Irish Planning Institute Conference 2003 Quality of Life Quality of Space
Consultation, Politics and Place: The View of the Spire from the Red Cow Roundabout
Ciarán Cuffe March 2003
Recent legislation allows the planner greater control over the built environment at both local and regional scales. The Millennium Spire in Dublin’s city centre is contrasted with Red Cow Roundabout on Dublin’s ring road in order to stress the need for planners to address the problems of suburbia.
The planning of suburban areas requires greater community control. This consutation or empowerment can enrich the planning process It also establishes ownership of the end product.
Building at higher densities can assist in reducing the demand for new building land beyond the city limits. Land that was previously unused or designated for transportation facilities should be built on and can create high quality urban spaces. The move towards building at higher densities requires a higher quality of design of the built environment.
It is often said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. I wish to add a third item to that list –the Red Cow roundabout. Why the Red Cow Roundabout? Well, we all encounter the Red Cow roundabout, whether we like it or not: sooner or later. The Red Cow roundabout is where it all went wrong. It represents a challenge to us all. It perplexes our engineers, it infuriates our transportation managers and it puzzles us as planners. No-one’s heart soars when we mention the Red Cow roundabout, but it’s there and as planners we have a duty to address it.
How can we make good places when the most significant places that are built are designed by road designers? These are people who know how to get people from A to B but who rarely are educated in creating good places. The more a road fulfils its transport function the more it loses out in place-making qualities. The more it becomes a way from A to B the more it loses out as a place for social or economic activity. Planners know this, but the Director of Transportation Services, or the County Engineer often does not. These people should be sitting in the front row but they’re not. I believe there should be a mandatory urban design module in Continued Professional Development for civil engineers.
City versus suburb
The City’s problems are relatively easily dealt with. The problems of the suburbs are more intractable. Having represented part of Dublin’s inner city as an elected representative for over a decade I am confident that we now have enough in our planners’ toolbox to address the difficulties that arise. We no longer allow the road engineers to punch highways through the city centre, we no longer allow historic buildings to be demolished, and we no longer for the most part allow indigenous communities to be displaced. The emergence of Local Area Plans under the Planning Act 2002 allows for detailed plans to be drawn up for individual neighbourhoods. At the other end of the scale the Strategic Planning Guidelines and the National Spatial Strategy paint the broad brush picture within which the planner operates at a regional and national level. There are of course caveats to all of this, but by and large we have the abilities to address the problems that have arisen. We realise that we should take the heat of Dublin, and that it’s a bad idea to pave over Kildare Meath and Wicklow. We realise that we need to tame the traffic, provide good quality public spaces, promote mixed-use buildings and use the standard urban design tools to manipulate the public domain.
There isn’t much of a view of the Spire from the Red Cow Roundabout, and on a cautionary note the next time you’re driving through Newland’s Cross, can I discourage you from craning your necks as you navigate the four lanes of traffic. It’s a busy and a dangerous junction and you’re better off watching the road. I pose the question in order to juxtapose the challenges that we face as planners in a suburban and an urban setting. I believe that the suburbs are as the most significant challenge that planners currently face in Ireland, and I believe that we must question whether the suburb is a sustainable way of life. Certainly the continued outward expansion of the Capital City into and beyond Kildare, Meath and Wicklow is fundamentally unsustainable. New low-density housing estates are being built in a ‘slash and burn’ pattern of development. This is leaving greying suburbs behind with facilities being provided that are over-used for a short time and then practically abandoned. The second generation are unable to find housing in the community that their parents bought into, and must move further away from the city. This creates a vicious circle that uses up land, increases car dependency, and threatens community life. As an alternative we should consider increasing densities and making better use of existing assets.
Red Cow is more of a state of mind than an actual place. If we were to produce a figure and ground map of the area it would be characterised mostly by blank space. Gertrude Stein’s quote about Oakland California: “There is no there, there” springs to mind. Of course there are some buildings, an Ibis hotel, Moran’s Red Cow Hotel, Fiat Offices and a Luas Depot. But the area is mostly characterised by surface car parking. Surface car parking is a dangerous land-use. Well-planned neighbourhoods are rarely characterised by surface car parking. I agree with the American urbanist. Victor Dover who stated: “Parking is a narcotic and ought to be a controlled substance. It is addictive, and one can never have enough.” Unless we control our infatuation with car parking we will continue to create sub-standard insipid inferior places. Instead of prescribing minimum car parking standards we should be putting in place maximums. I note that the draft South Dublin Plan prescribes a minimum of one car parking space per 25 square metres of gross floor area. Given that a parking space takes up 12.5 sq. m, and the same again in circulation space it means that the Plan is a recipe for low-density development before we’ve even started. We’ve got to break away from regulating for mediocrity before we’ve even got off the drawing board.
