Environmental inequities in fast-growing Dublin: Addressing the combined scarcity of green space and affordable housing for The Liberties

Urban Arenas
May 29, 2020 · 10 min read

By Isabelle Anguelovski & Panagiota Kotsila, Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, ICTA- Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Social housing in The Liberties lacking green space. Photo © Isabelle Anguelovski

What kinds of injustices and exclusions are entangled in the sustainability-inspired projects that cities implement or support?

This is the theme of the upcoming 2nd UrbanA Arena event, taking place 4th-5th June, online. During the first day of the event, we will discuss together with selected participants and UrbanA fellows, the drivers and manifestations of injustice in the context of urban sustainability efforts, building on a comprehensive meta-analysis of 43 EU-funded projects.

On the 2nd day of the Arena, we will also consider the impact of COVID-19 on urban health and environmental inequalities and discuss how we can reimagine and plan our future cities in light of the current crisis. These insights and reflections will be opened up to the broader public through an open webinar, on June 5th at 14.30pm CEST (registration here).

Our first day of the Arena is dedicated to the problems and “darker” side of urban transformations, especially of those efforts which are in principle meant to make cities healthier, more equitable and sustainable for people and for the planet. We firmly believe that an understanding of the underlying, systemic, structural and chronic drivers of injustice is essential in order to construct more sustainable urban environments for all. Such an examination is also key to understand the impact of COVID-19 on cities and the ways to address it. We hope those discussions will help inspire more informed visions and future practices for urban sustainability and justice.

The following case study of urban redevelopment and greening in the working-class neighbourhood of The Liberties in Dublin focuses on a number of identified drivers of injustice in our UrbanA research:

· Material and livelihood inequalities;

· Uneven and excluding urban intensification and regeneration;

· Exclusive access to the benefits of urban sustainability infrastructure;

· Limited citizen participation in urban planning.

The story of The Liberties shows how such drivers play out to shape the uneven and unequal decisions and experiences of urban revitalization in a working-class, diverse and gentrifying neighbourhood.

Balancing two historic crises in Dublin: Greening and housing access

While Dublin hosts the largest park — Phoenix Park, 707ha — in Europe, the historic working-class neighborhood of The Liberties has the least amount of green space in Ireland (Connolly et al. 2018), with less than 1m2 per resident. The Liberties has also historically been plagued by high amounts of post-industrial empty or derelict space.

Yet, the city is today suffering from a housing crisis. During 2018, home prices in Dublin 8, where The Liberties is located, have risen by up to 7%. Homelessness, especially that of single mothers, is also on the rise. As a Guardian article reported in 2018, between June and September 2018 alone, 415 Dublin families (including 893 children) became homeless.

Consequently, combined environmental inequities and scarcities — in green space and in quality, affordable, safe housing — represent perceived dichotomous challenges for achieving sustainable revitalization in the Liberties — and in Dublin as a whole.

The 2015 Liberties Greening Strategy: From ambitious visioning to tedious implementation

“With population densities as high as 18,000 per km2 in places, the inner city has a social, economic, indeed moral claim for substantially greater ‘green’ investment.” — Beyond Pebbledash, by Paul Kearns and Motti Ruimy, Dublin 2014. Excerpted from the first page of the Liberties Greening Strategy (2015)

In 2015, in response to the green space crisis in The Liberties, Dublin City Council published the Liberties Greening Strategy, a strategic planning document proposing a widely lauded improvement strategy to address residential needs through new large and green spaces and parks, bike lanes and infrastructure, and green streets.

However, in the face of a non-legally binding document, the Department of Parks and Recreation has since 2015 juggled several greening initiatives at once: those of greatest scale such as the Bridgefoot Street and Weaver Park sites, and harder-to-preserve, community-driven greening.

Weaver Square Park on Cork Street

The debut of Weaver Park in October 2017 stands out as the first successful park space to arrive at full fruition: an achievement won as a result of a long and arduous battle by local activists and strong-willed city councillors. Weaver Park is an attractive, multipurpose park spanning 0.5ha which features a large playground complex, ample green space, and brand new skate amenities partially designed by Liberties skaters.

Yet, an unsettled conflict concerns Weaver Square community gardens adjacent to the new park space. The gardens have been shut down to give way to a city-backed rapid-build low-cost social housing project set to offer 55 new units in The Liberties. However, the number of social units planned for this space are insufficient to address deeper social and housing needs in a city that still has 30,000 empty, unused units. In addition, up to a year-and-a-half ago, the community gardens that served as a lush space for gatherings and for addressing the pressing social needs of more than 100 at risk youth have been lost.

