Thoughts on Granby Park

—– A shorter version of this text was published on the journal.ie—-

This August we were asked to participate in the Granby Park project organised by the Upstart collective. The park will transform a vacant space on Dominick Street in Dublin’s north inner city into a temporary park hosting various creative arts, educational and food events between the 22nd of August and the 22nd of September. Although we were very enthusiastic about the project, we did have some concerns and so decided to write this short text. We hope that it might raise some questions about projects like Granby Park and contribute to a broader debate around the issues of public spaces, real estate and what many today describe as the ‘right to the city’.

before....

The vacant site

The Granby Park initiative is exciting because it responds to a very real and tangible set of problems which have arisen from the property boom and bust. Over the boom years, as real estate prices and rents sky-rocketed, only the most commercial and profit-orientated actors could prevail. The scramble for land made the city an expensive, inhospitable place to live. Open and public spaces shrank as shopping centres and expensive apartments multiplied. Over-priced bars, night-clubs and restaurants meant it was expensive to go out. New laws against so-called ‘anti-social behaviour’ and begging meant images of Roma migrants being harassed by police were as common as the Spars and Centras that left the city dull and lifeless. In many aspects of our everyday experience it was possible to see and feel how the city had become more oriented towards shoppers and tourists than towards citizens.

The post-boom years have seen a lot of changes. Most notably, vacancy rates rose sharply, with over 20% of office space in Dublin left empty. Many of these spaces even fell into the hands of public (or quasi-public) agencies, with NAMA as the poster-child for the new ‘empty empire’ of real estate and symbolizing the unsustainable and socially destructive practices of public institutions and private speculators during the Celtic Tiger. While the banks and developers who had enriched themselves through property speculation were given easy-rides and bailouts, we did not see any social return in terms of public access to vacant buildings: NAMA’s much hoped for ‘social dividend’ and the promises of Fine Gael and Labour dissolved into the thin air of political rhetoric.

In this context, Granby Park should give us all hope. The initiative will overturn one instance of vacancy in the heart of the inner-city to create a non-commercial public space, open to all and full of exciting collaborations which will no doubt enrich the life of the city. We will all have a chance to take back one small, but significant, piece of the city we live in. Furthermore, the Upstart Collective, the group behind Granby Park, has opened a line of communication and collaboration between citizens and the City Council, an important piece of the puzzle in terms of re-shaping our city for the better. The project has also received a lot of media attention at a time when other voices have started to raise the issue of vacant and derelict spaces. The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Oisín Quinn, recently proposed legislation that would enable Dublin City Council to bring in a levy on vacant spaces in Dublin’s inner city. Putting the question of vacancy and the use of urban space into the public realm is a vital part of shifting the tide in terms of how the city develops and who decides how it develops.

If the question of vacant space is to be part of a genuine discussion on the past, present and future development of the city, then we need to have a better understanding of this story and how and where projects like Granby Park fit within it. Part of the reason we wanted to write this response was that we felt this broader story was not being told. As with so much of the media debate these days there is little space for critical questions. This is especially the case with creative projects like Granby Park: transforming a derelict site in the north inner city into a creative, experimental space for everyone! How could you say anything bad about that?! We want to muddy the waters a little – not for the sake of it but because things are just not as positive as they are made to appear. If this isn’t recognized and addressed then projects like Granby Park will continue to be exceptional, ‘temporary’ moments in the life of the city, rather than a vision of the city we want for everyone.

 What is the history of the site?

