The new statue of Roger Casement offers a focal point for the impressive Dún Laoghaire baths. Quite how the famed Victorian baths were renovated by the local council at huge expense with significant overruns without any actual baths remains a mystery. But, still, the public amenity of the refashioned resource has enhanced the seafront for everyone, bar bathers.
The council has gone far in trying to reimagine the seafront. A new cycle lane was created during Covid, a huge positive, as is significantly reducing the two-way traffic. Thousands of people can enjoy the pier and surrounding roads in relative peace, without being bullied by cars taking up space for walkers, cyclists and runners. The dry-robe revolution means there are more people than ever using the seafront, sea and surrounding area. The place is vibrant, teeming with all sorts – shoppers, picnickers, skateboarders, flirting teenagers – and there are cafes and a thriving Sunday farmers’ market.
Fewer cars mean more life; that’s pretty much the first rule of urban regeneration. Cars are the enemy of street life and urban living. As well as being polluters, they take up space. Cars, traffic and car parks injure our towns and cities. Car parks are ugly, blocking views, acting as holding pens for the average car that is 2 tonnes of steel (80 per cent empty when driven by a single person), sitting empty, unused most of the day, in valuable space that could be used for something else.
All cities and towns that have dealt with traffic, such as Amsterdam, begin by making it difficult to bring your car into the city or urban area. There is no divine right to drive, let alone park. All forward-thinking cities prioritise walking, cycling and street life over the car. And this is why, despite Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council making some efforts to get cars away from scenic areas of the town, it was so bizarre this week to see two workers affix a new parking meter to a plinth in a car park adjacent to the refashioned baths.
The space in question is one of the best sites in Dún Laoghaire, with views stretching out to Howth across the bay. It’s only entrance is across a cycle lane! Think about this — cars have to cross a cycle lane, and then cross a pavement, holding up walkers, to access the car park. The site is right beside the People’s Park, and yet rather than put in a park, seating, a few market stalls or some greenery, this picturesque site has been freshly asphalted for 20 parking spots.
Such an unimaginative, regressive use of space. And this in a town extremely well-served by public transport, including the Dart. If Dún Laoghaire cannot take the initiative against the tyranny of traffic, no town can.
The council says the car park adjacent to the baths has been in operation since 2001, and during the construction works at the site, a portion of the car park was cordoned off and used as a site compound while the works were being completed. Then remedial works were required on this section of the car park to improve the surface conditions, the council says.
A Green Party TD was returned first in Dún Laoghaire precisely to advance an environmental agenda, part of which is aimed at reversing years of car dominance. This is what the people voted for. Yet despite having a local TD as a Minister of State for the Environment, the council thinks that it’s okay to revert to using a space no-one missed for car parking! (I’m talking Dún Laoghaire now, but this lack of joined-up thinking could be anywhere in the country.)
What is the point of signing global climate agreements if we don’t understand that small changes lead incrementally to big outcomes? If we really want to reclaim the streets for people, we should make it difficult to fill them with cars, not easier. That’s where we start. Why should we set aside prime urban space for cars?
The probable reason is money. Car-parking meters generate income. Modest income but income nonetheless. Our local councils are cash-strapped because they earn money from rates, as well as a central subvention. Rates are applied to businesses and shops but high-street shopping is changing because of changes in our lifestyles and online retailing and therefore the tax base from businesses is becoming more fragile.
Look at the main street of your town and you will see how hairdressers have replaced jewellers and cafes have replaced banks. Generally, anything that can be commoditised has been replaced by something that requires people, such as nail bars, cafes, restaurants, gyms and hairdressers. All the old businesses can be scaled via technology — who needs bank tellers when you can use an app? But you can’t use an app to cut hair.
So the face of our main streets is changing. The problem is that there is no money, or at least not enough, in the cafe/nail bars/gym nexus, so the councils are losing money on rates. The problem is that as high value-added clients — such as banks — leave, the rents have to fall to make it possible for a hairdresser or cafe to take the space. Many landlords can’t contemplate the new reality of permanently lower retail rents, so they hold out. Spaces become vacant, meaning reduced rates revenue for councils.
In addition, the councils haven’t taken on board that these lifestyle changes are permanent and they would be better off responding by converting retail into residential use. In denial, they try to fill the gap in revenue with on-street car-parking meters. Streets are still set aside for cars and street space, which could be used for pedestrians, cyclists or outside dining, is taken up by cars, making towns less attractive destinations, reducing yet further the footfall and causing more retail to head online.
The only way to reverse this decline is to reduce on-street parking, close urban streets to cars, wrench valuable street space away from the car and give it back to the people. Given that parked cars have absolutely no value to anyone on the street, these are dead spaces.
The question for us is whether we want living or dead towns and cities. Looking at what the council is doing in Dún Laoghaire, putting car parks in potentially vibrant public spaces, it seems that the community elders are trying to destroy, not revitalise, the very communities they were elected to represent. Strolling over the bollards, with the paint of individual car-park markings still pungently fresh, you’ve got to ask what Roger Casement would have made of it all. Small things matter. In 1970, Joni Mitchell sang: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. That was more than 50 years ago. Have we learned nothing?