We must also reconsider the benefits of creating additional road space as a solution to our traffic problems. “Adding lanes to solve traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity,” stated Glen Hemistra in a letter to the English Independent last December. Leaving aside the land to add additional lanes means that space which should be either prime retail or office is left idle. It is not good planning.
Increasing density has been the mantra of urban design professionals for many years now. However rather like ‘Living Over the Shop’ (LOTS), everyone is in favour of it but no one is quite sure how to make it happen. Dublin City Council initiated a pilot LOTS scheme almost ten years after the idea had gained support amongst planners. How do we shorten the time-scale with increased density? Local Authorities and the State should lead by example. It’s not good enough for instance for a Local Authority to build new offices and surround them with a sea of car parking. They should make better use of their assets. The alternative to building single buildings is to prepare a master plan and ensure that the entire block is developed over time. The Planning Act 2000 provides us with an appropriate mechanism for doings so – the Local Area Plan (LAP).
It is of little benefit to increase density at the building level unless we tackle the block and the neighbourhood. Here is where planners often fail to deliver. All to often the planner must defer to the road planner when it comes to dealing with larger sized pieces of land. It is a concern that transport corridors or arteries are often not zoned in the Development Plan. We should zone this land and ensure that roads engineers do not perform a land grab in order to protect their territory. Let us consider the classical planning model pioneered by Clarence Perry in 1929. For the best part of a century planners concentrated on implementing parts of this model. However the model was a low density one, and instead of streets and boulevards it resulted in motorways and roads. This is what Myles Wright proposed for Dublin, and it has resulted in vast swathes of indifferent low density housing with enough green space to sustain a cavalry unit. It was an inefficient use of land, and it used up a scarce resource.
Of course we don’t wish to turn the M50 motorway into an urban boulevard, but the arterial routes that intersect the C- ring motorway could be re-imagined as boulevards or streets that would be fronted by urban blocks of between four and eight stories in height.
These new developments should be of mixed use with retail and office space on the lower floors, and predominantly office space above. These new developments would ensure the viability of the proposed Metro system. The typology of the urban block and boulevard is also by its nature more pedestrian friendly than low density ‘island buildings as the pavement is clearly delineated and linked to the adjoining buildings. The mixed-use medium to high-density city supports high quality public transport, and creates vibrant sustainable walkable neighbourhoods. Instead of just prescribing maximum plot ratios we should ensure that minimum plot ratios are also contained within Development Plans and also Local Area Plans. The beauty of building blocks rather than stand alone buildings is that the ‘space left over after planning’ (SLOPE) is actually used and valued, rather than left behind to have the grass cut and litter gathered once or twice a year.
We must consider the suburbs, we must plan them, we must densify them, and we must provide mixed-use buildings and neighbourhoods. Richard Ford the American author once wrote, “Weather is all we really have of real experience in the suburbs”. Surely as planners we can do better than that.
Public participation is often a daunting task. Prior to studying planning I worked as an architect and the equivalent phrase in the architects lexicon was ‘community architecture’. It conjured up an image of Prince Charles instructing us on what to do, and how to do it. Needless to say it wasn’t exactly enthusiastically embraced by my colleagues. However I believe that participation is the key to success. It does not imply that the planner or urban designer cannot be creative. If anything it assists in formulating plans and policymaking.
Thirty years ago Sherry Arnstein published her seminal work on participation in decision-making ‘Eight Rungs on a Ladder of Citizen Participation’. There are eight rungs on Arnstein’s ladder ranging from manipulation to citizen control. We have certainly moved beyond the phases of nonparticipation identified in her work, but I wonder have we really moved into the area of partnership or are we still simply placating the general public. Certainly the freedom of Information legislation has helped people have access to the apparent reasons behind decision-making, but I’m not convinced that all Development Plans reflect the heartfelt wishes and involvement of those who will be affected by its contents.
