport for London have a 'Streets Toolkit' which is helpful, and they've also produced good information on taking a 'Healthy Streets' Approach. DMURS helps, but more detailed street guidance is now required.  Often councillors get blamed for poor planning decisions and poor streets. To a certain extent that is a fair criticism, but I would say that the level of responsibility, funding and devolved powers in Irish local government is amongst the worst in Europe. It is therefore hard for councillors to make a difference. (Believe me, I've tried!) Looking ahead we need to devolve more powers to our Councils, put in place an elected Mayor for greater Dublin, and ensure a senior official is responsible for quality streets and providing and managing the decent public realm.

What next for Charlemont Street? That's up to Dublin City Council. My work is focused on European issues, and while I do spend time on policy documents such as a Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy where I'm prioritising active travel (walking and cycling) and public transport, the EU doesn't micro-manage things at a national or local level. Really it boils down to local councillors and officials sitting down to get things right. Personally, I'd reduce the street back to two rather than three lanes of motorised traffic, and add segregated cycle lanes, as well as wider footpaths. I'd narrow the width of these lanes to around three metres, as wide lanes encourage speeding. I'd put in semi-mature street trees with wide tree pits that allow for planting and storm water drainage. I'd also put in attractive street lighting, and some quality street benches or seating where neighbours or visitors could sit down and have a chat. All of this can be done, it simply requires the political will.

 

16 March, 2021

Road Safety: what's happening in Europe?

Road safety was back on the agenda today in the European parliament’s Transportation Committee. Here’s what I had to say to Matthew Baldwin who has responsibility for Road safety within the European Commission: Mr. Baldwin, many thanks for coming to speak to us today about this very important issue. 

Behind the road safety statistics lie human tragedies. Last Saturday, a young schoolboy David McHale died in a crash in the West of Ireland. Every week, 500 people die on EU roads. We are not meeting our targets, our Sustainable Development 2030 Goals. We need to progressively ramp up our ambition over time and get to Vision Zero sooner. I therefore have a number of questions: 

 Firstly, will the Commission commit to publishing a strategy on safe active mobility that puts the safety of vulnerable road users first? The revision (Directive (EU) 2019/1936) of the Directive on Road Infrastructure Safety management Directive 2008/96/EC was welcome, but it covers rural roads, not urban roads. 
If our urban roads were a factory floor, it would be shut down on health and safety grounds. We must up our game. Can we ensure urban roads are assessed for their safety, particularly for the most vulnerable? Can we make them safe and attractive for pedestrians, and indeed microbility? Covid-19 saw a drop in car journeys, and a boom in active mobility, and a drop in road accidents. We need to capitalise on these changes, because not only do we help protect road users, we reduce emissions and pollution, reduce congestion and its negative economic effects, and we promote the health of citizens. All such policy areas should feed into such a strategy. 

 Secondly, we urgently need to address speeding. Here in Brussels for example we are seeing the rollout of a 30km/h city-wide speed limit, average speeds are down which is good news, and countless studies have shown the effectiveness of such a strategy in reducing road deaths and injuries. The WHO states that for car occupants in a crash with an impact speed of 80 km/h, the likelihood of death is 20 times what it would have been at an impact speed of 30 km. Will the Commission therefore come forward with a recommendation on speed that in line with a Safe System approach? This could promote 40 km/h, not 50 km/h on radial routes, 30km/h speed limit on other urban roads. We should also consider lower speed limits lower on local roads where children play. For rural roads, 70km/h could similarly help reduce the number of accidents. On this point, the Commission should explore tying EU funding to the development and implementation of Sustainable Urban Mobility plans, and rural mobility plans. In both instances, road safety and the protection of vulnerable road users should be central to the plans.

 Finally, when it comes to enforcement, there is a need to recognise driving disqualifications, penalty points systems across different Member States, and I would urge the Commission to include this in its revision of the cross-border enforcement directive. Penalty Points for speeding or drunk driving penalty points should not magically disappear when the driver crosses an international border.

In reply Matthew Baldwin said the following:

"Mr Cuffe you ask important questions. I'm not sure I can answer them all. Will we produce a strategy on safe and active mobility? I hear you loud and clear. We will be addressing that issue again in the urban mobility package, which is coming out later this year. 

"You are right to say there is only a rule that requires Member States to look at rural roads; they may take urban issues into account, and for the first time, thanks to the pressure from a number of groups, vulnerable users’ needs must be taken into account.

"You’re right also to draw attention to the overall impact of active mobility in terms of the health of our citizens and the calls for sustainability. On 30 km per hour speed limits, I hear you loud and clear. You are right, speed levels are down in Brussels by 9% over the first couple of months. And the idea you have of tying European funding to sustainable and rural mobility plans is an interesting one. We need to protect the most vulnerable people on our roads. And this is something again we could look at in our urban mobility package later this year."