Residents of Dominick St. and other communities protest following the collapse of the regeneration projects

Residents of Dominick St. and other communities protest following the collapse of the regeneration projects

Upstart has stated that it will convert a space which would ‘otherwise be vacant’ into a public park. But every space in the city has its own history, and the Granby Park site particularly so. The site was originally ear-marked for a significant regeneration project. Under government guidelines the project (like many others including O’Deaveny Gardens and St. Michael’s Estate) was set up as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP). The land on which the existing Dominick Street flats were located, and encompassing the Granby Park site, was to be given to private property developers, on condition that the developers would ‘regenerate’ the site by constructing new housing and commercial units, a portion of which would be dedicated to social housing. According to this model the City Council could make use of a valuable asset (the land) to secure social housing development at no cost to the state or to the local authority. In addition, the existing residents would be able to access new and improved housing, thus meeting the housing need arising from the poor state of the existing flats following what many perceive as decades of neglect on the part of the city council. The whole concept of PPP, like so much of public policy during the boom years, was predicated on the possibility of developers extracting profits due to anticipated future price increases in housing. The housing needs of the residents were thus subject to the fortunes of one of the most unstable property speculation bubbles in history. Moreover, a considerable portion of the land would be privatized in the form of apartments and commercial units. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, as property prices declined in 2007/2008 the developer (McNamara/Castlethorn), whose involvement was based on expected profits, pulled out – leaving the residents high and dry and resulting in the continuing vacancy of the Granby Park site. In a very concrete sense, then, the fact that the site remains vacant is the result of national policy choices which were underpinned by, and reinforced, the logic of property speculation: privatisation of urban space and the prioritisation of private profits over sustainable and egalitarian urban planning and development.

In this context, the idea that Granby Park is about turning a vacant site into a public park is a little misleading. It would be more accurate to say that the city council has decided to make the space available for one month instead of living up to its long-term promise of providing housing for those excluded from the debt-driven private property market.

This point is particularly important given that the wide variety of media coverage of Granby Park has consistently failed to make clear that the site is vacant due to the demolition of people’s houses and the city council’s failed PPP; the Irish Times describing it as a ‘wasteland’ and the Journal.ie describing it as a ‘vacant wasteland’.

Recalling this recent history is not just important because we don’t want the experiences of the people who lived there, and continue to live there, to be forgotten, but also because the logic which underpinned the failed regeneration on Dominick Street continues to apply: private-led, profit-driven development is still seen as the only game in town. NAMA, for example, the single most significant government intervention in the real estate sector, is wholly focused on harvesting the monetary value of real estate, even if this means sitting on vacant properties for the next decade.

Why a temporary space?

One of the characteristic features of Granby Park is its temporariness: it runs for only one month, from August 22nd till September 22nd. This ‘pop-up’ phenomenon has become popular in Dublin – and many other cities around the world – over the last few years. The attraction of a temporary space or project is obvious. For those involved in organizing it there is less risk and investment involved. It can also be more exciting and inspiring. Granby Park is a good example: there is enthusiasm for a project which can suddenly transform a vacant space into a functioning park. This transformation is made possible by an intense effort over a short amount of time, an intensity which would be hard to sustain over a longer period. We have become accustomed to hearing about the many festivals and events which seem to take place around the country every weekend, especially in the summer. While all of this activity and buzz can be a good thing, it is also important to recognize that creativity requires more than temporary access to space and short-lived events. While the novelty of ‘pop-up’ events and spaces can intensify creativity and experimentation, it also limits what can be created and produced.

One of the most visible elements of the Granby Park will be the green plants and colourful flowers that will brighten up an otherwise grey, concrete site. As well as plants, there will be vegetables growing in a poly-tunnel. This is part of the organizers’ mission to turn the site into a place of ‘nature, imagination, play and beauty for everyone’. The problem is that nature doesn’t speed up to suit the quick turn-over of a month long project. The plants, flowers and vegetables were all grown somewhere else, and will all have to be removed in September. They will have to be in pots rather than in the ground. This isn’t the fault of the organizers – the City Council never would have let them break up the concrete to grow directly in the soil – but it should make us ask what it would actually mean to have nature in the city: what length of time would be required for a garden to be established and vegetables to be grown for people to eat?