There is a duty to ensure that the public are stakeholders in both the inception and implementation of Development Plans and Local Area Plans. This requires significant work in the preliminary states of plan formulation. It requires public advertisement, clinics, public meetings and ‘planning for real workshops’. Two years ago I undertook consultancy for the Ballymun Housing Task Force in formulating proposals for a neighbourhood centre in Poppintree in Ballymun. My experience there underlined the need to have good three-dimensional representations of proposals. It showed that people want proposals to be referenced to built examples that people are familiar with. For the Poppintree proposal we used the urban village of Drumcondra as a reference.
People also want to feel engaged with what changes are being proposed. As part of the process we photographed the fronts of all homes close the study area. We then photocopied and glued a black and white version of each home onto the facades of a simple block model. Seeing one’s own lace curtains on a model certainly allowed people to comprehend their place in the greater scheme of things. This type of participation also challenges our own perceptions. My own bias in favour of a mixed-use neighbourhood centre was challenged by people living adjacent who didn’t want either a health centre or a public house within the centre due to fears of anti-social activity. When people’s expectations are low, cautiousness is justified. The outcome resulted in approval of a mixed-use development, but not as mixed as we had hoped. Agreement was reached on a proposal consisting of shops with apartments overhead, backed by terraced housing and workshops.
The Development Plan process could follow a more hands on approach. Current arrangements for consultation are often perceived as adversarial. Perhaps Local Authorities could put more investment into the preliminary steps of plan preparation and ensure that people feel that their views are being heard in the Plan process .
Good design is no longer a luxury nor is it an add-on. It must be the cornerstone of what we plan. The more development plans that allow for refusal on the basis of bad design the better. Good design is of paramount importance as we increase densities. It can turn mediocrity into brilliance. Burke-Kennedy Doyle and Dublin City Council’s proposals for the future of Fatima Mansions in Dublin 8 illustrate what can be achieved through design. The failed attempt at refurbishment in the early 1990’s appears to have been due both flawed housing policies and inadequate control by the residents themselves. Financial incentives allowed many families to take a swift exit route from local authority housing at a time when they were most needed in their community. Community empowerment was still at an embryonic stage within the then Dublin Corporation at the end of the nineteen eighties.
The spire is a powerful design that I believe more than compensates for the loss of Nelson’s Pillar back in 1966. In design terms the spire simply and elegantly terminates the vistas of Henry Street and Talbot Street west and east, and O’Connell Street North and South. The Integrated Area Plan also incorporates significant public transport improvements as well as a dramatic renewal of the pedestrian domain. I don’t wish to comment in detail on the landscaping proposals but suffice to say, I favour the retention of as many mature trees as possible! Increasing the spectrum of land uses in buildings on and adjacent to O’Connell Street and re-introducing a residential component would probably contribute towards improving the security of the public domain.
O’Connell Street is and elegant space that was substantially rebuilt in the early part of the twentieth century. It has stood the test of time. It is crucial to strike a balance between a street’s transportation, economic and social functions. I am not convinced that we have struck the right balance between these three functions in many of the roads and streets of towns and cities around the State. In Dublin I query the need for national roads to be camouflaged by tree planting and designed as dual carriageways within the confines of the M50. I believe that they could fulfil a more urban and civilising function by being renamed as boulevards, and by building alongside them at densities that would reflect Dublin’s role as a capital city. The designation of the upper Shannon basis for renewal should not result in more cars heading for Dublin every morning.
Ildefons Cerda’s ambitious plan for Barcelona one hundred and fifty years ago was a bold and visionary proposal that made the best use of land: a scarce resource for a city that was hemmed in between the mountains and the sea. Today in Ireland land is also scarce, but so also is time. Many of us now travel ten times the distance that our parents did in order to carry out the basic tasks of our daily lives. Environmental concerns have made us more aware of the need to cut down on energy use and pollution. I believe that denser, well-designed communities with increased citizen participation can reduce urban sprawl and assist us in creating vibrant neighbourhoods that will stand the test of time.
Ciarán Cuffe March 2003, thi spage published 10th January 2018