“None of us is against housing or the needs for social housing, but we are critically questioning the processes, planning and lack of vision that the Council are implementing within our city.”

Activist, Save Weaver Square Community Gardens

Fountain Resource Group

Bridgefoot Street Park and Community Gardens

On the Northern side of The Liberties, Bridgefoot Street is a small street bordered by social housing, new luxury student homes, and informal garden spaces. In 2017, then community and individual gardeners were officially told that they would face displacement to allow for the construction of a new park. Residents’ distress at the loss of a valuable community resource was redeemed by the prospect of a greenspace, inclusively designed for them.

Bridgefoot Street Park’s plan promises a park to include “lawns, flowers, trees, furniture, lighting, allotments, the displaced community gardens, a terrace, play space and play equipment, and more,” to “transform a derelict place and address the lack of green and recreational space which locals had been campaigning against.” The current architects of the park — Dermot Foley Landscape Architects — maintain that their intention is “that this [social] atmosphere is cherished and preserved” with space set aside for community gardens. However, it is still not clear when residents will be able to enjoy Bridgefoot Street Park, as construction has only begun in early 2020 and the COVID-19 crisis may delay its completion.

Rendering of Bridgefoot Street park. For more information see: https://libertiesdublin.ie/2019/10/05/bridgefoot-street-park-set-to-start/

Competing green and housing interests in the Liberties

While the 2015 Greening Strategy has served as a motivating framework for the development of two key park spaces and preservation of some community gardens, it may have unduly catalysed the rapid rise of new and large-scale high-end construction and ensuing gentrification and displacement in the Liberties.

¨The Greening Strategy was to make it look like this is a good area for you to invest in: build your student accommodation here, because next door you’re going to get a park. You’re going to get a nice tourist trial. We’re going to clean up the mess. Nothing for the residents.¨

– Anonymous, Dublin City Councillor

Since its adoption, the Greening Strategy has become a legitimising and marketing tool for investment and contributed to new attention from developers, much of it illustrated by the construction of high end, short-term housing complexes.

High-end short-term housing developments

Across Dublin, luxury towers of short-term student accommodation — where prices can reach €1,640 per month for a one-bedroom — are being constructed at an alarming rate. The Liberties bears the brunt of the rapid and uncalled-for development, as 25% of all student housing being built across the city has taken place in Dublin 8, which includes the Liberties.

The housing shortage issue for long-term residents expands even beyond just luxury housing designed for students. Looking up The Liberties’ online property listings for Airbnb yielded approximately 480 units for rent in 2019. The Liberties also boasts several new large-scale luxury hotels, including the €50 million Hyatt Hotel and the €40 million Aloft Marriot Hotel, and large redevelopment sites such as Newmarket Square, the redevelopment of which was part of the Greening Strategy.

Newmarket square rendering. Credit: reddyarchitecture.com

Today, the speed and rate of tourism- and other short-term accommodation development in the Liberties has spurred acute gentrification and displacement. As residents report, international tourists and visitors are living in housing where residents should be living. An additional risk with the current COVID-19 crisis is that hotels and student flats will remain empty, as this type of housing is not easily reconverted into long-term residential homes.

Recent housing investments in student housing and hotels are explained by various incentives. The Liberties benefits from relatively low land prices in a neighbourhood with dozens of vacant sites, from proximity to the city centre, and from renovated touristic sites such as The Guinness Factory and St Patrick’s cathedral.

Investors in Dublin also take advantage of new 2017 national planning regulations which allow large housing developments of more than 100 units to bypass local planners and communities by going “fast track” for approval by the Irish planning board An Bord Pleanála. Additionally, since December 2018, planning guidelines allow for taller buildings in the city centre. Lastly, although Dublin City Council mandates inclusion of 10% social housing for every 100 units added, student accommodation and hotels are not required to be zoned as residential.

Internationally-led gentrification and displacement

The heavy proliferation of globally-financed luxury student developments by groups such as GSA marketed towards wealthy international students and other transient populations play a major role in gentrification and in the displacement of current residents, even if, historically, finding safe and affordable student accommodation was seen as a real problem in Dublin.

