Ali Grehan, a champion for good city design, was in Singapore recently. Going Places catches up with her to learn how we can make our cities more people-centred, enjoyable and inclusive. It all starts with good design, she says. “The distinction between good design and a bad one affects everything, but is manifested most intensively in cities, where there is a high degree of interdependency between people.”
So how does design come through in cities?
The design of cities is about our approach to place making; our governance systems and strategies. Design in cities is about how this approach is manifested in the quality of the built environment. Cities hold the key to solving problems of our age – climate change, peak oil, inequitable distribution of resources. Managing urban growth is the development issue of our age. We need to see urbanisation as an opportunity, not a threat. We will all benefit – urban and rural communities – if we manage this growth by design. Ultimately, design connects cities and connected cities are more humane, attractive and competitive.
What does a memorable, liveable city look like to you?
A great city for me is one that achieves excellence in the ordinary. Most places and buildings must work quietly and collectively as a backdrop or foil, providing a setting for those buildings that have legitimate call to be distinctive. My iconic and memorable city experiences are usually drawn from the routine. I think this is true for many people; we are rethinking the meaning of “iconic” in place-making.
What are the key ingredients of people-friendly cities?
People-friendly cities are clear, generous, appropriately scaled, positive to context and well made. This statement describes place making criteria I devised for Dublin City Council’s Development Plan. An important criterion that we are anxious to promote is “generosity”; particularly generosity in the design of functional requirements, thereby creating opportunities for enjoyment in use.
People-friendly cities are also inclusive places. Inclusivity and Universal Design principles should inform how we make our urban environment. Universal Design goes far beyond issues of physical access alone. In Dublin, the inclusiveness of the built environment is now enshrined in the thinking, driving policy, new development and regeneration. For example, Dublin is the first capital city in the world to adopt a city-wide approach to becoming age-friendly, and is implementing a five year plan to 2019 in collaboration with agencies representing the needs of older people. Making cities diverse and people-friendly yields social and economic benefits; a city that includes everyone is more vibrant and innovative, because innovation comes from difference.
Dublin is ranked the 9th most bike-friendly city in the world. What has worked?
Dublin’s high ranking as a bike-friendly city is largely due to the success of the Dublin Bikes scheme. This is a free public bike rental scheme introduced by Dublin City Council in 2009. The genesis of the programme was design led in that the first stations were located close to homes and work, not tourist destinations. This meant that the bikes were immediately useful for ordinary Dubliners and quickly became embedded in the life of the city. Eight million trips have been taken to date; the scheme is so popular that it is expanding rapidly and has spawned independent apps to help people find available bikes and docking stations. We do have much more to do as a city in making the streets more cycle and pedestrian-friendly, but the success of the Dublin Bikes scheme has transformed people’s attitudes to cycling in Dublin.
How do you balance what people want and what is really needed?
This must be the most difficult challenge facing city representatives and managers. It is very hard to reconcile short term demands with long term planning goals. Planning has to proceed on the basis of mutual trust and respect, which only develops if everyone believes that the issue is being described truthfully.
The designer has a very important role to play here. Designers can visualise and communicate issues, and possible solutions, in ways that are understood by all. It is remarkable how people will accept a solution once it is developed through meaningful consultation, and explained clearly. We have had many experiences where controversial issues were accepted by the local community. A recent example is a flood defence project along Dublin Bay. It was initially rejected by the community, but is now progressing well after being redesigned in collaboration with local community members.
How do you get people involved in design projects and processes?
Dublin City Council has a strong tradition of public consultation in developing policy and capital programmes. For example, communities are actively involved in designing Housing Regeneration projects. In recent years, the city has established participatory platforms through which we engage with people and test new ideas. Initiatives such as PIVOT Dublin, Designing Dublin, BETA and the Studio have helped us experiment and innovate; inspired interdisciplinary collaboration across all sectors; created strong networks; offered opportunities to celebrate design impact and translated idea to action through projects.
Do you have any interesting impressions of Singapore that may be relevant to Dublin?
Singapore is green! This was my first and very favourable impression of Singapore. Extensive and innovative urban greening is a huge advantage to a city, as it helps make higher density living acceptable and more attractive. This is an important lesson for Dublin and other cities. I was also very impressed with the design of apartment buildings, and the high standard of building maintenance.
What are the costly mistakes cities make when they ignore design?
City issues are dynamic and interdependent – a factor of scale and complexity and context. Design can help us understand the complexity, find appropriate solutions and avoid costly mistakes. Our mistakes range from badly connected transport infrastructure to inadequate management systems for the huge number of apartment complexes built in the last few decades. These mistakes have one thing in common; they are borne out of decisions taken in isolation and for a single purpose. The fundamental value of design is that it is collaborative, holistic and based on evidence and understanding. You could say it is simply “joined-up” thinking – much sought after, but often absent.
Ali Grehan is Dublin’s City Architect. She is taking her city places, literally. Involved in procuring Dublin’s first Light Rail system in the mid-nineties, her projects in the public and private sector since have spanned urban regeneration, housing, infrastructure and transport. Under her charge, PIVOT Dublin, the Dublin City Council’s design promotion platform, has aroused a resurgence of international interest in Irish design.