Update on dereliction in Dublin

I am not sure why I didn’t think of writing this post before now; I get an email a week asking about it. In January 2013, Stephen and I did some work on dereliction in Dublin. We mapped the location of several dozen vacant sites and derelict buildings (and combinations of these) across north inner city Dublin. For a geography PhD student interested in the geographies of religion it seemed a little strange at the beginning. I had limited knowledge of how stuff in this city got built and why housing is politically vital. Obviously there was all of that ghost estate stuff going on but we wanted to break open those large scale projects to find a way to engage with city politics. I’d also read a fair bit of psychogeography in my pursuit of Mary across the city. After a pub conversation about how we could try and insert more politics into the familiar urban landscape, we chose to map the unnoticed things, those places which seem stuck in an endless round of development. This ‘development’ caught the city in its grip for a dozen years or more.

We then publicised our google map a bit and got some others to help locate more dereliction. This of course meant going past the boundaries we had set for our initial project. Beyond Dublin’s North Circular Road and the north quays of the Liffey, about half a dozen others identified and photographed hundreds of other sites and buildings ‘left behind’. But of course, many of them were not left behind but suggested stories of lingering planning permissions and court cases. This map, during 2013 and early 2014, generated lots of interest including features in national and international press. The Provisional University organised a public talk; the academic geographers got us to tell the story for the set 15 minutes. It tapped into one of a number of narratives about the city which said that Dublin has ‘huge untapped potential’. Not unlike the technocratic ‘build and they’ll not be homeless’ narrative we now hear so much about, derelict lots were like school children who need to be put somewhere, anywhere other than loitering about. They also represented a sign of ‘national failure’ when the current housing crisis was just emerging. Later that year, those folk over at Upstart claimed that Granby park was a creative answer to dereliction. The site is still vacant.

We went on to revise the initial north inner city dataset in mid-2014. We did this partly out of trying to move the project along and partly to aid an academic paper we were writing and which may appear early next year. We wanted to see if the smaller and original database of derelict sites and vacant buildings had changed in the intervening 15 month period. Some had, most had not. Many of the sites had a lot more rubbish on them and buddleia continued to flourish. The flora in June 2014 was greater than in late winter 2013. A friend recommended that we do this survey annually to form a kind of dereliction index for the city. But we each had a PhD to finish and other commitments. I never wanted to be the Ronan Lyons of dereliction.

Where is this now? Well, the project is ongoing with a lot of work done on trying to create a decent database of sites that we can use in various formats and across software. This has been as much about mapping software as reading David Harvey and Jane Jacobs. It has also been part political education, for me at least.  But the original map remains largely unchanged and up online for anyone to add to if they wish. We do not know who owns most of these sites. We have not measured the areas of these sites. Many of the sites in our north inner city subset have planning permissions extant and running out. The story of many of these planning permissions is the subject of an entirely different blog post which I may got around to before the end of this month. We do not have access to these sites and, no, we are not interested in opening a pop up cafe in any of them. Oh yea, we should consider seizing for public control about 80% of the derelict properties in this city; they serve only a morbid taste for profit otherwise.

Mapping dereliction in Dublin city has been frustrating, very interesting but above all points to one key thing: local government in this city is technically accessible. What I mean by this is that if you go and gather some data (names, locations, pictures, interviews, newspaper clippings) about the things that matter to us all in this broken town, you can create a real stink. Match your data to the vital things that sustain communities struggling to get by and there is real political leverage. Access to functionaries and elected officials is relatively easy in Dublin city. Getting beyond the idea that private property ownership trumps all other rights is not. But that is mostly ideological, right?

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