Common notions and the right to the city in Dublin

Following our recent article in the journal.ie on Granby park (a longer version of which is available here), and in the aftermath of the park itself, we wanted to sketch out a few further ideas on the Right to the City in Dublin.

One welcome, if perhaps unexpected, outcome of GranbyPark was the debates it brought out around urban interventions and the ‘right to the city’. We were lucky enough to be invited to a panel discussion on the park’s final weekend where some of these debates came to the fore. Most of the critical discussion, however, was happening around the park (on- and off-line) rather than in the park of even with the park. In other words, it remained on the sidelines.

The points being raised in these discussions were important. For one thing, lots of people would have liked to see the park continue. While it is clear that the park wasn’t sustainable in the Granby Park format (i.e. with large structures, permanent volunteers, continuous events and 24-hour security) it was not at all clear why a scaled back version couldn’t be maintained (i.e. a simple open space with some seating or something a long those lines) or why a dialogue could not have been opened up with the existing networks of independent spaces and community gardens around keeping it open. Many people also had concerns about the relationship between the park and the site’s past and future. The scandalous treatment of the sites former residents under the failed Public Private Partnership was one aspect which could have been recognised. More importantly, perhaps, the future of the site could have been scrutinized somewhat more. A sign in the park itself made reference to future community housing to be built there, but there was no mention of that fact that there is currently no funding for that housing, that the planned 80 social housing units represents a huge reduction on Dominick street’s original 198 social housing units and that the plan also includes the construction of private housing (120 units) and commercial and retail space to ‘extend the retail core’ (not to mention the fact that, as we understand it, the current plan includes no green space).

These were just some of the issues. It wasn’t up to Upstart, the collective behind the park, to address all of these issues. Any one of those raising these issues (the provisional university included) were more than welcome to organise events in the park which sought to address them. Likewise, Upstart got the park open for a month – it would be completely unfair to turn around and blame them for the fact that it didn’t last longer.

The real issue, for those of us perhaps wishing to see more permanent and radical urban interventions, is why we weren’t really able to move out of the sidelines. Our own incapacity to act upon the reality we inhabit was for us more tangible as Granby came to a close.

This incapacity is in many ways surprising given that there are quite wide networks of people engaged in questions of the ‘right to the city’ at the moment. From art spaces to social centres, from community gardens to architects, from researchers to community activists, there is a rich tapestry of knowledge, experience, analysis and skills which should make for a significant capacity for intervention. Yet something seems to be missing.

There is always the temptation to point towards the way in which the media silence dissent, the dominance of private property, or the alleged disfunctionality of the city council. But, considering change can only come from the bottom up, blaming the ‘big Other’ seems to us less useful than thinking about enhancing our own capacity to bring about change. We think that ‘common notions’ might be part of this.

‘Common notions’ have a broad application, but they are particularly useful given that the networks of activists, artists and others working around urban change in Dublin are characterized by a relatively high degree of diversity. Some are concerned with improving the experience of the city and quality of life issues, others are most interesting in engaging citizens in public space, still others focus on environmental dynamics while for some urban dynamics are part of a broader struggle against neo-liberal capitalism. Working through, and with, this diversity is a challenge, but one we have to confront if we are to develop our collective potential to shape our city.

Common notions

No doubt many of us have had the experience of public talks or meetings to set up a network that seem to be characterised by a paradox – everyone seems to want to see change, and in a similar direction, but at the same time we all have different priorities, different ways of understanding and communicating this and different ideas of how to get there. Moreover, some people talk a lot, others not so much; some stick to the point, others take longer to get there. In short, you can sometimes feel that a collective attempt to address an issue is overwhelmed by the differences between people. People get tired and then frustrated, often impatient for ‘action’ and finding it difficult to see how that might come about.

This can indeed be frustrating, but when you think about it there is nothing too surprising here. We live in a time in which there are many different ways of seeing the world, many different types of analysis and many different sources of information. If you stick a bunch or random people in a room the diversity inherent in this situation will initially undermine collective action.

On the other hand, we’ve moved beyond old fashioned ideas of activism which revolved around inculcating new recruits into an over-arching ideology. While these ideologies made collective action easier and often very effective in some sense, they implied a kind of hierarchy which worked against genuine participation.

This is where the concept of ‘common notions’ can be useful, a concept we take from the title of this article by Marta Malo. Common notions are not over-arching ideas to which everyone has to sign up in order to be able to work together, but a set of mobile coordinates that allow us to navigate better together. They crystallize something important and give us a shared sense of it and a shared name for it, allowing us to talk about something and understand it in the same way. Take the slogan ‘acqua – bene comune’ (water – a common resource) which was developed by the campaign against the referendum on the privatisation of water in Italy. The notion is simple – water belongs to everyone and everyone needs it, so it can’t be privately owned or distributed. We don’t have to agree that the privatisation of water is a form of neoliberalism or share a critique of capitalist accumulation to agree that water is a common resource. The Zapatistas, to give another example, have been great at developing common notions grounded in the everyday experience and the lifeworlds of the people of Chiapas. For example, they say ‘we walk at the pace of the slowest’. This means that, while some may want to rush ahead and achieve radical social change very quickly, it is important that we all go forward together even if it takes more time. Another one is ‘one no, many yeses’ – which suggests that we may need unity in opposing forms of injustice, but we can have diversity in terms of the possibilities for living differently that opposition opens up.

These kinds of ‘common notions’ are like protocols that allows us to act more effectively because they are shared and collective, they give us a common starting point for discussing something, responding to an unexpected event or making a tough decision. While they might seem less ambitious than a wider programme, their very ‘lightness’ can make them more useful for working with a range of diverse actors.

Developing common notions takes time and requires development through trial and error, through the discussions we have at meetings as well those we have in the pub afterwards or while getting the bus home from the meeting together. They also require that we start to make an effort to engage with each other with a more explicit view to sharing our analyses, experiences and priorities in terms of urban change.

Finally, common notions are something which we feel is urgently needed to move from our condition as a wide network of individuals engaged in different projects and in informal discussions to a network capable of acting in a complex and rapidly changing city.

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