Connected to this question is another aspect of the project which the organizers have highlighted as important: the involvement of the local community. We hear this a lot – and no doubt it is well-intentioned – but it is difficult to know what this actually means. There is no doubt that a community is being formed around the Granby Park project: by opening up and producing a space cooperatively people are brought together out of necessity, sharing experiences and supporting one another. But who is part of this community?  The local-residents, from what we understand, are enjoying the park so far, but what about when it moves on? Of course there is no single answer to this question but it takes time to get to know people, to develop relations of trust, to identify common problems and solutions.

The limits imposed by ‘pop-up’ and temporary spaces are brought into sharper focus when we consider the recent history of other independent spaces in Dublin. These independent spaces have arisen over the past seven or eight years in response to the negative developments outlined above – the high cost of rent, the commercialization of social and cultural life and the general limitations put on what could happen and where. They include social and community centres, such as Seomra Spraoi and Exchange Dublin; arts spaces, such as Block T and the Joinery; and social spaces, such as Supafast and Mabos. These spaces express much of the same spirit as the Granby Park project. Collective, creative, non-commercial and independent, they have managed to sustain themselves despite the high cost of rent and intense pressure to comply with various health and safety, environmental and fire regulations. Several of these spaces have been forced to close down while others continue to face an uncertain future. Most salient in this context is the case of Exchange Dublin in Temple Bar. Having provided a vital space run by and for young people over many years, it now faces the threat of closure on the basis of spurious charges of ‘anti-social’ behaviour – with its landlords (Temple Bar Cultural Trust) and Dublin City Councillors apparently leading the charge. In fact, over the past few years many ‘DIY spaces’ have been closed down, Supafast, Dubzland Audiovisual Gallery, Russell St. Men’s Shed and Subground, to name a few.

The contrast between the widespread support (from the City Council, local businesses, media) for the Granby Park project and the lack of support given to some of the existing independent spaces highlights a crucial aspect of contemporary urban development in Dublin and its relationship to ‘temporary’ projects like Granby Park. International experience and research tells us that pop-ups have become popular with city councils and landlords because they attract life to neglected parts of the city (thus boosting business) while at the same time allowing profit (in the form of increased property and rent prices) to be extracted down the line. The activity of artists and cultural producers can thus be harnessed without conceding any rights to the public over a particular space. The support for creative arts projects in the city – such as the City Council’s Vacant Spaces Initiative – has been clear in terms of tapping the reservoir of creative talent in order to fill empty buildings and spaces on a temporary basis. In these terms, temporary means until property prices rise and ‘real’ development returns in the form of commercial investment. Where and when this suits the Council, business interests, property markets and the city planners, creative initiatives are supported, even encouraged. In contrast, when an independent space is considered an obstacle to profitable development, or attracts the ire of local business, it can be identified as ‘anti-social’, ‘illegal’ or ‘unsafe’, and can be closed down.

Play area in the park

Play area in the park

Indeed, it’s not hard to see why a cash-strapped city council would find pop-up spaces attractive. From a cynical point of view, it means lot of people doing the work of the council (providing public space, green areas etc.) for free. This aspect was very tangible for us. Although we were very happy to be asked to organise some educational events in Granby Park, we are also frustrated by the fact that a lot of the work we do is unpaid, and this would be no exception. Like many young people involved in cultural, creative and educational work, we have spent much of the last couple of years on the dole or going through various temporary jobs. But this personal concern points towards a more general difficulty: an enormous amount of unpaid labour will go into Granby Park, but if the only long term outcome (once the park is over) is increased real estate values and more shoppers in the area, than local landowners will be the real beneficiaries. Seen from another point of view, however, the non-commercial cooperation and sharing that will characterise the park are really important. Not only will these help to provide affordable culture and entertainment, they might also give us an idea of alternative ways of doing things at a moment when business-as-usual is neither a possible nor a desirable solution. It will be important and interesting to think about developing this dimension and, in particular, to think not just about alternative ways of producing culture but also alternative ways of paying the rent and putting food on the table.

