Repairing the Green


Dublin City Council is finally doing something bold with College Green. The space in front of Trinity College and the old Houses of Parliament has been a disaster of public space: a contemptuous surrender to the orthodoxies of a transport system centred around the private car. I sent in a few comments, prompted by Irish Cycle’s appeal to people to demand that the bike facilities don’t get degraded, as they always seem to be.

So to everyone’s surprise, Dublin City Council has proposed something quite bold. Possibly they couldn’t have done otherwise — the place is in permanent gridlock and the new tramlines have squeezed out the space for buses, let alone cars. So they’ve suggested taking all cars out of the Green, and for good measure those scraggly old London plane trees that were planted there in the 1960s as an ineffectual gesture of apology towards the choking pollution of the place. Still, they could do better. Here’s what I suggested.

First, the pedestrian priority at the intersections should be guaranteed by non-signalled zebra crossings. In this part of Dublin there is no need for pedestrians ever to cede priority to other modes, except trams. Zebra crossings should be placed along the desire lines at all junctions where buses, cars and cyclists are present. The “courtesy crossings” common in the side streets in this area should be modified with zebra crossing markings to make it clear that pedestrians have priority. Signalled crossings should not be considered except for very wide junctions where there is a very high volume of traffic. There is no need for Belisha Beacons, zig-zag approach lines or any other clutter — these seem to be de rigeur in the UK but there’s no reason for Ireland to imitate the dominant trends of British street planning; instead, look to the elegant zebra-crossing designs found in Belgium, Switzerland, Scandinavia etc. for best practices that could be applied.

Second, it is essential that the new public space include exemplary bicycle facilities. I know that the final design of a bicycle path has not yet been specified in the plans but I hope that the final proposal will clearly indicate a kerb-segregated cycle paths through the Green, on all the approaching streets and at junctions. The design should follow the best practices found internationally, e.g. the Netherlands. This should include a segregated cycle path east-west at one side of the College Green Plaza. It must be emphasised that a shared-space will not be sufficient for cyclists or pedestrians. A cycle track consisting of paint would be pointless. Where necessary, there should be contra-flow separated cycle tracks, e.g. on the streets south of Dame Street (St Andrew’s St, Trinity St, Church Lane, Stephen Street Lower, and any other one-way streets in the vicinity). There also needs to be adequate bicycle parking — simple inverted-U racks, clustered close to likely destinations, as well as off-street longer-term secure parking. Enforcement of these facilities will be essential and there should be a physical separate separation through attractive short metal bollards to prevent cars and vans from parking on contra-flow lanes, as they do incessantly on the contra-flow lane Suffolk Street. There’s no need for the ugly fluorescent warning signage normally seen alongside such facilities in Dublin.

Third, the provision for a bus turnaround arrangement to the west of College Green should be reconsidered. It is very welcome that you have rerouted some of the bus routes away from College Green: it’s absurd to route so many overlapping routes through this bottleneck, which is presumably an artefact of old bus or tram lines. It’s disappointing, therefore, to see that Dublin City Council is considering some kind of elongated bus roundabout. This, apparently, is “to allow a number of routes to move their terminuses to Dame Street”. But why do buses need to have their terminus in the centre of Dublin? They should go through the city, picking up or dropping people off where they wish. The idea of there being a “central” destination is an arrogant assumption. Instead, we should be building an integrated public transport network where bus and tram and train routes are all interlinked in a dense, multi-directional network, providing multiple options to connect any two points on the network.

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To give over so much of the new public space — from the map that DCC provides, it looks like almost as much as the whole of College Green — to this unnecessary “bus turnaround” would be an egregious waste of space. The pedestrian space should be extended all the way to City Hall and ideally all the way to Christ Church. The buses do not need to make an east-west turn here — they should retain their north-south route over Parliament Street or parallel, and buses approaching from the west should turn north or south before this point. Passengers wishing to move to an east-west orientation should change route before this point.

Who knows what they’ll finally propose. But at least they’re asking…

Hostile architecture

This obnoxious bench looks ugly for a reason: somehow the eye immediately grasps that its proportions are wrong, and they are: it is too shallow to sit on comfortably for any length of time, and therefore designed only for the “right” kind of person, not for those who would linger, and certainly not for sleeping on. This fine example of municipal benevolence is in the Dublin docklands. Thus Dublin has the honour of providing the cover picture of an article about hostile architecture around the world.