I was pleased with his replies, but we must do more. I intend working with the World Health Organisation and European Transport Safety Council and others to push for progress on making our roads and streets not just safer, but much more inviting to all, particularly the most vulnerable.



04 March, 2021

Some thoughts on a Biden Presidency

 

On January 20th, a new dawn broke over America, taking it out of 4 long years of darkness brought about by the frenzied and belligerent Trump Administration. Many across the US and indeed quite a few people here in Europe breathed a sigh of relief when President Joe Biden was sworn into office. The grownups were finally back in the room, and they brought the scientists back with them.
Many of the policies and actions of the Trump White House were met with dismay. The suggestions of drinking bleach as a cure-all to COVID_19. The images of tiny unaccompanied children sitting before judges in immigration courts. The violence and use of force deployed against BLM supporters for peacefully protesting. The depravity of the Capital riot seemingly encouraged and applauded by the then President Trump. The lowering of environmental standards such as revoking limits on dangerous methane emissions during oil and gas drilling operations that were ushered into legislation alongside almost gleeful declarations that climate change was a hoax. President Biden now has an opportunity to not only roll back on the damage wrought by Trump but to deliver on his own campaign slogan - Build Back Better.

 
Given the ticking clock on climate change - environmental policy is as good as any place to start. On day one, President Biden signed the executive order to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement, which will come into effect at the end of January. The internationally binding treaty, which Trump left the day before the 2020 US election commits countries to keep global warming well below 2°C. Re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement is a welcome move, and it brings the United States commitments in line with 190 other countries. It also marks the first steps on the road to delivering the Biden Administration’s $2 trillion climate and environment package.
 
The Biden climate plan, like the EU Green Deal, is undoubtedly ambitious but urgently necessary. It matches the EU goals of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 by creating a series of overarching climate change tackling polices. It aims to end fossil fuel emissions from US power plants by 2035. Much like our own EU renovation wave- an initiative I led on in the European Parliament, the Biden climate plan will upgrade and retrofit 4 million buildings and homes over the next four years to increase energy efficiency. The Biden climate plan can create millions of new jobs in energy, transport and construction through the upgrading of infrastructure and moving toward public transportation in larger more urban areas- something we are also trying to do in the EU.
 
It certainly seems that President Biden and Vice President Harris get the need for urgent climate action and understand how it affects people’s daily lives. Appointing an internationally recognised and experienced climate team - including former Obama Secretary of State John Kerry inspires confidence. The idea of a just transition for poorer communities is also at the heart of this new policy approach. Something alien to the previous administration. Disadvantaged communities are expected to receive some 40% of the overall benefits of the Biden climate plan through more affordable and sustainable housing, training and retraining the workforce, and tackling air and water pollution. As is the case in Europe, to tackle the climate emergency successfully, we must leave no one behind and ensure, as a priority, that the resources are there to help the most vulnerable.
 
The comparisons between both the EU’s and the US’s new scientific approach to climate change are there for a reason. Ireland and the EU have always had strong ties with the US. Being able to work in tandem on tackling the climate emergency will only strengthen the transatlantic partnership. It will allow us to support and enable progressive and sustainable targets while also being able to call each other out if our policy areas and legislation are not hitting agreed climate goals.
 
We won’t see change overnight. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Even the process of re-joining the Paris Agreement takes some time. And while the Biden climate plan doesn’t go quite as far as the Green New Deal proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and backed by Bernie Sanders in 2019 which called for zero carbon emissions by 2030-it is a radical improvement on the last lot! It’s a plan the EU can work with.

24 November, 2020

Reshaping our cities

 

I took part in the RIAI’s annual conference today, virtually of course. After Ciaran O’Connor’s opening remarks Professor Ricky Burdett from the LSE gave a masterclass in how cities matter. I graduated last year from the LSE Masters Programme in Cities, so it was great to be reacquainted with Ricky. Roisin Murphy was the MC, and we had campaigned together in my Students Against the Destruction of Dublin (SADD) days, so it was a real reunion, particularly as Grainne Shaffrey who studied with me in UCD was also part of the discussion. 

 

Ricky’s keynote was on Shaping Cities in an Urban Age and he spoke with ease on the growing importance of cities, and the meteoric expansion of cities in Asia, and Africa. Not surprisingly he emphasised the issue of governance, a topic close to my heart! Grainne responded, and spoke about how the Covid_19 pandemic has applied an ‘X Ray’ to our cities and allowed us to reconsider their strengths and weaknesses. It was Brendan Behan of course who stated that a city is a place where you are least likely to get a bite from a wild sheep, but thankfully our thinking on urban issues has evolved since then. Our discussion was followed by a tour-de-force about the Living City from the great Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, but I digress: let me tell you what I said.