New upscale student developments are built on land — now lost — which could be used for long-term housing development — a mix of market-price, affordable, and public units. Second, the value of the land adjacent to these sites has risen exponentially and compromises long-term residents’ ability to afford increased prices, and, in turn, to benefit from new greening.

One has to note here how the proliferation of such global housing investment groups parallels international tech investments through Dublin, where companies such as Google, LinkedIn and Facebook have built their tax-heaven headquarters in the Docklands. They have brought a new international class of workers who are pushing prices up — including housing — throughout the city. These highly-paid workers either sleep in new short-term luxury rentals or in private apartment campuses built by those same tech companies. As of 2020, international investors are looking for new spaces to build, including Dublin 8.

Dilemmas over privately-financed and exclusive green spaces

Not only is this short-term accommodation only affordable to the international wealthy classes. Local residents tend to be excluded from enjoying the green amenities that private developers have either cleaned up or built on site as part of these developments. These are socially exclusive, gated, or purpose-restricted spaces. They are privatized, manicured green amenities cut-off to playing children and free community usage. In autumn 2018, one controversy emerged when the student complex New Mill gated off its green area despite the permitting conditions imposed on the site. Indeed there is a trend, acknowledged by Dublin City Council, for new, publicly-zoned green spaces to feel or become private and socially exclusive.

Gated off green space inside the New Mill student accommodation complex in The Liberties. Photo by Zuzia Whelan via Dublin Inquirer

In the Liberties, the Department of Parks and Recreation is presented with a dilemma: Either slowly implement the Liberties Green Strategy, constantly fighting within the City Council with the Housing or the Public Infrastructure Department for bits and pieces of investments, OR let private developers finance new green spaces. International investors present new financial assets for crafting and maintaining much needed green spaces.

Rapid social costs for The Liberties

Across the Liberties, as growth of public green spaces fails to match the rise of rapid high-end construction, indicators of poor mental and physical health such as youth disaffection and obesity, and poor ecosystem maintenance steadily increase. Without sports fields or facilities, without well-kept, populated and publicly open green spaces and playgrounds, children have only a few places in the Liberties to call their own.

The emotional and physical toll of derelict streets, threat of eviction, social exclusion from city infrastructure, mounting gray space, and even homelessness, only widen the space between low-income residents and incoming wealthy transient populations who benefit from this transformation of city infrastructure.

Towards a greener Liberties?

What are the possible solutions to this dilemma? For one, Dublin City Council could proliferate use of Development Contributions included under Section 48 of the Planning and Development Act, 2000 (as amended), which allows local planning authorities to include conditions requiring contributions to community improvement by developers when granting planning permissions under Section 34 of the same act.

From an activism standpoint, while recent support for more affordable housing units has taken the form of public lobbying and campaigns by regional non-profit coalitions, they make little impact as political narratives sink deeper into compliance with neoliberal growth policies. Hopeful actions include those of the National Homeless and Housing Coalition and one of its most vocal leaders, Dublin City Councilor Tina McVeigh.

In a neighbourhood rich with strong local culture and historic value, underserved populations are likely to watch their schools and other public amenities shut down as displacement pushes out residents and their community gardens. As community spaces and opportunities for affordable housing make way for high-rises, and local family businesses transition to catering almost exclusively to tourists, or simply shut down, the residents of The Liberties face mass gentrification, threat of eviction, and loss of cultural value. Theirs is a life of day-to-day struggle, watching themselves slowly disappear as protagonists in the story of a green-ish Liberties.

This article is the outcome of research within UrbanA, as well in the Naturvation and GreenLulus EU-funded projects.

Isabelle Anguelovski is an urban planner specialized in urban environmental justice, ICREA research professor and BCNUEJ Director.

Panagiota Kotsila is a political ecologist specialized in health, coordinator of the research line on urban political ecology at BCNUEJ.

For more information about the UrbanA see www.urban-arena.eu

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Urban Arenas for sustainable and just cities

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Urban Arenas for sustainable and just cities

Distilling innovative #urbansolutions for #sustainablejustcities through a co-creative process with city-makers and city-thinkers #Horizon2020

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Urban Arenas for #sustainablejustcities. Distilling innovative #urbansolutions through a co-creative process with city-makers & city-thinkers www.urban-arena.eu

Urban Arenas for sustainable and just cities

Distilling innovative #urbansolutions for #sustainablejustcities through a co-creative process with city-makers and city-thinkers #Horizon2020

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