“…engender a sense of belonging and ownership among all their inhabitants, prioritize safe, inclusive, accessible, green, and quality public spaces, friendly for families, enhance social and intergenerational interactions, cultural expressions, and foster social cohesion, inclusion, and safety in peaceful and pluralistic societies, where the needs of all inhabitants are met.”
– Habitat III Agenda, October 2016
Merrion Square Park, Dublin (Rent.ie)
Nature is beautiful. It was a sanctuary for the densely populated slums of Dublin’s inner city, and it’s an oasis now from the fast-paced, globalized, financialized world we live in. When Yeats wrote of the dreary “pavements grey” of London in his poem ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, he captured the stark divide between urban and rural space. Today, one of the most important things for our society – as one that has fewer ties with nature now than ever before – is to preserve our green spaces, and to make sure that the systematic financialization of urban space does not undervalue the public areas that are so important to the people who live in the city.
In an era of cities when the majority of the Earth’s huge population is urbanized, adapting to the physical constraints of an urban environment and managing to provide a healthy, sustainable, community-based space for the locality should be a priority for everyone. Not only do open spaces and green area often tackle physical problems such as obesity and air and noise pollution, they also provide a sense of community and are likely to have mental health benefits for those who use them.
Overcrowding and Profits in Dublin’s Inner-City:
Open Space in Dublin’s Tenements (RTE)
Children playing in the doorway of an old Georgian mansion (Pinterest)
Dublin has been home to the some of the most deprived and densely populated slums in Europe. After the dissolution of the Irish Parliament in 1800 after the Act of Union, an exodus occurred of government officials and rich citizens from their Georgian mansions in the inner-city. As the values of these properties began to decline – a property worth £8000 in 1791 would be worth £500 only 50 years later – they were bought up by landlords, divided up into tiny apartments and filled with 1/3rd of Dublin’s growing population, the poorest of the poor (Kearns, 1994).
This switch from pleasant, spacious middle-class homes to overcrowded, damp, dark hovels represents a change in the use of this land. The houses became commodities that could potentially earn the landlords a fortune – depending on how many people could be fit into them (McCullough, 2007). The sudden ability to extract profit from the land put the quality of life of those living in them at the bottom of the landlords priorities. The result was a lack of sanitation and an overcrowding problem so severe that the twice as many died in Dublin as a result of TB than did in London in the 1890’s, and the city had the highest infant mortality rate of any urban area in the British Isles by the 1930’s (Kearns, 1994).
The majority of the inhabitants’ socializing at this time took place on the streets, but sometimes, they would head to Phoenix Park or Sandymount Strand to take in the fresh air. Dublin’s surrounding countryside was a “natural wonderland” to the slum-dwellers (Kearns, 1994). It is clear that the poorest sector of Dublin’s population experienced little environmental justice throughout this time. There existed a utilization of the land as a means of profit, with little consideration for the quality of life of local inhabitants.
Social Housing and Sub-Urbanisation:
From the 1920’s onwards, Dublin City Corporation began to address the slum problem. The first social housing development followed the middle-classes to the fringe of the city, to Marino (Brady, 2014). These developments were based on models envisioned by Ebeneezer Howard – the Garden City. The Garden City was an ideal that provided easy access, open space and efficiency due to planning (Kaplan et al., 2004).
The Marino houses were built with the quality and size of houses in mind. The physical appearance of the development was also important – the houses would have different designs to reduce the monotonic nature of the suburbs, and all the houses were positioned in such a way that each had a view to the green area close by.
Arial view of the Marino public housing development, based on Howard’s ‘Garden City’ (Architecture Ireland)
The sub-urbanization throughout the intervening years, and the speculative property market prevalent throughout the Celtic Tiger meant that huge amounts of green area within and surrounding Dublin have been developed. Yet there are any number of parks and walks in the suburbs of Dublin: the Dodder stretches from Rathfarnham to Ringsend, Herbert Park situated in between. The coast provides a ‘great outdoors’ for much of Dublin. There are beautiful small parks with gardens and safe playgrounds, like Palmerston Park in Dartry. There is St. Anne’s park on the Guinness Estate in Clontarf, and – obviously – Phoenix Park.
The Inner-City’s Problem:
The struggle to live in a better urban environment is one that is a huge source of mobilization, and one that compelled many to find a way out of the city. While the masses of middle-class and better-off working class made their way to the suburbs, the poorest and most socially disadvantaged remain in the city, without the money to leave and without the political influence to demand change.
The human brain views the urban landscape as a hostile, unfriendly environment, and the evidence out there shows that those who live in highly urbanized environments value green space more. Yet, Dublin’s inner city remains devoid of any substantial green space, and what it has is inadequate and unsafe. Green spaces are locally appreciated and the benefits accrue over a long time, meaning those who aren’t near a park will not gain from it.
Syringes found in Croppie’s Acre, Smithfield (comeheretome.com)
Greening the Inner City:
So is the issue that there isn’t enough space to develop well-looked after green areas in the inner-city? No – there are a number of publicly owned, derelict sites in Dublin’s inner city that, with some community resolve and funding, could be creatively transformed, as happened in Peterborough in the UK. Creativity is something that is growing in importance when it comes to creating a green inner city with limited space.
Petersborough Community Garden (The Guardian)
However, many have experienced difficulties in maintaining their open space as developers and governments plan to build, wary of the profits that could be extracted from valuable inner-city locations – a philosophy that many have become familiar with in the rapidly financialized Docklands of Dublin.
There are examples throughout Dublin city where space has been used creatively to provide green space within constraints – the Irishtown Nature Park, which was used as a dump until recent years, is now a hotspot for Dublin’s urban biodiversity. There are plans to use the site of a flattened block of social welfare apartments in the Liberties as a public park, complete with seats and other amenities that will encourage a sense of a shared community that bleak grey streets and monotonous buildings could never do.
There are many ways that we need to adapt to the future of our world. Governments, communities and businesses need to come together to change inner-cities, and make them a great place to live, for everyone.
Brady J. (2014) Dublin, 1930-1950: The Emergence of the Modern City. Four Courts Press Ltd, Dublin
Kaplan D., Wheeler J., Holloway S. (2004) Urban Geography. Wiley,
Kearns K. C.(1994) Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History. Gill & Macmillan Ltd, Dublin.
McCullough N. (2007) Dublin: An Urban History. Anne Street Press, Dublin
Nolan B. (2012) Phoenix Park: A History and Guidebook. The Liffey Press, Dublin