At the height of the boom large projects were facilitated by allowing developers to take over parts of the public realm, footpaths etc. in order to maximise the available site area for construction. As sites are abandoned it seems to me that many of the ‘temporary’ hoardings are staying in place – the public realm is reduced and past public investment is lost.
- In Sandyford, the journey from the Luas stop to Beacon hospital is a typical example. At the junction opposite the main hospital entrance, the site hoarding for the Beacon Quarter was placed outside the site, as is common practice. This required the removal of the cycle lane leaving a narrow temporary pavement, not properly drained, so that hospital workers, visitors and outpatients have to run the gauntlet of being drenched on wet days as they attempt to cross the road (this is a corner with several lanes of traffic queuing to feed into and out of the M50). When construction halted on the site, a new use was found as a car park (presumably temporary) to serve a shopping centre. The hoarding was reduced in height, repainted with directional signage. But astonishingly the hoarding was left in the same alignment and the cycle lane and pavement were not reinstated. So pedestrians and cyclists continue too suffer inconvenience and unsafe conditions with no improvement in sight.
- A more permanent loss of public realm is evident in Dundrum Village. The developer’s ambitions extended beyond the creation of a mega shopping centre beside the town. The older shopping centre on the Main St and a significant number of existing businesses and houses were bought up. The 1st part of ‘site preparation’ work involved cutting down all the streetside mature trees on the old shopping centre site, leaving a line of stumps. Also necessary for ‘site preparation’ was the removal from the side of the public pavement of a bicycle wheel sculpture to Dundrum man Stephen Roche which had been proudly erected to commemorate his Tour de France triumph (this was relocated to an insignificant location in the new centre). The line of trees was an essential part of the streetscape providing visual amenity and enclosure – when the old shopping centre site was originally opened up and developed in the 70’s this was understood and appreciated. Ironically the collapse in the market has meant that the old shopping centre is no longer closed down and is once again trading successfully, as are many other businesses in the town. However the visual amenity is blighted.
Why does this sort of casual vandalism of the public realm happen?
In my view what these examples highlight is a casual attitude to looking after the public realm/public goods. If it was our own private property there is no way it would be tolerated.
A developer will almost always seek to assert the importance of their own site, to emphasise its individuality and to elbow out the ‘ordinary’ public places. They may try to usurp or re-make the public realm as a part of the image for the new project, rather than accepting the existing and fitting into the context. Sometimes this can work for the betterment of the public realm, but often not.
In my view Local Authorities around the country were too acquiescent in ceding public space to facilitate construction, and the system of licenses/exemptions for ‘site preparation’ works, tree felling etc. is not sufficiently amenable to planning control.
The current landscape of abandoned sites is a visual reminder of failure. There is a job to be done to stitch up and repair the gaps and interesting possibilities for temporary and pop-up uses until more permanent development is again viable. In the meantime it would be good to find ways to return the public realm to the public, and to find creative solutions to restoring visual amenity to our towns and villages.
Margaret Coyle is an architect and planner and works in Dublin City Council’s Planning Department.