 

I said that cities need to be affordable, cleaner, greener, and easier to get around. Urban areas are at the forefront in tackling climate change and bringing about a just transition. I said we need to make better use of the buildings and infrastructure we already have, whether that is in Dublin’s inner city or in towns and villages around the country. Simple proposals such as 'Living Over the Shop' need to be promoted. The 'Living City' initiative helps, but we need dedicated staff at the end of a phone within each Council to pick up the phone and ask 'How can I help'? This would help sort out the red tape of fire regulations, access for those with disabilities and conflicting planning codes. We also need densification and to focus on the quality of design. The ongoing review of the National Development Plan is an opportunity to focus on the ‘Town Centre First’ wording in the Programme for Government. There's huge potential for new housing in existing urban areas, whether that is in Dublin’s inner city or in towns and villages around the country. Affordability has to be at the heart of this, and the 'Vienna Model' shows us what can be achieved.

 

Covid_19 showed us the problem of mono-functional zoning. The Central Business Districts of many cities are currently in an ‘induced coma’, particularly those that lack a residential population. In response we should adopt the 15-minute city idea of Sorbonne Professor Carlos Moreno to underpin the next wave of Irish Development Plans. This idea proposes that every city should have almost all that you need located within a 15-minute cycle or walk, so that we are not over-dependent on motorised travel. It has been adopted by Anne Hidalgo, Mayor Paris, which I guess is somewhat ironic given that in many respects it epitomises the 15-minute city, and it may be more appropriate to Houston, Texas.  We need affordable homes in the city, rather than high rents for the few. We need minimum density to be imposed anywhere near a transit stop, and that should be around six stories. 

 

The Covid_19 Pandemic has underpinned the importance of good design and a more equitable city. Whether it is housing standards such as the provision of outside space. As we plan our cities. We need more workplaces in the suburbs, and more homes in the city. This will reduce our dependence on long-distance car commuting and reinvigorate our city centres as well as the dormitory towns. 

 

In urban areas we are finally seeing a more equitable allocation of road space, with wider footpaths and segregated cycle lanes, and this needs to continue. Tele-conferencing has reduced the need to travel, so perhaps we need to rethink some of our transport plans such as ‘BusConnects’. We don’t need to drop the plans, and the latest iteration is good, but it still follows the premise of giving us the options of taking the bus OR driving, and in doing so it risks failing as a ‘predict and provide’ approach to car-use is doomed to fail. We need to ensure that taking the car is not the easiest option and phase out the Internal Combustion Engine in our town and city centres. This will improve air quality, and even more desirable aim as we witness the links between high rates of Coronavirus infection in regions with poor air quality. 

 

Looking at the buildings that we design, we need to up our minimum design standards. Apartments need decent sized generous balconies, that are good enough to live in during a prolonged pandemic. Ventilation (as architects such as Orla Hegarty and others have said) is crucial. However, we also need adequate floor areas, and room heights greater than 2. 4m. On the issue of building typologies should we continue to allow large building footprints that fill in an entire block of should we regulate for decent-sized courtyards with fresh air and sunlight?

 

Technology should not dominate our architecture, but in a sense Le Corbusier was right. The building is a machine for living in, and we need to ensure the machine is well designed. We need to electrify everything, and link together photovoltaic panels on our roofs to storage batteries, and the electric vehicle outside, as well as an easy-to-use App on our phone. 

 

Ricky mentioned governance. We need to get urban governance right. Years ago, Henry Kissinger, asked who do you talk to when you want to talk to Europe? These days it might be European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. (The pedants among you might argue that it would be the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell). In Dublin we are still not ready to answer the question about who you talk to, when you want to talk to Dublin.


The big urban decisions around transport, housing, and infrastructure are metropolitan issues, and we need a metro mayor. The current Dublin Mayors: Councillor Hazel Chu in Dublin City; Councillor David Healy in Fingal; Councillor Una Power in Dún Laoghaire Rathdown; and Councillor Vicki Casserly are great but come next June they will be replaced. Having twenty mayors over 5 years in 4 local authority regions does not quite answer Henry Kissinger’s question, so it is now time for a metro Mayor. London has had one for the last twenty years, and it seems to have worked well. You might not like what Ken Livingstone, or Boris Johnson or Sadiq Khan has done, but at least you can vote to kick them out after five years, which is not possible for Chief Executives such as Owen Keegan who are often running the show behind the facade of democracy in our Councils. 

 

Finally, we need to learn from other cities. Imagine if Dublin had the air quality of Stockholm; the integrated transport of Copenhagen; the social housing of Vienna, the parks of Berlin, or the craic of Galway! We should aim high and use the Covid_19 Pandemic as an opportunity to rethink of our policies for both the space inside and outside of our buildings. Cities have a bright future, but we need to plan for this now.