Starting as a first year at Trinity in the middle of a pandemic has meant a lot of takeaway food and sitting outside. It is a way to socialise that can be made Covid 19-safe, but is also a casual setting in which to get to know fellow students. For this reason, the 2020 college experience now includes grabbing a donut and a drink. But it unfortunately also includes struggling to find anywhere to sit and enjoy it.
As an international student who had never been to Dublin before, the lack of public seating was one of the first things I noticed. There are few places in the centre of town to simply sit for free, where you don’t have to earn your seat with a 4 euro coffee. Like the seagulls, people flock to parks for somewhere to eat. St. Stephen’s Green was no bad place to be in October, with its breathtaking autumn colours. But with such high demand for the benches, social distancing became complicated, and as we moved through November, the grass was no longer an option. Wet jeans, as it turns out, don’t make for good first impressions when meeting new people. These issues are important, particularly this year, as students struggle to socialise and societies move online. However, they have only served to prove an apathy to the constantly growing housing issue in Dublin. It shouldn’t take the discomfort of the everyday to provoke a response to the lack of public spaces and seating in the inner city, when this is a constant and often life-threatening problem for people without housing.
“Numbers don’t seem to illustrate the housing issue clearly enough, and any number of people exploited by a competitive and expensive housing market is too high.”
According to the government’s homelessness report dated October 2020, there are currently 4,297 adults without housing living on Dublin’s streets. While I could talk about this figure, numbers don’t seem to illustrate the housing issue clearly enough, and any number of people exploited by a competitive and expensive housing market is too high. And, on top of this crisis, Dublin’s architecture refuses to provide even temporary shelter to homeless people. It is often defensive and hostile, with angled benches and spikes embedded in flat surfaces. One would have to question why this energy is not directed towards efforts to solve the overall problem, rather than exacerbate the challenges faced by those who suffer from it. The prominence of this issue has not gone unnoticed. Artist Tim Schmalz’s Homeless Jesus sculpture in the grounds of Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral, for the five years it has been installed, continues to cause the passer-by to reflect on the homelessness crisis in Dublin. But reflecting on a problem of this scale isn’t enough, and action is urgently required to create, at the very least, safe public spaces.
Where there is public seating – there is a fair amount of seating along the River Liffey, for example, on Grattan Bridge – the environment can often feel exposed, as the city traffic, pedestrian and otherwise, passes close by, so it becomes uncomfortable both for those seeking somewhere to sleep for the night and for those just looking for a place to sit temporarily.
“The potential for the city to become more flâneur-friendly is definitely there.”
The potential for the city to become more flâneur-friendly is definitely there. Places like Smithfield Square and Wolfe Tone Square certainly feel community focused, as they feature playgrounds, wide pedestrian-only areas, and are even on their way to becoming urban greenspaces. Restaurants and cafés make these areas feel leisure oriented, with ample public seating providing for Level 3 restrictions, making social distancing easy to adhere to. These areas are just what Dublin needs; they are welcoming and encourage people simply to enjoy the open air of the city.
More public areas would also encourage more tourism in the capital. Many tourists see the city by foot; it would be much more aesthetically appealing to have public seating for them to use, instead of having to sit at the foot of statues or on the ground, which often happens in what is considered the town centre. This is a particular issue on O’Connell Street and at the Spire. To share the beauty of Dublin with the visitors that it is usually teeming with, there needs to be a central, public, and free place from which to observe it, and what better time to make this change than now, when there are far fewer sightseers to inconvenience than usual? Lockdown and tiered restrictions could potentially give the City Council a perfect opportunity to rethink and modify public spaces, as the less busy streets mean construction is less of an interruption to the surrounding area.
“Having deterrents for people without housing seems to juxtapose the modernity and vitality that characterises the city.”
Dublin takes pride in its ability to perpetually transform. It is partly what gives it the vibrancy and youthfulness that it is known for. Perhaps part of the liveliness of the city comes from it having few places where people can observe this at a standstill. However, having deterrents for people without housing seems to juxtapose the modernity and vitality that characterises the city.
Now is the perfect setting in which to respond to this issue of public seating in the centre of town. This year we have all become used to adapting our lives to fit a new norm for the sake of social, and indeed, individual good. Many of us have seized the opportunity in 2020 to consider wider social issues and look at the world differently, or even just take a breath. Maybe it should also be the year that we take a seat.