Think your city doesn’t like you? You’re right.

light pollution

… an emerging discipline.

Amsterdam knows how to do it. There, the streetlights show the way, and nothing else. You can see the ground before you and you have enough light to know that no one is lurking nearby, but the light stops short of the buildings, and not an ounce of it floods upwards to the night sky. The buildings are illuminated from within, like bright jewels, and when you look up you can see the bright and brilliant stars.

What amazes and encourages me is that someone was given the job of figuring out how to make Amsterdam’s public lighting beautiful. That is a truly worthwhile official position. This doesn’t tell the full story: it’s not just about energy efficiency or even about catering to peoples’ real needs, but rather about making a public utility that embellishes and presents, while also representing, the work of art that is Amsterdam.

Copenhagenizing desire lines

A beautiful video describing how the city of Copenhagen used desire lines to accommodate bicyclists.

Bicyclists were mounting the pavement off the busiest bike lane in Copenhagen. The planners were curious why the cyclists were doing this: it turns out they were seeking a shorter, less busy route to a side street. Instead of ticketing all the cyclists who were doing this, the City erected a temporary bike lane, which cyclists quickly started to use. There is now a kind of bicyclists’ slip road there now, routing thousands of bicyclists quickly to their destination, discovered by paying attention to the desire line that the cyclists were following.

Mikael Colville-Andersen: “By using basic, direct human observation, we have a much more direct, effective route to planning our cities for the humans with whom we share our urban landscape.”

Let a thousand bulbs bloom

One of the things I’d like to understand better is how renewable energy can not just happen but happen in the best possible way for everyone. The starting point is that we’re going to have to get rid of all the power and fuel based on fossil carbon—oil, natural gas, coal, peat, shale oil, shale gas; the lot. This is not a matter of aesthetic preference. If we don’t limit these things to niche applications the economic consequences of climate change will be self-correcting in the worst possible way.

So we peer over the precipice to look at that abyss and decide to step back, agreeing that we will have to get rid of all the carbon in the system. That is pretty much where the EU is, at least nominally: cutting EU greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050, as we’ve agreed, means an electricity system almost entirely carbon-free by that time (allowing for some use of a still-theoretical technology called carbon capture and sequestration that would allow a bit of natural gas to be burnt). The remaining 5-20% is from transport, agriculture and emissions from changing the way land is used).

It’s once we’ve decided to do this great grand thing of changing the electricity system that the choices start to get interesting. To the extent that Intentional Lines represents any kind of coherent ideology, I offer the example of how we produce, distribute and consume electricity as a case study of the philosophy in action.

On the one hand, we have the electricity system as we have always known it. Power is generated in gigantic power stations, often fired by coal and located far from sight, and transmitted across a lattice of wires to thousands of homes. The system is kept in balance by engineers who carefully predict demand and crank up the supply when it’s likely to be needed – like at the moment when Coronation Street is over and everyone in England puts on the kettle to make tea at the same time. In this system, the bigger the power station the better the economies of scale and the cheaper the price for everyone. The only thing bigger and better than coal is nuclear power. Gas used to play a bigger role until it got expensive and coal got cheap again, so now coal is on the rise in Europe,

On the other hand, we have renewable energy – wind, hydropower, solar power, biomass, biogas and all the rest. These have become cheap at a terrific pace and in many cases can compete directly with “conventional” energy sources without any subsidies at all.

One of the big differences between the first and the second kind of power is scale. Coal-fired power stations don’t make sense in sizes much smaller than a gigawatt or so; with solar power, it is feasible to generate just a few kilowatts of electricity on your rooftop. This means that, with the right supporting infrastructure, anyone with a roof and enough capital – just a few thousand euros should do it – can become an investor in power generation.

