Yesterday evening we attended a shindig in Dublin City Council all about ‘creative uses’ of urban space. The focus was specifically on vacant space and the context was the Lord Mayor Oisin Quinn’s levy on vacant spaces.
The detail of the levy is still unclear and it is far from certain that it will go through (it requires new legislation as DCC currently doesn’t have the power to introduce a levy). The nuts and bolts of it seem to be that landowners who sit on vacant lots in the city will be subject to a levy – the suggestion seemed to be it would be between 1% and 3% of the site’s value. To avoid the levy, they would have to sell the site, develop it or allow an ‘interim use’ which is ‘socially beneficial’.
Obviously, the devil is in the detail and our gombeen developer class are only too familiar with the art of loophole-spotting. Nevertheless, the possibility of access to urban space, and the interest from DCC that this initiative signals, will be welcomed by those involved in independent spaces and related projects.
Nevertheless, we couldn’t fail to notice the irony of DCC hosting a public discussion of this nature in the same week in which Exchange Dublin was closed and news filtered out that Mabos is also facing closure (we also found out last night that Smithfield’s Art Tunnel is due to close – another one bites the dust). Ray Yeates, who as interim CEO of Temple Bar Cultural Trust was the landlord of Exchange Dublin, even gave a talk about his vacant spaces program (conducted in his capacity as DCC Arts Officer). Now, if you’ve been following the events at Exchange you might think that this program is about creating vacant spaces, but apparently it’s about hooking artists up with landlords to facilitate access to space.
The apparent disconnect between DCC’s declared commitment to ‘creative spaces’ and how things have been working in practice aside, there were a number of issues that we want to bring up here.
First of all, the Lord Mayor pointed out that vacant spaces become ‘hotbeds of antisocial behaviour’, and this is one of the reasons why access to vacant spaces should be promoted. However, experience shows that if a community garden, park or social space opens up in a formerly vacant space the issues around challenging behaviour don’t just go away (incidentally, we don’t like the term anti-social behaviour; issues around homelessness, mental health or addiction may be challenging, but they are not anti-social). In fact, these issues have posed difficulties for a number of projects we have spoken to in recent months, particularly community garden initiatives. Interestingly, most independent spaces don’t want to respond to challenging behaviour by excluding and stigmatizing people. In fact, they see diversity and inclusivity as key objectives.
There are two outcomes we don’t want in this regard. The first is that volunteers who create spaces get blamed for the challenging behaviour that may happen within the space or in the vicinity, and get closed down. The second is that independent spaces become like other private and public spaces and exclude those who exhibit challenging behaviour.
Granby Park, which was fairly successful in this regard, had a private security guard. But there are questions about whether or not private security guards are an appropriate way of dealing with these issues (they are not trained for this) and the financial cost that this involves.
The challenge will be to develop mechanisms to negotiate challenging behaviour while at the same time maintaining independent spaces as open, inclusive spaces for encountering and negotiating difference within the city. We would argue that Dublin City Council, in addition to opening up spaces for creative initiatives, needs to move away from the language of anti-social behaviour and think about supporting the negotiation of these issues in a way which is more positive and is grounded in the equality of all citizens.
Another theme at yesterday’s event was that of the ‘temporary nature’ of creative spaces. Ali Grehan, the city architect and key player in Granby Park, noted somewhat philosophically that ‘everything is temporary’. She also made a point of stating that although the Art Tunnel in Smithfield was closing, their lease with the private land owners having expired, that wasn’t a problem for the organisers. When the speaker from the Art Tunnel took the podium, however, she described the closing as ‘very sad’ and said they didn’t want to close it at all. Nevertheless, the Art Tunnel crew reasoned that if they attempted to stay on it would only make land owners in Dublin more wary of allowing access to their space.
This seems to be the crux of the ‘temporary’ approach. Dublin City Council seem to want to facilitate access to space, but don’t want citizens to develop a sense of collective ownership of that space or get notions about democratic control over how space is used and how the city develops.
The levy on vacant spaces and DCC’s interest in alternative uses of urban space are promising. The creativity and enthusiasm around these issues is also really inspiring, but we’re going to need to have a more critical and pragmatic discussion if ‘creative uses’ and independent spaces are going to be a meaningful vehicle for transforming the city and changing the power relations and political dynamics that currently undermine it.