The last year or so has seen DIY urbanism move up a gear in the fair city. Most notably, the unprecedented success and ambition of Granby Park marks a ‘before and after’ in terms of grassroots urban initiatives. This period has also seen Dublin City Council take an increasing interest in alternative or ‘creative’ uses of space – although too often framed in terms of ‘temporary’ uses.
While this upsurge is no doubt to be welcomed by anyone interested in the ‘right to the city’, a more critical and political view of the process of urban development has been conspicuously lacking from the debate. This gives particular cause for concern given the high-profile closure of some trail-blazing projects like Mabos and Exchange Dublin – where public agencies had a role to play (NAMA in the case of Mabos, Dublin City Council in the case of Exchange).
However, we recently had the opportunity to visit a project which, while flying very much below the radar, represents perhaps the most exciting and ambitious instance of DIY urbanism in Dublin to date. The project in question is the squatting of an enormous site located somewhere in Dublin 7 (we won’t go into too much detail about the location for obvious reasons, but if you want to know more you know where to find us wink wink). Featuring residential units, which can house up to several dozen people at any one time, a number of warehouse and office units, and a series of large open areas, the space is like nothing we’ve seen before. The project is managed by the residents, and they have been working on the considerable task of transforming the space into a fully functioning residential, social and gardening project.
While Dublin is anything but famous for its squatting scene, the last few years have seen a determined bunch of individuals generate a significant movement – opening up one house after another over the last four years or so. The current figures suggest Dublin City Council will create around 34 new social housing units this year. If the current trend continues, incredibly, squatters will make available more housing this year than our own city council!
The size of the space itself (about 20,000 sq metres), while presenting an exciting opportunity, is also a huge challenge, especially given the limited resources of the squatting movement at present.
To top it all off, the site is in NAMA – raising the prospect of what could be an interesting stand off between DIY urbanists and the ‘bad bank’. From NAMA’s point of view, urban space and the built environment are simply ‘assets’ whose only role is to generate flows of income towards the financial sector. More worryingly still, if recent reports that NAMA will be selling off most their mammoth loan book by 2018 are true, places like Dublin 7 (where in Smithfield alone NAMA is linked to between 15 and 20 assets) will find themselves subject to the whims of the international hedge funds and private equity firms that have been circling NAMA over recent months (e.g. Lone Star, Blackstone and Oaktree Capital).
For the squatters this is their first non-residential squat. The fact that the project involves social space as well as housing creates the opportunity to generate a wider community of participants with a stake in the space, thus strengthening the space and facilitating any future resistance to eviction. We hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does it may place issues such as the right to the city, the boundaries of DIY urbanism, and NAMA’s impact on urban development in the political spotlight – and not before time.