Who benefits?

We mentioned above that pop-up spaces have become popular across Europe because they allow developers and city councils to harness urban creativity in order to drive up real estate prices without ceding control of a given site. Those who produce the space through hard work, collaboration and passion move on, making way for property development and speculation. The international research in this area is very clear on this point and it has been documented in places from Lower-East Side Manhattan to Berlin’s Kreuzberg. Most perversely, increased property prices make it even more difficult for creativity to flourish in a given area and end up driving out long-term working class communities, migrants and young people.

But what can we do? If every attempt we make to make our city a better place simply ends up being captured in the calculations of real estate players, surely the situation is hopeless? Is it better, then, to do nothing? We don’t think it is better to do nothing and, like Upstart, we still believe we can find a way together through experimentation and collaboration. However, this means questioning, reflecting on and publicly discussing the relationship between our efforts to make a city more after our hearts desire and the process of gentrification. As noted above, this is especially the case with pop-up spaces given their temporary nature. It is really necessary that we think about how to make sure our activities don’t contribute to gentrification in the long term, but instead benefit the city as a whole. We certainly don’t have the solutions, but if we sweep these awkward questions under the carpet we risk contributing to the very forces we want to challenge and alienating those who will perceive us as the ‘front-line’ of gentrification.

We’ve raised a lot of issues here that cannot be answered easily. Certainly, they are not for the Granby Park organizers to answer. We don’t want to come off as sniping from the side-lines – critique can be a very comfortable posture if it allows you to do nothing while feeling morally superior. That’s not what this text has been about. Whenever we try to make change happen, the kinds of complexities and contradictions we have discussed here arise. There is no pure path to change and we have to get our hands dirty in the messy business of transforming our city for the better. This begins by recognizing the effort that has made the Granby Park project possible. But in doing this, it is vital that we not only critically reflect on, but actively work towards finding ways to respond to the kinds of challenges and concerns which we confront. To sleepwalk into a general enthusiasm for ‘pop-up solutions’ to chronic and complex urban problems is to fall victim to a form of group-think not unlike that which has led us to the situation we find ourselves in today. Let’s hope future changes in Dublin city start to look more like the Granby Park project, but let’s also hope they are accompanied by a more critical, a more radical and a more ambitious project of urban change that will allow us to take control of the city we love.

14 comments

  1. Cllr Padraig McLoughlin · · Reply

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, it’s something to digest. I’d just like to comment that DCC don’t wish to cede control of the site as that would prevent much needed social housing and a planned school being built on the site. The long term plan is more based on social good than property speculation.

    1. Thanks for your comment Padraig. Just to clarify, our concern would primarily be with the relationship between the pop up park and property speculation in the area in general, rather than solely the site in question. That said, it is also true (as far as we understand) that all the inner-city social housing regeneration projects which were put in place post-2001 have involved the privatization of public land, and therefore that the council’s track record in this area does call for skepticism as far as future plans to construct social housing go. Of course it would be great to see social housing being built here as per the original commitments. Across the Liffey in St. Michael’s Estate, for example, which was also failed by a PPP regeneration gone wrong, 75 families will move into new houses in October from what we gather. It would be great to see something similar on Dominick St.

  2. “Most salient in this context is the case of Exchange Dublin in Temple Bar. Having provided a vital space run by and for young people over many years, it now faces the threat of closure on the basis of spurious charges of ‘anti-social’ behaviour.”

    As one of the local businesses and residents who repeatedly complained about anti-social behaviour displayed by a number of Exchange users I object to this comment. Local businesses and residents have always been fully supportive of the aims of Exchange since it first opened in 2009 and have repeatedly told them this. Sadly, since 2011 there has been almost daily examples of drink and drug abuse, threatening behaviour and graffiti by some Exchange users. Exchange were asked to deal with the issues both formally and informally on a number of occasions in the past 2 years and failed to do so. This led to a request from local residents, businesses and councillors for them to be given notice to leave their premises. Since receiving notice Exchange have implemented new policies which have led to anti-social behaviour in the area dropping by 95%. It is sad that they failed to implement these policies when previously requested which would have prevented the local community from asking them to be moved elsewhere. The charges of anti-social behaviour were not spurious and Exchange’s failure to practice good self-governance in the past is what has led to a lack of local community support.

