“The Assembly Room of the City” or a Permanent Roadblock? The Pedestrianisation of College Green
As the Luas works continue to envelop Trinity and its surroundings, anything that would pile further change on city streets already saturated with fencing and heavy machinery seems an almost absurd suggestion. However, it is in this climate of incessant construction that a pedestrian plaza on College Green is being mooted.
This development would undoubtedly represent a comprehensive change to our urban landscape, transforming a street bound by an impressive set of historical buildings in Trinity’s Front Gate and the old Parliament buildings, past which taxis and buses speed. The street has, since 2009, already been closed to private vehicles between 7am and 10am and between 4pm and 7pm on weekdays, but remains a congested and important artery through the city centre, despite the constricting effect of the Luas works. The proposal would prevent all vehicular traffic running from east to west between College Green and Dame St. Buses and Luas services would still operate along from north to south immediately opposite Front Gate, with a two-way cycle lane also put in place. Bus routes will be rerouted and added bus lanes will be introduced on Capel St and Parliament St.
The impact of the proposal, which was submitted for public consultation earlier this year, would be undoubtedly significant and as such, has been the subject of much controversy, with as many as 2,700 complaints being submitted to Dublin City Council about the plan. Any dramatic restructuring of the city and how it works on a daily basis will obviously require caution, and a detailed examination of the potential costs and benefits is necessary. But more fundamental and enduring concerns are likely to come from businesses and taxi drivers, people who see their livelihoods as dependent on the ability of people to traverse across Dublin by car.
Enduring concerns are likely to come from businesses and taxi drivers, people who see their livelihoods as dependent on the ability of people to traverse across Dublin by car
The basic motivation for the proposals seems grounded in the idea of creating the pedestrianised zone. In their public consultation document, Dublin City Council refers to the proposed space as a “civic plaza” with the potential to be “the assembly room of the city”. The Council seems eager to return to the original purpose of the street as the “Royal Mile”, a wide, unobstructed route stretching from Dublin Castle to the Houses of Parliament, in what is now the Bank of Ireland building. A desire to return to this “assembly room” model also seems to be a big part of the reason why it has found support from Eamon Ryan, TD for Dublin Bay South and leader of the Green Party. “It would create a really important civic space that would allow everyone to use it”, Ryan told The University Times, adding that “it would create a core central spine between the pedestrianised areas on Mary St and Henry St, down through O’Connell St to Trinity College where people can move freely.” Dr Marcus Collier, Senior Fellow at the University College Dublin (UCD) School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy and scientific co-ordinator at TURAS, a European urban planning research project, also told The University Times over email that he was “totally in favour of the pedestrianisation of the College Green area”, adding that “pedestrianisation changes the dynamics of the city, mostly (but not always) for the better”. He noted, however, the way that planning decisions can definitively change social interaction in cities. “Closing a street shifts many of the services and changes how people use the city, even who uses the city.”
Pedestrianisation is perhaps, therefore, a movement towards greater accessibility and allowing people to enjoy their urban landscape. It is easy to see why the cobblestones of Grafton St might be a somewhat more pleasant place to do your shopping or even just stroll than through rush hour traffic on College Green.
This improvement to the social atmosphere of the city centre is something that has been observed in existing research. Seville in Spain extended its central pedestrianised area out from the historic centre of the city in 2009. This process was examined by a range of surveys by José Castillo-Manzano, Lourdes Lopez-Valpuesta and Juan Ascencio-Flores of local residents before and after the implementation of the measure. They found that, despite the contentious nature of the decision, which saw protests across the city, particularly from businesses and heated debates in the media, that there was an emerging consensus afterwards that the atmosphere in the newly pedestrianised areas had been greatly improved. Indeed, it was the people who were resident in those areas, who were impacted most by the lesser vehicular access and the lengthy roadworks, that reported the highest levels of satisfaction with the change.
But is this nebulous concept of pedestrianised accessibility actually worth anything to the businesses of the city centre? Irrespective of the number of people drinking in the “civic” atmosphere, restrictions on the movements of private vehicles could do much to dissuade customers from coming to the retailers of the city centre. The effect of the plans is significant for College Green, as they require something of a reorganisation of as many of 40 bus routes, according to the submission of Dublin Bus to the consultation process. Aidan Sweeney, Senior Policy Executive at Ibec, the largest representative organisation for businesses in Ireland, speaking to The University Times, said that his organisation was “always in favour of things that will improve the appearance and enjoyment of the city”, noting that “to attract people to the city centre we need to improve the quality of life in the city”. He expressed concerns however by the prospect of “disruptions to bringing people to the city”. The position of Ibec, therefore, is conditional on the efforts of Dublin City Council to manage the impact on transport in the city.
