Opinion: the clash between private interests and the public good stymies urban planning's attempts to design spaces we all use and inhabit

Urban planning in Ireland has acquired a bad name. To be more precise, it never attained a good name that it could squander. We love to chide planners that appear to get everything wrong. From traffic planning to housing to preserving our heritage, social media is filled with rage directed at those entrusted with making sure that the spaces we inhabit function, are beautiful and embody our individual and collective dreams.

But while much of this anger is justified, it is only part of the story. For planning to work, it needs to be embedded in everyday practices that do not merely pitch individual interests against those of a broader public, but which value both "private" and "collective" in highly specific spatial configurations. If the ongoing controversies over the proposed realignment of bus routes in Dublin teach us anything, it is that we’re still quite some distance away from being able to imagine or articulate this mutual constitution, let alone learn from it. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Juliette Gash talks to community groups and homeowners who strongly object to proposed BusConnects routes in Dublin

The issue has many root causes, with Article 43 of the Irish Constitution which describes property rights as "fundamental rights" often accorded a prime explanatory power. The fact that contexts borne of civil society and social justice mitigate those rights immediately following their proclamation in that very document is rarely mentioned. 

Whatever civil society may mean, it certainly encompasses the mutual constitution of individual and communal goods mentioned above. What’s missing from our everyday practices are the concrete means to negotiate between the two.

We ought to remember that the Constitution locates such interventions as residing squarely with the State:

The State recognises […] that the exercise of [property] rights […] ought, in civil society, to be regulated by the principles of social justice [and] may as occasion requires delimit by law the exercise of the said rights with a view to reconciling their exercise with the exigencies of the common good

For planning to succeed, civil society needs to attach itself considerably more firmly and differently to any such negotiations. It is perhaps worth pointing out that the apportionment of responsibilities with regard to property need not pass muster via the state, but can be construed to be a shared one instead. For instance, the German Grundgesetz or "basic law" simply states that "[p]roperty entails obligations. Its use shall also serve the public good." (article 14. 2).

None of this is new: local and national politicians, planners and the wider public are well used to "participatory" planning practices that seek to bring together a variety of interests in the context of concrete planning discussions. The problem is that such participation is practiced following the articulation of separate, rather than intertwined, interests, desires and rights.

As a result, more often than not these are pitched against one another from the moment a planning process is first proposed. Accusations of NIMBY-ism are met with accusations of "forgetting" the concerns of residents or of "steamrolling" a plan at the expense of established local practices.

From RTÉ Six One News, green space in Liberties set to close for new social housing development.

Most of us will recognise that access to shared and publicly administered green spaces is a common good. Yet planning for new parks or recreational areas is regularly met with opposition that attaches to planned investments into augmenting or designing connecting lanes providing access towards such parks.

The planned creation of a park adjacent to Knocknacarra National School in the western suburbs of Galway encountered just such opposition. A plan produced by landscape planners Cunnane Stratton Reynolds identified pathways that would make the park equally accessible from adjacent spaces. Rather than welcome communal access to an emerging park, residents strongly lobbied for additional walls being erected should the planned park be built.

Underlying such opposition is the same fear of antisocial behaviour that has seen the connective tissue in suburban spaces all over Ireland diminish. Laneways that existed have been closed for good or planned connector paths have not been realised as a result of such fears. All of this is motivated by an unwillingness of suburbanites to conceptualise the spaces they occupy as being co-constituted through both individual and collectives desires. There is also the related fear of diminished property values resulting from plans to use spaces collectively.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, RTÉ Western Correspondent Pat McGrath reports on the Galway Cycling Bus which has been running in the Knocknacarra area since September 2018

The irony is tangible in the perception of a community-enhancing feature – an urban park and access to it – as a threat to parts of that community, expressed most effectively through the lobbying efforts of residents’ associations. Much needed investment into social infrastructures of the kind invoked by Eric Klinenberg, such as parks, libraries, schools, coffee shops and public pools, are thus crucially dependent on old-fashioned engineering infrastructures (roads, paths, lighting, gates) to get us to places.

The impasse in Galway’s suburbs should not surprise anyone and, sadly, it is almost predictable. It is also tied into the way we have designed our suburbs. Seeing public paths linking estates or providing access to parks, schools and the like as an extension of the private home is a direct consequence of devising the streetscapes in suburbia as mostly reserved for cars and thus conceiving such spaces of mobility as being exclusively "public".

At its most extreme, this can lead to the formation of gated communities where streetscapes within estates are effectively privatised, leaving an even more pronounced boundary towards public streets just beyond the gate. Less drastically, it leads to connecting paths being designed in a shoddy manner. Narrow and often poorly maintained spaces do not invite the kind of activity they were ostensibly designed to encourage such as walking or a chat amongst neighbours or connecting across fences.

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report by Gerry Reynolds from 1988 on calls for a development plan for Tallaght

Again, the old binary between private and collective interests effectively prohibits the very idea of urban planning to emerge as an attempt to design the common good into the spaces we inhabit. In these spaces, we are supposed to be both individual citizens and members of the civil society towards which our Constitution aspires. But the design of the spaces ensures that we can only ever be both of these in sequence. In suburbia especially, we are individuals first and then, if time permits, we may pursue a communitarian spirit. The things that unite all too often take second fiddle in this process and thus prohibit the important recognition of ourselves as social citizens.

It's worth noting that social citizenship is practiced, even celebrated, elsewhere on a regular basis. In the local GAA club, schools, churches, charitable organisations and pubs. the individual and the collective ‘I’ associate freely and voluntarily. There, we do not require the State to police and regulate an always permeable boundary between private and common goods.

Mention of urban design, anti-social behaviour and social infrastructure in the context of suburban spaces make a different social, cultural and economic mix of activities appear to be desirable. For these to succeed, however, higher densities than those that presently prevail are required.

In environments that achieve gentle forms of density, social and private citizenship are not pitched against one another but are co-constituted through everyday practices

"Higher" needs to be read as the relative signifier it is. Suburban spaces will always be less densely populated than their inner-city counterparts. To avoid any possible misperception, the use of a different vocabulary might well be warranted, which presumably is why Irish architect and planner Orla Hegarty, Canadian planner Jennifer Keesmaat and others have introduced the term "gentle density" into debates about urban development. 

Key in this is to allow more of us to engage in tacit acts of social control and practiced forms of collective ownership over spaces to eliminate or moderate the effects of whatever is deemed to be anti-social forms of behaviour. In environments that achieve gentle forms of density, social and private citizenship are not pitched against one another but are co-constituted through everyday practices. 

It is a sense of this co-constitution that we ought to kindle and embed more firmly in our cities, from centre to edge and the much debated notion of the "urban village" aims to do just that. It is encouraging that plans for the urban expansion of Galway towards its eastern edge envisage the application of this model in the form of a markedly different type of suburban development at Ardaun.

READ: what's the future of urban living in Ireland?

By scaling back comparable plans devised in Dublin’s western extension at Adamstown and applying lessons gleaned from Dun Laoghaire and Salthill, such atypical developments would not merely embed a much needed civic dimension within the heart of our urban expansions. They would also go a long way towards ensuring that the spaces we create and pass onto future generations can function without cars, are economically sustainable when it comes to public transportation and invite rather than discourage accessing adjoining parks. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