Guest Blog 5. Dorothy Smith, Reimagining Phibsborough

Dorothy Smith is an artist whose practise is concerned with the built environments in which people live and work and in particular with the built environment of public space. Her practise involves studio-based work and many publicly engaged projects. She is a founding member of Reimagining Phibsborough. She holds an MA in Visual Arts Practices from IADT Dun Laoghaire and a degree in Fine Art Painting from the National College of Art and Design. Her work is exhibited widely and held in many public and private collections.

This is the text of a paper delivered to Landscape Alliance Ireland, National Landscape Forum 2015, Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, 25 June 2015

[T]here are fundamental functions of which the city forms may be expressive: circulation, major land-uses, key focal points. The common hopes and pleasures, the sense of community may be made flesh. Above all, if the environment is visibly organized and sharply identified, then the citizen can inform it with his own meaning and connections. Then it will become a true place, remarkable and unmistakable.
Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1960) 91-2.

Figure 1. Traffic island, Phibsborough, Dublin
Figure 1. Traffic island, Phibsborough, Dublin

The urban environment which is the subject of this paper is the ‘village’ of Phibsborough on the north side of Dublin city. Phibsborough, developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, has a predominantly late Victorian and Edwardian building stock , a commercial core centred around ‘Doyles Corner,’ a busy crossroads, and is surrounded by compact residential streets; it lies on the city side of the Royal Canal and is within easy walking distance of Dublin City Centre.

The latter half of the 20th century was not kind to Phibsborough. A once vibrant community has been eroded. Portions of its Victorian and Edwardian building stock were torn down to make way for modernist large-scale building and smaller scale infill. Its originally favourable location on the junction of two significant routes into the city has resulted in the steady increase in motor traffic to the extent that all functions of the ‘village’ are now subservient to that of keeping the traffic moving with scant regard to the effect of this on the lives of those that live or work in the area.

The steady and unrelenting social, material and economic decline of Phibsborough has been of increasing concern to residents. Over the last 10 to 15 years much energy has been given to negotiating with relevant authorities. This resulted in the publication by Dublin City Council who, in consultation with residents, developed the ambitious Phibsborough and Mountjoy Local Area Plan (LAP) in 2008. Despite the expenditure of energy and much optimism the LAP proved to be singularly ineffectual in achieving anything for Phibsborough; this was laid firmly at the door of the recession and is keenly felt locally.

In the context of such disappointment with official channels a number of residents proposed to take matters into their own hands. Thus Phizzfest – Phibsborough Community and Arts Festival – held its first festival in September 2010. In its six festivals to date Phizzfest has been hugely successful in harnessing the latent creative potential of the resident community and it’s challenging built environment. The festival has challenged stereotypes, generated much social capital and built strong connections throughout a disparate community.

The social capital generated through Phizzfest has led to a number of initiatives that are tackling the decline of Phibsborough. The first of these was the public art project Put Yourself in the Picture which put the focus directly on peoples experience of the built environment.

Put Yourself in the Picture

For Phizzfest 2014 I devised and ran Put Yourself in the Picture, which aimed to address the democratic deficit with regard to the built environment of Phibsborough. Built public space forms the backdrop to much of our lives; good design and infrastructure being enabling and empowering, individually and communally, poor quality infrastructure and exclusionary design severely limiting potential and opportunities for all. The people who live and work in any given geographical area seldom have the opportunity or forum to give voice to their ideas on how to make the built environment work better for them. Put Yourself in the Picture created this forum and invited people to articulate their reading of their local landscape.

Figure 2. Put Yourself in the Picture: Computers Unlimited, Phibsborough Rd, May 2014
Figure 2. Put Yourself in the Picture: Computers Unlimited, Phibsborough Rd, May 2014

Put Yourself in the Picture invited residents, workers and passers-through to identify changes they would like to see happen in Phibsborough. People were invited to take a photo of themselves in that place in Phibsborough that they wanted to see changed, to identify why they want it changed and tell us what change they would like to see.

All responses were displayed in a public place during Phizzfest 2014 and made available on www.phizzfest.ie/put-yourself-in-the-picture. A public meeting, ‘We Need to Talk About Phibsborough,’ was held in May 2014, a book produced, and an analysis made of the concerns and themes voiced. For detailed information on all ideas and analysis on concerns raised please see the website above.

Themes

Two overriding themes were apparent in the ideas submitted and it was interesting how these ideas and themes reflect the analysis of Kevin Lynch from decades earlier.

