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The Pop Up City


It is a scandal that, even excluding second-homes, there were, according to the 2011 census, at least 168,427 empty houses and 62,629 empty flats in the Republic of Ireland. In every single region, there are more than enough empty houses and flats to accommodate all homeless households, estimated at 3,808 for census night, 10 April 2011. The Irish state could even house the bulk of these people from its own stock, for when it took on bad debts from the banks in December 2009, it acquired title to some 13,200 homes, of which about 4,000 were empty. By August 2012, the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) reported that only 60 of these had been rented as social housing and that when a further 2,000 were slated for council housing, it was found that 40% of them had been rendered unfit for use while vacant. In June 2013, responding to questions put by members of the Irish parliament, the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government, was able to confirm that by the end of the first quarter of 2013, a total of 263 propertiesonly had now been transferred to social use. Why is it so difficult to let people use empty houses?

This naïve question gets to the heart of what cities are for. As Conor McCabe shows in his excellent account of the Irish economic crash (Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy, Dublin: History Press, 2011), the mountain of debt that crashed and now cripples the Irish economy was fueled in very large part by property speculation. We might have expected some sort of reform of the Irish economy and cities to make them less susceptible to the sort of cowboy developments that brought the country to this parlous state. In the face of the prodigious waste we might expect some attempt to constrain property speculation with planning, to provide a framework so that private interests serve some notion of the public good. There was planning of a sort yet, faced with a projection of housing need of about 2,000 units in the county of Meath, developers appealed zoning restrictions until, in the end, they were able to construct 124,173 houses (Michael Smith, 'New planning regulator can be ignored,' Village issue 23, June-July 2013, pp.74-5). An investigation into corrupt payments, the Mahon Tribunal, detailed dozens of payments to councilors who were instrumental in approving requests for re-zoning. And while the Mahon Tribunal found corruption at "every level of Irish political life," the Housing and Planning Minister has decided to appoint a regulator with no statutory powers beyond being allowed to "advise" the Minister.

The reasons why empty houses must be kept from the market have more to do with maintaining property values than with meeting the needs of people without homes. The reasons why planning cannot be given teeth has more to do with encouraging developers to build than with allowing planners to design efficient or sustainable cities. In other words, the Irish cities are there to serve Mammon. Keeping empty properties from the market or from being used, constrains supply and inflates property values. A light touch with regulation gives developers a green light to invest. Beyond all this the state guaranteed that banks and others who invested with Irish developers (who have subsequently declared their businesses bankrupt) would get their money back initially from the European Central Bank and ultimately at the expense of the Irish taxpayer. These state guarantees, in turn, cultivate a sense of confidence among foreign investors that Ireland is a safe place for their assets. The bank guarantee scheme of 2008 told investors that they could bet with impunity in Ireland, knowing that at the very least their stake would be returned to them. The risks of speculation have been socialized and its benefits privatized. This is the Irish version of a city built on exchange values alone.

The Irish plan, then, is to sustain confidence in the country as a place for risk-free investment, just as public spending is being cut and public assets are being sold off. This is unlikely to grow the economy and thus the tax-rake may fall and the cuts and fire-sales will become more frenetic. Absent any general growth in the economy, property development on a large scale will not resume any time soon. But keeping things off the market means that across Irish cities, there is a rash of vacant lots, redundant offices, shuttered shops, and mothballed houses and apartments. Such emptiness and waste should embarrass politicians who advocate austerity. A government owning vast swathes of urban Ireland should treat its holdings as of immediate use and not just as frozen against the sunny day when they can be returned to the very interest groups that created the crisis in the first place. We are living in the interim and it has its own distinct characteristics.

In the interim, we must find ways to keep cities vibrant, absent the blather of the developers. In the interim, we must improvise and re-use, rather than discard and buy new. In the interim, we must find ways to engage and train people for useful work even absent international investors seeking to employ them. In the interim, we can cooperate to meet our mutual needs, rather than forlornly wait for the cavalry of new employers. In the interim we must be allowed to use what we now collectively own. In the interim we must unlock the useful assets of our cities without the barrier of investing in ground rents. We already own these things, and are shamefully having to pay for them, so let's use them. Let's park the ground rents and allow people into buildings and onto sites, in order that they can meet common needs with collective assets.

This is the ideology of the Pop-Up City. In Berlin, with its history of squats and in the face of the enormous amount of land that erupted into use with the removal of the Wall after 1989, the recognition that private capital was not able to take up all these new assets at the very same time, gave new energy to the idea that before lots found willing developers to make them shiny and new, they could yet serve social needs in the interim by being passed over to projects that would not own but might use them. These groups have been various described in Klaus Overmeyer's edited work, Urban Pioneers: Temporary Use and Urban Development in Berlin, Berlin, Jovis, 2007, in the subsequent broader survey edited by Philipp Oswalt, Klaus Overmeyer and Philipp Misselwitz, Urban Catalyst: The Power of Temporary Use, Berlin, Dom Publishers, 2013, and in Karen Till's work, 'Interim use at a former death strip? Art, politics, and urbanism at Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum,' (pp 99-122, in Marc Silberman's edited collection, The German Wall: Fallout in Europe, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

We have seen something of this movement in Dublin with the holding of the first Dublin Biennial International Exhibition of Contemporary Art, as a Pop-Up event in June 2012. This exhibition brought to Dublin a roster of leading international artists and hosted for a time one of Yoko Ono's Wishing Trees and the occasion was blessed with Ono's charm in attendance. To host this event, the curator, Maggie Magee, was allowed use of some empty retail space down at the Dublin's Point Village, subsequently taken into NAMA. Another such project is under development by an artistic collective, Upstart, who will for five weeks this summer 'transform a derelict Dublin site on Dominick street lower into a pop up park, a place of creativity, nature, imagination, play and beauty' and in doing so 'challenge how vacant sites can be used in our city.' This park will have an auditorium and will hold concerts. It will also be the focus of youth work with teenagers from Dublin and Belfast who will together assist in the assembly of the theatre. Upstart's Sam Bishop and Aaron Copeland refer to the Dominic street site as something that would have been understood as a 'meanwhile space' during the boom. Yet, now it can serve as a temporary focus for the creativity and mutuality that are permanent features of living cities. The initiative relies upon the goodwill and voluntarism of local people, businesses, and city authorities but it assumes also that a wider community of supporters will learn about the work and help fund the project with a multitude of donations before its Fundit deadline of 28 July.

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