This unlocks so many potential benefits. Solar power would be most plentiful when electricity for air conditioning is most needed. Wind power would take up the slack at night. Instead of rewarding institutional investors, power could be generated in thousands of places, close to the point of use and letting millions of people grab a small share of the profits. Conservation would become rewarding as people naturally incline towards using less power, knowing that anything they don’t use they can sell back to the grid. Groups of small investors could come together in local cooperatives to invest at slightly larger scale – a wind turbine, for instance – and share both the risk and the proceeds. Local residents would be much less likely to oppose wind turbines or their supporting pylons if they were also beneficiaries of the project. Crackpot inventors could tinker with their attempts to create perpetual-motion machines; were they ever successful they would plug it into the grid and become unfathomably rich, but in the meantime they will be rewarded for their incremental improvements on their biogas generator. This is an electricity system that resembles the scattered decentralisation of the internet rather than the hub-and-spoke system that drove the mass electrification of the last century. The benefits that that system brought are inarguable, but the decentralised electricity system adds the bonus of citizen ownership, unlocking goodwill, finance and creativity.

All this is beginning to happen already. In Germany, on some summer days renewable energy provides more than half the power on the entire grid. Half of all the renewable energy on the system is owned by local communities. In some cities (Hamburg is one example), citizen initiatives have compelled the city to buy back the local distribution grid from its former, private owners and set it up so that it allows for the maximum amount of decentralised renewable energy possible. In Berlin, a citizens’ coalition is trying to raise enough capital through crowd-funding to purchase the concession to run the city’s power grid (renewed every ten years), with the aim of increasing the amount of renewable energy and returning the profits back to the citizens.

Great as the decentralised option sounds, none of it will happen without the right supporting infrastructure – the policies, rules, codes, financing arrangements, circuits, switches, planning regimes, subsidy arrangements and the thousand other bits that have to be aligned in order to let these benefits flow. The German government is largely supportive of the shift and has for years encouraged citizen ownership of solar and wind power, for instance by creating simple standardized contracts (three pages long) that anyone can understand and take to the bank for financing their local energy project. But the shift is incredibly, gloriously disruptive and no more so than to the incumbent utilities, which have been betting against renewable energy for years and have seen billions wiped off the value of their books.

It’s technically possible to clean up the hub-and-spoke power system by switching out the coal and gas for carbon-free sources of electricity like nuclear power, large hydropower and the like. I’m sure that massive operations like the London Array offshore wind farm will eventually deliver economies of scale that drive the cost down still further. But although they will surely play a role, these kinds of centralised solutions will never command quite the same kind of public acceptance, let alone excitement, and I doubt that a system dominated by them would be good as a largely decentralised one at discovering ingenuity and incentivising efficiency. If we do succeed in cleansing the power system of coal and other junk, I bet it will be because we’ve figured out how to turn the power system from a drip feeding passive consumers into a dynamic exchange between consumers and producers.

Intentional lines, desire lines, and hidden meaning

Desire lines refer to the paths that often appear on public lawns or squares, as pedestrians pick the quickest route from one point to another. Some town planners fulminate and put up signs that say “do not walk on the grass”. Others build paths or trails along those routes, realising that the walkers have helped them identify the shortest and most effortless path across the square.

This blog has the second kind of person in mind.

The idea of Intentional Lines is to test an intuition, that good living happens when the physical environment is in line with people’s natural inclinations. The tendency of individual walkers to create a desire line is a kind of wisdom drawn from the crowd. We see these desire lines because the grass is trodden; how many invisible desire lines are there in the built environment that doesn’t bear these traces? Older cities were built around these desire lines — at first literally, as roads were built along or over ancient pathways, and subsequently because the technological constraints happened to fall at the limits of the human scale — and the best-preserved of them provide welcoming spaces for all forms of social interaction. Newer cities provide an engineered contrast, more efficient in moving volumes of traffic, perhaps, but often at the cost of sterile and lonely spaces. Could it be that they feel less welcoming because they are built across the ancient grain of human settlement?

This is not a blog about urban planning, but I’ll look at examples of good planning where they seem to support or challenge the hypothesis. There are so many other applications of the concept, from community-owned renewable energy to crowd-funded start-ups, and many ways that the invisible lines of intention can be spotted and applied. There are, alas, too many examples of the wisdom ignored, and these need to be chided. Intentional Lines is intended to gather ideas about how the hidden wisdom implied by the desire line can be used to bring civilisation into synch with the physical environment.