“We’d accept the proposal happily if we were assured that traffic would be regulated effectively”, Sweeney explained: “Perception is key, if people think it’s inaccessible, they won’t come into the city centre.” Indeed, with the negative commentary about the proposal and the number of complaints submitted to the council, public perception of the change will have to improve if a reduction in customer footfall is to be avoided. There are also concerns about the particular categories of individuals that may be excluded from the city centre if congestion were to get worse. Sweeney regards “taxi access as key for elderly people, something that will become more significant as our population ages”. When asked about what might avoid this, Sweeney suggested that there should be “a unified, ambitious plan for Dublin, with the cooperation of all local authorities” to ensure that the pedestrianisation improves, rather than worsens, the position of businesses in the city centre.
Perception is key, if people think it’s inaccessible, they won’t come into the city centre
Despite the concerns of Irish businesses, it is not clear whether their revenues are threatened by the change. In their summary of the research relating to urban pedestrianisation developments, Nikhil Soni and Nettishree Soni suggest that retail revenues tend to increase when pedestrianisation occurs, as footfall increases. The increased volume of customers generally requires shops to hire more staff, and positive effects on employment are generally seen. It is this latter aspect that is perhaps most significant to the burgeoning student population of Trinity, many more of whom might have the opportunity to find part-time work in the city centre. In an email statement to The University Times, Collier agreed that “there is a lot of evidence that indicates that businesses have benefited from pedestrianisation in cities where it has been introduced”. However, the importance of effectively managing the resulting congestion cannot be understated. Research from Tim Whitehead, David Simmonds and John Preston on the pedestrianisation measures in the city of Manchester found some economic benefits but a moderate decline in overall employment. Pedestrianisation per se is not a panacea it seems and requires rigorous planning to provide the full range of benefits that can be achieved.
The type of pedestrianisation is also important in other ways, not least of which is environmental. Ryan said that the pedestrianisation of College Green “is part of a wider process encouraging people to walk and cycle”, noting in particular that “car-based transport systems in city centres doesn’t work”. He stressed the need for “total reorganisation of the city’s transport system in light of the new Luas developments”. In their outlines of the proposal, Dublin City Council and the National Transport Authority stress the increased efficiency with which Dublin Bus and Luas services will be allowed to operate. Cyclists are also a group that stands to gain from this proposal, with a dedicated two-lane cycle corridor included as part of a development that would keep them from the treacherous traffic patterns on College Green and the surrounding area as they exist now. The potential for a more ecologically friendly transport system in the city has definite benefits, as Soni and Soni note research from Bogotá in Columbia, whose pedestrianisation reduced certain pollutants by as much as 40 per cent at the street level. The need to limit the environmental impact of commuting is becoming increasingly clear. Indeed, in only the last week, the cities of Paris and Lyon were forced to take emergency measures to curb air pollution in the city, making all public transport free and permitting only vehicles with even registration numbers to drive.
However, the ecological potential extends far beyond a reduction in the pollutant effects of private cars. Collier describes himself as “in favour of introducing climate adapted, green infrastructure”. “A bare, open area can be noisy, dusty, windy and prone to flood, thus can deter people from coming to the city for leisure activities”, he says. Dr Federico Cugurullo, Assistant Professor in Smart and Sustainable Urbanism at Trinity’s Department of Geography, speaking to The University Times over email, describes the current direction of the proposal as a “missed opportunity”, warning that “paving a piece of land without understanding and connecting with its ecology is the same dangerous modernist thinking that is responsible for the unsustainability of contemporary cities”. A College Green that is, in fact, a green sounds almost too simple to be so beneficial. A green space would enhance the social and leisure value of the area while simultaneously reducing pollutant effects of nearby traffic. The case for this type of ecological infrastructure is compelling, as Collier notes: “Urban ‘grey’ infrastructure (sealed surfaces, for example) depreciates over time, while urban ‘green’ infrastructure appreciates over time. So, there can be a net gain on investing in ‘nature-based’ solutions.”