The need to keep our spaces safe

It must be the goal of every city or town that it makes its spaces safe. As each place developed over the centuries, it aimed to leave behind the areas within each which were determined to be wild or unsafe; places where you would be discouraged to be by nature of their design or wildness.

City designers and town planners believed in the physical public sphere, spaces where there would be physical interaction and verbal and intellectual discourse. There is no doubt too that the creation of these spaces was as exclusive as it was inclusive; that they were shaped to be of less appeal to others and more to some. To appeal to aesthetic appreciation and discourage unwanted congregation. And so there has always been an uneasy tension about who has the right to be where and vice versa.

That is not so much the case nowadays in strategic design, where efforts are made to create places for all, with the common denominator being having the right to free association in safety and in culture.

There is no doubt that in recent times, there has been a clamouring for our town and city centres to be made safe again; in daylight and after dark. There was a fear that public spaces became places that you should not go at certain times if you were young, or old, or female or with family.

Thankfully, the safe-making of our parks and plazas and city centre areas kept in the ownership of the public is a constant pillar of our policies. The lockdown and the pandemic showed just how much we need safe interaction in places; to come together as a community and just be.

But just when you think that we have cracked it, incidents such as last Thursday’s come along and there greatest fears of all are realised. There is no doubt that the long-held concept of respect for those who guard us has diminished. The flagrant disregard not just for the public guardians, but for the public property that we use to get around; the infrastructure of transport; buses, trains. The infrastructure of policing, cars and even the officers themselves.

The scenes of last week made headlines around the world. For all the wrong reasons. I met some tourists from mainland Europe in our city this week and they had been unsure about making the trip to Ireland since the weekend. As a precaution, they bypassed Dublin and came west. But even here, we cannot be complacent.

The characters of the streets are replaced by a threatening presence, and areas such as the city centre which should be welcoming to all, are often anything but.

We reap what we sow. By allowing political discourse to be as base as it has been in recent years; by creating platforms for the ill-informed and the ignorant; by allowing defamation and insult and abuse and bullying to go unpunished ( in most cases by the social media companies who proclaim to be clean and wholesome ), we have created a space where the right to expression becomes a right to oppression.

There may not be another incident such as that in Dublin for another decade, but in in its place, there is now fear that one could erupt at any moment; that the vulnerable could be attacked by a mob, or a few, or by one person. In the next 18 months to two years, we have potentially four important elections; our councils, our European representation, our Government and our Presidency.

In these, there will be the normal electoral tensions; the soundbites, the banter, but there is a risk that there will also be an opportunity for the rhetoric of hate to take hold as parties and candidates vie for power. We all have a responsibility to call out what’s wrong and oppose what will impose fear in people. We live in dangerous times. How these times unfold may be impacted by how we all respond to them.


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