  • People often do not feel safe negotiating their way around Phibsborough, either as a pedestrian or a cyclist. The dominance of motor traffic, the narrowness of the footpaths at a number dangerous pinch points, the difficulty in crossing the roads, of circulating, of moving from place to place, the total absence of cycling infrastructure all contribute to creating an urban environment that is hostile to a sense of community, to becoming ‘a true place,’ in Lynch’s terms.
  • There is a huge desire for more public spaces both indoor and outdoor, people want spaces where, to again quote Lynch, ‘[t]he common hopes and pleasures, the sense of community may be made flesh’; e.g. cycle routes, restaurants, pocket parks, community gardens, recreational facilities, arts spaces, community centre – people want to engage in public life but the infrastructure and facilities to support this do not exist in Phibsborough.
Figure 3. Vacant site on Phibsborough Rd; 'It looks ugly. I would like a park or a sweet shop here.'
Figure 3. Vacant site on Phibsborough Rd; ‘It looks ugly. I would like a park or a sweet shop here.’
Figure 4. Access to Royal Canal Bank; 'The only way to access the lovely walk into the city centre via the Royal Canal Way is by descending a set of stone steps from the North Circular Rd, which is okay if you are an able-bodied pedestrian but not if you have mobility problems or have a bike or buggy. Replace the steps with a ramp and place a rubbish bin nearby to help keep the area clean.'
Figure 4. Access to Royal Canal Bank; ‘The only way to access the lovely walk into the city centre via the Royal Canal Way is by descending a set of stone steps from the North Circular Rd, which is okay if you are an able-bodied pedestrian but not if you have mobility problems or have a bike or buggy. Replace the steps with a ramp and place a rubbish bin nearby to help keep the area clean.’
Figure 5. Phibsborough Shopping Centre; 'Bikes are not allocated enough parking space. I would like to see Phibsboro Shopping Centre and the village become a safer place for cyclists in general. We need clearly defined cycle paths, not as part of car and bus lanes, and lots of cycle parking bays.'
Figure 5. Phibsborough Shopping Centre; ‘Bikes are not allocated enough parking space. I would like to see Phibsboro Shopping Centre and the village become a safer place for cyclists in general. We need clearly defined cycle paths, not as part of car and bus lanes, and lots of cycle parking bays.’

Reimagining Phibsborough

Reimagining Phibsborough was formed in May 2014 as a direct result of the discussions resulting from Put Yourself in the Picture and the public meeting We Need to Talk About Phibsborough. Reimagining Phibsborough wants to bring the voices of the people who live and work in the area into to the public realm, to address the continuing decline of Phibsborough and to campaign for the creation of a people-centred urban space through design and infrastructural change.

Since December 2014 Reimagining Phibsborough have:

  • undertaken a survey of the breaking of the pedestrian traffic lights at Doyles Corner crossroads
  • collected over 1000 signatures in support of our campaign
  • received letters of support from all local institutions, schools, hospital, businesses, community organisations, churches etc.
  • organised a public meeting with Frank McDonald, journalist and environmental campaigner. There was huge interest in this meeting and it was oversubscribed.
  • made presentations to and had two meetings with the Minister of Transport in his Dáil office also attended by Dublin City Council (DCC) officials and senior Gardaí
  •  brought DCC senior engineers on a walk-through of Phibsborough pedestrian realm
  • established a social media presence
  • undertaken a vigorous campaign to have Dublin Bikes extended to Phibsborough
Figure 6. Audience at Frank McDonald public lecture; All Saints Hall, Phibsborough, March 2015
Figure 6. Audience at Frank McDonald public lecture; All Saints Hall, Phibsborough, March 2015

Very early in our existence Reimagining Phibsborough became aware of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (DTTS) publication The Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets (DMURS). DMURS is full of great design ideas for improving the public realm; it outlines the importance of street design in modifying driver behavior, e.g.: the adjustment of carriageway widths and sight lines can reduce traffic speed; the importance of creating a ‘sense of place’ when entering a village; the importance of making local trips more attractive and viable; reversing the hierarchy of motor-traffic/cyclist/pedestrian. These and many more recommendations contained in DMURS add up to an increased sense of ownership and use of public space with ensuing social and economic benefits. Reimagining Phibsborough is simply calling on the Minister for Transport to apply the recommendations contained in his own policy document to Phibsborough.

Contra-flow Cycling

While a commitment has been made by the Minister to review Reimagining Phibsborough’s demands as part of a Quality Bus Corridor (QBC) review in early 2016, to date there has been one material change.

Figure 7. Leinster Street contra-flow for cyclists
Figure 7. Leinster Street contra-flow for cyclists

Leinster St. is a one-way street that leads directly from the busy Phibsborough Road to a large residential area. It is used by many cyclists to access areas to the north, (eg Glasnevin, Drumcondra) areas which contain many schools, as the alternative route is three times longer and is on busy roads with no room or facilities for cyclists. Until recently all cyclists were breaking the law by cycling down this one way street. Reimagining Phibsborough in its submission and walk through of Phibsborough with DCC officials pointed out this usage and the fact that this usage was unlikely to change. Contra-flow cycle signs and road marking were installed a number of weeks later. It is now legal for cyclists to use this route in both directions. Cars and cyclists have to negotiate the use of this space and cyclists no longer have to apologise to oncoming traffic. This contra-flow has improved circulation for cyclists and given a sense of shared ownership and ease of movement. It is a small but significant improvement.

A Place

At the time of writing the Phibsborough Mountjoy Local Area Plan 2015 has gone through the public consultation process. Many additional motions have been made by the community. We hope these will be included when the LAP is formally adopted by DCC. Phibsborough Shopping Centre, which is in NAMA is being put up for sale and Dublin City Council has purchased Dalymount Park, home of Bohemian Football Club. This huge redeployment of ownership and usage of space needs to address the needs of the local community as articulated in Put Yourself in the Picture and as supported in DMURS. Reimagining Phibsborough is currently in negotiation with the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland and DCC with regard to carrying out a Design Review of the Shopping Centre and its public spaces. It is essential that the local reading of the landscape by the people with the embedded knowledge is harnessed and feed into the future development of Phibsborough. Phibsborough can become a place that is attractive and vibrant, a place that, by design encourages social interaction and local economic activity, a place for the community, a place you want to be in.

[T]he design of safer, more attractive and vibrant streets will benefit everyone by generating and sustaining communities and neighbourhoods, with wide ranging economic, social and environmental consequences.
Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets (DTTS, 2013).

Dorothy Smith, Artist, November 2015, dorothysmith.ie