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Quays are key

By Michael Smith

After the Second World War private cars began to fill the streets of cities across the western world. In the 1960s Dublin’s traffic authorities began to contemplate radical interventions to accommodate the influx of cars.

One scheme involved covering the river over and using the new surface for road widening and car parking. This was rejected but Dublin’s quays are nevertheless today almost completely dominated by vehicular traffic. Traffic danger, crime, noise and air pollution makes them a blockage that cyclists and pedestrians make an effort to avoid. Some of the riverside footpaths are so narrow they can only be passed in single file.  The advent of the port tunnel has failed to alleviate the sense that crossing the quays risks a mowing down by a fast-moving juggernaut.

The quays have the potential to become a great urban boulevard. The river needs to become an asset, not an untouchable sump. The quays are the city’s principal artery, indeed its most distinctive feature, and they should be a destination in themselves, not a means to an end: a great city’s living room: a worldwide urban-renewal talking point.

The rejuvenated quays could support a pedestrian trail linking the IFSC and the National Convention Centre in the east with the National Museum at Collins Barracks, Heuston Station and the Phoenix Park in the west and in between inject life into the knife-edge city markets and Smithfield areas.

The High Line in NewYork was conceived by two local artists who set up a trust and  spent seven years campaigning before finally convincing the authorities to solidify the plan which hovers like an oasis over the hard-edged meat-packing district. Dublin needs an alliance of residents, planners, architects and radical artists to promote something subversive of the mediocrity that can hold it back.

Dublin City Council has committed to prepare a local area plan for the quays by 2017 “in order to develop the public realm of the river and anchor it as a central civic spine”. Plans are being drawn up for a change in traffic on Dublin’s north quays introducing a new two-way cycle lane and restricting private motorists to one lane instead of two, while maintaining the  bus lane. City council chief executive and zealous cyclist Owen Keegan has acknowledged the proposal would slow up traffic on the busy north quays, but told the Irish Times “It is not something that we have to apologise for…Cycling has to be for the unbrave as well”.

Removing one and sometimes two traffic lanes would have an obvious short-term effect on the flow of traffic along the quays. It should not, however, be a substitute for Greening. Fresh radical thinking is needed and unfortunately for those who actually might use the space it is not possible to have an inspirational park next to lines of traffic. We should be planning for a hundred years not five years hence.

While integrated with the water the whole space needs to feel self-contained. Wild greenery could be peppered with diversions such as bandstands, cafes, playgrounds, meadows; activities such as cycling and picnicking; and events including occasional markets, funfairs, film showings and the like. But the ensemble should centre on the omphalos of the city, the river.

The quays should afford ready access to the river so it rings with the joy of organised leisure.

Imagine a Liffey alive with boating, canoeing, swimming, diving, fishing and the like. Perhaps a barrage would be necessary to sustain the tide above the level necessary for the Liffey to become something it has not been in a century – useful.

In this regard, the boardwalk is ambiguous being perhaps as much a substitute, as a complement, for imaginative thinking about the quays’ relationship to the water.  Proposals for a Suas – an overhead cable car intermittently mooted for the quays – need to be scrutinised with extreme aesthetic caution for the quays have their own gentle momentum.

Inevitably, even the modest proposal from City Hall was attacked, including by the Irish Times’ Kathy Sheridan who seemed to feel Dublin with its privileges and responsibilities gets a good deal already and that the quays need to be as much for optionless commuters as for locals and Dubliners generally. She seems wedded to the notion that someone else’s environment can be ordained somehow secondary to the interests of others, specifically those of free-riding if immiserated commuters.

Meanwhile there are separate but linked plans to extend the scandalously under-usable Croppies Acre memorial park, at the front of Collins Barracks, out onto the riverside, allowing for a car-free public park and two-way walking and cycle route in the vicinity. Public consultation could start in the new year, according to the city council.

It’s all go in the City Council but breaking taboos shouldn’t limit its imaginative horizons to the short and medium term. •