—– 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’.
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?
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.
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.
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.