Crisis-scape Dublin: urban politics after the crash

Urban development, housing and the built environment have been central to Ireland’s boom and bust. It’s hardly surprising, then, that some of these issues remain among the most contentious in Dublin today.

Here we just want to note some reflections on the outworking of the crisis in relation to these issues from the point of view of the factors likely to be important in shaping the political possibilities of Dublin in coming months and years. Three issues jump out here: urban regeneration, housing and ‘DIY urbanism’.


Urban regeneration

The bursting of the bubble, and more importantly the state’s response to it, rapidly transformed the political landscape in terms of urban regeneration of inner-city social housing.  Most strikingly, five Public Private Partnerships collapsed when developer Bernard McNamara/ Castlethorn pulled out. Places like St. Michael’s Estate, Dominick St. and O’Deveany Gardens were left semi-demolished, with families displaced and a legacy of broken promises. This isn’t just another chapter in the longer story of the demise of social housing; it has significant implications for urban politics. The communities affected had been struggling for up two decades for regeneration and adequate housing and the regeneration projects included community participation structures, reflecting a ‘partnership’ approach to urban regeneration. With the collapse of the PPPs came a dramatic deterioration in the relationship between Dublin City Council and inner-city local authority tenants.  The idea of community participation in urban regeneration is further undermined by developments in the Docklands. With the winding up of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority comes the demise of its community participation structures, such as the Community Liaison Committee. These structures were vital for securing community gain from the regeneration of area and securing guarantees in terms of the provision for social housing. The new Strategic Development Zone, although not yet signed off, does not appear to have any community participation mechanisms.

The upshot of all this is that the political structures governing urban regeneration of inner-city social housing complexes and ensuring the incorporation of tenants are in crisis – leaving something of a vacuum. Moreover, social housing tenants are among the most well-organised communities in Dublin and are characterised by a strong relationship between community activists and residents –something which certainly can’t be found in most parts of Dublin.



Of course the housing issues don’t stop there. Indeed, the devastation inflicted on housing seems to be moving like a spinning top from one crisis to another.  At the outset of the crisis those in mortgage arrears experienced the hard edge of the crisis, and to a significant extent that has not changed –with over 100,000 households in arrears and the fast approaching reality of widespread evictions. In the last year or so, the crisis has spread to the private rented sector which absorbed the additional demand of those excluded from owner occupancy and was at the same time impacted by the reduction of rent supplement caps.  Finding accommodation in this sector has become next to impossible for those on rent supplement and incredibly expensive for those who are not. Meanwhile the old issues of lack of security and landlord non-compliance with regulations remain.

Finally, in the context of a clear crisis of a housing policy based on debt-fuelled home ownership, and a wildly over-heated rental sector, the government has continued and intensified the undermining of social housing – guaranteeing the continuation of the problems in the other sectors.

Somewhat surprisingly, there has been no clear political expression of the housing crisis.  Candidates for the local election are hearing everyday about people’s difficulties and the media are increasingly reporting on them as well – but politically a vacuum remains. It will be interesting to watch the development of Housing Action Now, a new campaign to be launched on June 12th.


DIY Urbanism

While the crisis has seen housing chaos and the crumbling of community participation in urban regeneration it has also spawned a new breed or ‘DIY urbanism’ in Dublin, with many getting involved in community gardens, pop up parks and independent spaces. Such initiatives began before the crisis, with spaces like Seomra Spraoi emerging in the early 2000s and reflecting a growing alienation from the soulless expansion of the city and the commercialisation of urban space. In the post-Celtic Tiger period, however, independent spaces and other grassroots initiatives have really taken off, and the issue has also gained increasing public attention and even traction at an official level. Granby Park, in particular, has raised the bar in terms of the possibilities of DIY urbanism. Dublin City Council appear to be taking this issue more seriously, with officials such as Dublin City Architect Ali Grehan backing projects like Granby Park, the Arts Office’s ‘vacant spaces’ project and a proposed levy on vacant sites being championed by Lord Mayor Oisin Quinn.

However, positive noises emanating from the Council are largely undercut by a number of counter-trends. Existing policies and regulations often serve more to undermine DIY urbanism than to empower it – with many spaces closing or failing to get off the ground due to problems around health and safety and fire regulations, the rigidity of the zoning system and alleged issues around ‘anti-social behaviour’. Moreover, support from some within the Council is undermined by wider economic policies – as evidenced in the Dockland’s Strategic Development Zone (where Dublin City Council is the development agency) where spaces such as Mabos and the Factory have come under pressure from NAMA and international financial institutions pursuing short-term profit.

Some of these tendencies are cohering around the highly problematic notion of ‘temporary spaces’. By limiting DIY Urbanism within the category of ‘temporary’, Dublin City Council can be seen to support DIY urbanism but in a manner which supports wider economic objectives around enhancing the value of urban space and stimulating private investment. The notion of temporary spaces is, in contrast, highly unpopular within the DIY urbanism scene and the tensions between the City Council’s vision and that of the grassroots activists seems likely to grow.


The right to the city?

On the face of it then, the importance of the ‘right to the city’ is manifesting in a number of terrains of contemporary urban conflict in the fair city suggesting the possibility of a new set of alliances between city dwellers concerned with finding a home, supporting sustainable urban communities and taking democratic ownership over the process of urban development. Interestingly, few if any of these issues are reflected in the local election literature currently spewing through our letter boxes and politics seems to be dominated by super-local clientalism and the chimera of national economic ‘recovery’. The future of the city remains the preserve of unelected officials, the impenetrable NAMA and shady financial institutions. There is a clear political space here, currently characterised by an absence of political expression and leadership. Whether or not the coming months and years will see that space occupied remains to be seen.


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