Opinion: creating public spaces that are lively, engaging and accessible requires vision and planning. The answer might lie in festivals.

With cycling campaigns and '#streetsareforpeople' hashtags becoming more prevalent, public awareness and interest in the nature of public space, in who uses it, and in how we might potentially use it, is growing all the time. In Ireland, we see a strong focus on public space as a conduit for transport and mobility as people increasingly ask: is too much space being given over to cars and vehicular traffic? Can better provision be made for cyclists? And where does the battle between the car and the bike leave the pedestrian?

Important societal concerns like the need to reduce our carbon footprint and to develop healthier lifestyles are fuelling these debates, pushing them up the political agenda and transforming them into key issues for the people encharged with transport planning in our towns and cities.

From RTÉ Archives, Grafton Street became a pedestrian zone in 1982 when it was made car-free between the hours of 11.00am and 6.30pm

While the debate has tended to be dominated by a ‘car versus cyclist’ dynamic, recently, the topic of pedestrianisation has come more to the fore. Pedestrianisation is clearly concerned with how people travelling on foot are accommodated in the city, but it also puts the spotlight on the quality and the usage of the space that is being pedestrianised. This became very clear in recent weeks as Dublin City Council experimented, over a succession of three Sundays, with closing College Green to traffic.

While the initiative was largely welcomed, initial efforts on July 21st to create a people-friendly, accessible and aesthetically pleasing public space met with a mixed reaction and negative commentary on the perceived over-use of metal barriers, security personnel and instructional signage. Following adjustments, subsequent experiments were better received, however, the experience shows that creating public spaces that are lively, engaging, interesting and accessible requires vision and planning.

From RTÉ Nine News, Business groups back plans for revised pedestrian plaza in College Green

Historically, the public spaces scattered throughout Irish towns and cities had a number of important functions, as they did internationally. These included trading, as manifest in market squares, and religion, as evident in the open space (minus the car park) that often surrounds churches. Recreation, including social interaction and social exchange, was another important function characterising all kinds of public spaces.

Today, this recreational function is a highly prized feature of the public parks found in and around Irish towns and cities: witness the disquiet that followed the news that the OPW is undertaking a strategic review of the Phoenix Park and plans to introduce some changes. 

From RTÉ Radio 1 Today with Sean O'Rourke, Evelyn O'Rourke reports on the latest plans for the developments of The Phoenix Park.

However, what’s the best way to restore a thriving recreational function to public squares and pedestrianised streets? Internationally, cities have adopted different approaches to meet this challenge but a prevalent response has been to turn to festivals and events as a way of animating, enlivening and re-imagining public space.

European cities have a long tradition of staging festivals in public spaces and this tendency has increased in recent decades as part of cities’ strategic efforts to regenerate city districts, attract inward investment, develop tourism and enhance city profiles. Increasingly now, cities are thinking about their public spaces in terms of outdoor staging, public congregation and access. Cities as diverse as Sydney, New York and Edinburgh are developing/updating regulations and devising guidelines around a range of operations covering street closures, trading zones, event licensing and policing.

From RTÉ 2fm Dave Fanning, Dublin Inquirer's deputy editor Sam Tranum and Strathclyde University's Professor Richard Butler join Dave to talk over-tourism

Somewhat inevitably, the strategic intent behind the staging of festivals has a tourism dimension, but when responding to a need felt at local or community-level, festivals have the potential to animate space, enhance quality of life, enhance shared identity and encourage positive social engagement for the benefit of residents, locals and tourists alike.

Plǿger has written about the potential of festivals to disrupt and challenge notions about how public space is constructed and used. Festivals introduce vibrancy, diversity and creativity and when staged in public spaces help us realise that space is not a fixed and unchanging entity but rather is dynamic, flexible and yields multiple possibilities for how we can live in, and enjoy, our cities.

In its first Event Strategy produced last Autumn, Dublin City Council identifies eight public spaces in the city where it says ‘events are encouraged’. These include three squares (Smithfield, Meeting House and Barnardo’s), three parks (Mountjoy, Merrion and St. Patrick’s), one street (South King) and the Wood Quay amphitheatre.

From RTÉ WEB Six One News, Galway primed for European Capital of Culture launch

Many other Irish cities and towns have a growing strategic interest in festivals and events, even if they have not yet devised strategy/policy documents. Galway, for example, holds one of two European City of Culture designations in 2020 (Rijeka in Croatia holds the other). In moving ahead, careful thought needs to be given to the kinds of events that are supported and facilitated such that the 'publicness' of civic space is enhanced and rendered ever more accessible and inclusive through the staging of events.

Some cities including London, and more recently Edinburgh, are experiencing mounting disquiet because of the growing commercialisation of public spaces, with accusations that events disrupt local lifestyles and routines, and exclude certain groups from the public realm.

Read: Why do so many capitals of culture run into problems?

Other cities stand accused of ‘serial homogenisation’ for adopting festivals and other cultural regeneration ideas from elsewhere without due regard to the specific needs of their own place. However, with a carefully crafted, place sensitive, inclusive vision, festivals have a role to play in opening up the public realm, enhancing the public nature of public space and making cities and towns more engaging, more interesting and ultimately more liveable.


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