Tuesday 1 March 2011

Kicked to touch

URBAN DEVELOPMENT: Proposals to create five-a-side football pitches in Dublin’s inner city green spaces are being resisted by the City Council, writes FRANK MCDONALD

HE GREAT Victor Griffin, when he was dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, often used to complain that there was hardly anywhere in or around the Liberties for kids to kick a ball. Or, indeed, adults – despite the availability of a significant public park right next to the cathedral.

I mentioned the former dean and his complaint while giving a walking tour based on my book The Destruction of Dublin during Open House Weekend last October. Husband-and-wife architects Douglas Carson and Rosaleen Crushell were so struck by it that they decided to see if it was possible to slot five-a-side pitches into St Patrick’s Park.

Within days, they had drawn up plans both for that prettified municipal park and also for Croppies’ Acre, in front of the National Museum at Collins Barracks, a potentially useful green space not generally used by the public – it contains only a stone circle and slabs commemorating some 300 rebels executed in 1798, reputedly on the site of their mass grave.

St Patrick’s Park dates from 1904, when it was laid out by the Iveagh Trust as an integral part of the superb redevelopment of this part of Dublin, overlooked by the Edwardian Baroque Bull Alley School. Its enlightened slum-clearance programme also provided apartments, shops, a hostel and public baths (now the Iveagh Fitness Club).

The park was taken over by Dublin Corporation in 1920 and is one of the city’s most highly maintained parks. Bounded by Bride Street, Bull Alley Street and Patrick Street, its use is varied “with tourists enjoying the floral schemes and children of younger age bracket using the now quite dated playground”, as Carson and Crushell noted.

“As it is only open during daylight hours and limited in the variety of uses it supports, it appears incongruent with its inner city surroundings dense with people of all ages and social brackets, desperately needful for some leisure activity besides the pub,” they say. There are several local pubs for those over 18, but nothing for younger teens.

“ In The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), the acclaimed writer and activist Jane Jacobs noted that ‘for neighbourhood parks, the finest centres are stage settings for people. City parks are not abstractions, or automatic repositories of virtue or uplift . . . they mean nothing divorced from their practical tangible uses.’ ”

The truth of Jacobs’s view is borne out by Croppies’ Acre where, as Carson and Crushell write, it has “evolved into a typical ‘Skid Row’ city park as a place predominantly used for illicit drug-taking. This unintended use should have been predicted when it was opened by Bertie Ahern in 2000, at a cost of €445,000.”

Most of the site was part of the historic floodplain of the river Liffey; one of the adjacent streets, now absorbed by the Ellis Court development, was called Flood Street. After the Liffey quays were laid out, it became an esplanade in front of the Royal (now Collins) Barracks and was probably used then as a recreational area.

“Its redesign in the late 1990s did not address the contemporary needs of the area nor did it foresee the incredible residential development of the surrounding area, now poorly served by any ‘practical parks’ or leisure spaces,” say Carson and Crushell. Although, it must be acknowledged that Phoenix Park is just up the road.

“There is a significant dearth of purposeful play areas immediately surrounding Croppies’ Acre and St Patrick’s Park for toddlers, teenagers and adults alike,” they conclude. “And both locations, surrounded by a sufficient density of homes and variety of uses, are ideal locations to support proposals for active recreational spaces.” To reactivate both parks to serve the community, they propose laying down a series of low-maintenance, all-weather, multi-use game areas or “mugas”, as they’re known in the recreation sector. Thus, four international-sized five-a-side football pitches could be slotted into Croppies’ Acre without interfering in any way with the 1798 memorial.

“St Patrick’s Park comfortably accommodates two pitches while retaining all mature trees and scope for further neighbourhood amenities,” the architects find. And converting some of the manicured lawns to permanent surfaces would not only reduce maintenance costs but would help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they said.

These emissions arise from the practices of lawn management, including fertiliser production, mowing, leaf blowing – amounting to four times the amount of carbon stored by the grass in parks, according to a recent study at the University of California. “Green does not necessarily mean grass,” as Carson and Crushell put it.

But Dublin City Council is having none of this “muga” talk. “Under no circumstances would the parks department entertain such a proposal for St Patrick’s Park,” says the council’s spokesman, Alan Breen. “They would regard it as very damaging to the character of the park as a public amenity and it just wouldn’t fit the park as it stands.”

The parks department’s stance is supported by the council’s conservation section, which says there would be “huge conservation issues around it” – presumably because the installation of two “mugas” would disturb the symmetrical layout of the park. And the city archaeologist didn’t think it would be a good idea either.

“What they’re saying to me is that two pitches would provide an amenity for 20 to 30 people at a time, whereas the park could accommodate many more than that for leisurely strolls, reading a book and the like,” Breen says. In other words, facilities that are taken for granted in the suburbs are to be denied in the inner city.

The Office of Public Works also poured cold water on proposals for Croppies’ Acre. “There is anecdotal evidence that the site is a mass grave and it would be the view of the OPW that it would not be appropriate to turn it into five-a-side pitches,” says its spokesman, Neil Ryan. Apparently, it’s open from 10am to 4pm most days of the week.

“While the OPW accepts that there is possibly a need for recreational space in that area, there are adequate facilities for playing football and other sports a few hundred metres away in the Phoenix Park. It is more appropriate to provide facilities such as this in municipal parks rather than national historic parks,” Ryan says.

In Copenhagen, the provision of “mugas” in the inner city is a central element of its recreational strategy. Bleak expanses of asphalt are being converted into play spaces for youngsters, “with possibilities for rollerblading, skateboarding and playing football”. There are even small basketball courts on the central medians of some boulevards.

Its Urban Space Action Plan aims to create “a place for living in that offers numerous possibilities for excitement, interest and delight. Dull streets in residential areas will be transformed into recreational oases. It will be inspiring and challenging to live in the city. There will be a new type of urban space which will encourage more outdoor city life.”

With Scandinavian determination and the involvement of creative French urban planner Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, Copenhagen city council’s new strategy recognises that the inner city has become become increasingly diverse and multicultural, and many immigrants and younger citizens with children are using the city in new ways.

The same could be said for central Dublin, except that, so far, there has been little official recognition of the changes here. Decades of population decline have been reversed over the past 20 years, with the inner city growing by nearly 50 per cent between 1991 and 2006, and this trend is certain to be confirmed by the next census in April.

Yet the city council’s new public realm strategy group is made up of the same people who think the provision of five-a-side football pitches in the inner city is a no-no. In Copenhagen, by contrast, many of the ideas for its Urban Space Action Plan were generated at workshops attended by citizens, politicians and other interested parties. So let’s hear it not just for public consultation, but genuine participation in the development of a strategy that would really transform inner-city Dublin’s public realm.

Irish Times


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