  3. […] Mick Byrne of the Provisional University raises some cautions about who will reap the long term benefits (longer piece here). […]

    1. Thanks for your comment, it’s always good to see another side of any story. That said, we have spent a lot of time in Exchange over the years and have found no evidence of anti-social behavior (although our understanding of that term may differ from that of others). Dublin is a city which has significant issues around substance misuse and addiction. We hope that people affected by these issues have felt that they can use Exchange and that, if they have, this can only be of benefit to them since Exchange is a very positive drug and alcohol free space. Many spaces in the city centre are sadly not welcoming for those with issues around addiction or even mental health. Moreover, the reality is that Temple Bar has been designed, with the full complicity of Dublin City Council, as a kind of factory of anti-social behavior fueled by the drug we call alcohol. In that context, it is outlandish to criticize exchange and attempt to have it closed. Finally, we understand that the city is shared by different people and that we have to find compromises so that everyone can enjoy the city – however some of us like to spend time on the street, like to hang out smoking and chatting in public space and, since the city is ours as much as anyone else’s, we have the right to do so.

  4. Thanks for posting this. It articulates some of the key tensions around questions over vacant spaces and pop-up activities that are currently popular throughout cities, both in Europe and elsewhere. While, as you highlight, it becomes difficult to critique such approaches in as much as they serve a social purpose, they have come to symbolize a much wider set of processes in contemporary cities. In particular, your highlighting of the contradictions between notions related to creativity, displacement, and a property-dominated system is timely. It is therefore important that the wider social implications of such interventions are discussed and debated as opposed to just being accepted at face-value.

    Philip

  5. nice piece, thanks for examining from a more critical view point. Some valid points raised there and maybe we need to try and move on a little from the pop-up, let’s see how long we can keep it going for mentality and assess how we can make these places an integral part of the city and allow communities to be formed and attached to them, easily said I know but think there is some potential in that all these different places and collectives might be able to work together (while still realising their own vision) to keep these spaces going collectively, developing a plan for after the ‘pop-up’ rather than investigating huge amounts of time&money into ever new temporary spaces. Lets face it how often will we be able to raise 20 grand from the public. I also think there is an element where we can build a body of knowledge that can collectively serve as an advisor to the city council. Slightly different realm, but the cycling campaign has lobbied for years and years until they started being heard and now they actually feed the councillors with studies, etc. Something similar could be done to highlight how independent spaces can aid a cities development and we do have spaces already available to showcase how it works in practice. Its like this: if you want people to do something you need to tell them what to do…same works with the city council I guess, its just not easy. Am not an insider with this whole culture just enjoying the city and liking alternatives, so feel free to put me back into my box :-)

    1. Thanks for your comment Flora – very good points re working together and the possibility of shaping policy. The example of cycling campaigners is very suggestive, it might be worth trying to explore how they developed the relationship they have with local/national government.

  6. Luther Blissett · · Reply

    An interestng and well presented critique that raises many issues, provoked by the very act of creating a ‘pop-up park’. One of the areas that also might be worth considering is the notion of legitimacy and how the relationship to ‘power’ (in this case the Local Authority) is critical to obtaining it. It’s clear that irrespective of what the pop-up initiaitve might be there is nearly always some task to be completed that seeks to obtain legitimacy from some ‘power’ or ‘authority’. This is particulalry problematic as it clearly implies that what is considered ‘legitimae’ is dependent upon satisfying any number of criteria laid out before people/organisations/endeavours. As the state plays an increasingly pervasive role in managing and sanctioning our activities, whether in the public or private sphere it is apparent that justifying your contribution to an already agreed set of aims/objectives is vital. Me thinks we might need to challenge and resists that a little more.

    One further comment… the assertion by a previous poster that the independent space Exchange should have been singled out to address it’s contributions to anti-social behaviour is laughable. As someone who enjoys many of this cities charms, legal, illegal and who knows what else, I can say without hesitation that the single biggest contributors to impacting negatively on my life as a city dweller is the drinks industry, licencsed victuallers and business/Council policy in it’s rampant desire (some call it a ‘right’) to make profits at any cost. I’m also happen to demonstrate how that happens if these very same ‘interests’ are happy to take a walk through my average city cenre weekend night.

    Keep up the good work guys.
    R.

  7. Stan Erraught · · Reply

    Really good, well judged piece. Is there a pdf of it? I’d be interested in using it in some teaching if you didn’t object.

    1. Thanks Stan. We’ll email you a pdf.

  8. “The contrast between the widespread support (from the City Council, local businesses, media) for the Granby Park project and the lack of support given to some of the existing independent spaces highlights a crucial aspect of contemporary urban development in Dublin and its relationship to ‘temporary’ projects like Granby Park.”

    I am very grateful for your critique and your argument promoting the ongoing evaluation of publicly supported urban interventions (be they Beta, Pop Up, or otherwise). I am part of a group of residents who constantly strive to improve the livability in our area of the city and we are acutely aware of the issues that you have brought up, some of which are related in this post on my website: http://desireland.ie/what-next-negotiating-livability-on-sitric-road/

    As community gardener and a ‘Park(ing) Day’ participant, I was concerned about the temporary use of plants (as decoration) in Granby Park. As you say, nature requires time, which I actually think is an important benefit gleaned from working ‘with’ it! We are conditioned to think of nature when we think of a ‘park’ but, according to ‘Project for Public Spaces’ research, 90% of the success of public space is determined by programming as apposed to design (plants, infrastructure, architecture, etc.). The best value being achieved when the ‘programming’ draws on what already exists adjacent (the community, it’s people and underutilized or neglected assets).

    One small comparison to illustrate my point: I live near O’Devany Gardens, another one of the social housing projects that hasn’t progressed. This summer a group of enterprising youths started a spontaneous ‘rave’ on the waste ground at O’Devany. No funding for publicity or infrastructure was asked for or given as far as I know. The events attracted huge crowds on a few balmy summer evenings. Complaints were issued, the Garda helicopter arrived and hovered threateningly above pointing a spotlight on the gathering (cost?) and the DJ (who I assume donated his skills) subsequently promised he will never provide his services again (according to recent notes from the local Community Policing Forum).

    One of the nights I went down with a neighbour to observe the activity and met one of the parents who was supervising the event which was largely attended by young teens. He was delighted that these local kids were celebrating the spectacular weather and socializing with friends on their home site. It all appeared reasonably innocent. Could this have developed into a locally monitored community enterprise if handled thoughtfully?

    I find it frustrating that the residents adjacent to residual sites around the city aren’t encouraged to activate these vacant spaces and given the support they need (facilitation skills, resources in kind, not necessarily funding) to develop innovative ideas through partnerships with local creatives, business, etc. I know that there are excellent examples of this kind in Fatima and St Michael’s Estate, efforts that should be emulated. Projects driven by local residents would bring the important historical context and long-term view to a prototyping exercise which can be lacking in our current enthusiasm for a ‘Pop Up’ approach to culture.

  9. […] our recent article in the journal.ie (a longer version of which is available here) on Granby park, and in the aftermath of the park itself, we wanted to sketch out a few further […]

  10. […] to more effectively police communities through various disciplining mechanisms tied to funding. In Dublin, the creative uses of vacant spaces is another way in which voluntary collective activity is being […]

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