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Wednesday 26 June 2019

'If it ain't broke, don't fix it': The Phoenix Park under review

An ambitious plan to transform Dublin's Phoenix Park is being considered, but could the changes damage its intrinsic wild appeal, asks John Meagher

Deer enjoying the spring sunshine with Wellington Monument and Poolbeg Towers on the skyline. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Deer enjoying the spring sunshine with Wellington Monument and Poolbeg Towers on the skyline. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Parks and recreation: Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and Leo Varadkar running in the Phoenix Park
John Meagher

John Meagher

Upstairs in the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, on the Ashtown side of the park, there is an exhibition that is a bit different to the norm. The subject is the 357-year-old park itself - and what its future might be.

The Phoenix Park Visitor Experience Strategic Review - summarised on the mounted panels and in the lengthy illustrated report that's free to browse in hard copy here (and as a PDF online) - are ambitious and far-reaching.

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There's talk of a 'Welcome Quarter' and of driverless shuttles to navigate the park's central thoroughfare. There's much made about 'Commemorate' and 'Biodiversity' zones and there's even suggestions that a funicular, built into the hilly side bordering Chapelizod Road, would help connect the War Memorial Gardens with its much bigger neighbour.

The proposals attracted considerable attention once they were made public, with reaction running the gamut from excitement at how the park could be transformed to help boost visitor numbers to horror that the wild, untrammelled aspects that makes the Phoenix Park so special may be lost in the name of 'progress'.

Parks and recreation: Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and Leo Varadkar running in the Phoenix Park
Parks and recreation: Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and Leo Varadkar running in the Phoenix Park

Park Superintendent Paul McDonnell is enthusiastic about what is being proposed as he takes Review through the plan, step by step, but he says he is aware that as the park holds a special place in the hearts of Dublin residents - and indeed anyone in Ireland who has come to be charmed by its time-honoured majesty. Opened as a private deer park in 1662, it was made freely available to the people of Dublin since 1747.

"We in the OPW have been in charge of this park for almost 160 years and we want to make sure that any changes that happen in the future are done with the very best of intentions," he says. "We have to get the balance right between making the park work for those visitors who have never been here before to the people who use it every single day."

The proposals - featuring 29 separate recommendations and 'next steps' - have been worked on by a team comprising archaeologists, architects, landscape designers and civil engineers among other others, and is led by the Dublin-based Denis Byrne Architects.

Among their proposals is a series of what it calls 'internal character areas' - or quarters - to accentuate the best attributes of different parts of the park. They comprise the 'Welcome Quarter' at the city-side entrance; the 'Activity Quarter' to take in Dublin Zoo and its hinterland; the 'Commemorative Quarter' located at the southern part of the park and including the historic Magazine Fort, currently under refurbishment; the 'Biodiversity Quarter' around the 'wilder' part of the park and centred on the Furry Glen; and, lastly the 'Central Line' - the main roadway, Chesterfield Avenue, and the walking and cycling paths that run parallel to it on either side.

"I've heard people talk about the park being broken into zones," McDonnell says, "almost like the park itself is being divided. That's not the case. It's simply that we want to identify different aspects in the park and hopefully help make it appealing and assessable to greater numbers of people.

"There are parts of the park that are very popular and others that aren't used that much at all in comparison, and what we're trying to do is to show people just how much diversity is within this amazing park."

New train station

But is there a danger that some of the plans - including the construction of a train station near the zoo (served by the rail line that has run under the park for over 100 years) and welcome pavilions at the Parkgate Street entrance - is overdeveloping an amenity that was one of just two to be awarded gold at the inaugural International Large Urban Parks Awards last year?

One Dublin-based urban planner has his concerns. "I think there are some very fine proposals, especially the ideas they have around the 'Activity' zone, but they have to be very careful not to go building stuff that will mess with the character of the park, especially at the main entrance. It's one of the great vistas in the city - whether you're looking up Chesterfield Avenue as it gently rises towards Castleknock, or if you're at the first roundabout at Wellington Road, and looking down towards the gate with the Guinness factory on the skyline behind. I hate the idea of information pavilions either side of the avenue ruining that view.

"I think the thing that could make the park better straight away would be to put in small shuttle buses to discourage those from taking their cars, but it would be a hell of headache for Dublin City Council to re-accommodate the traffic that goes through the park. Chesterfield Avenue is exceptionally busy morning and night."

According to Paul McDonnell, 30,000 cars go through the park every day, although the OPW has attempted to discourage car use at weekends. From today and until the end of the summer, a large section of Chesterfield Avenue will not be accessible to vehicular traffic at weekends during day-time hours. McDonnell says it's a move that has been welcomed in the past. "You could have a picnic in the centre of the road if you wanted to," he quips.

John Gibney, who has worked in the tourism area for years, and is the author of Dublin: A New Illustrated History, says he understands the desire to increase visitor numbers but believes it should be approached in a highly sensitive way.

"One of the really lovely aspects of the park, and why it appeals to so many, is the fact that much of it feels untouched," he says. "There are large parts of it that are unusually wild for an urban park and I think people really like that. There are areas of the Phoenix Park that have this wonderful feeling of isolation about them and - not wishing to sound too corny - it can be a refuge from modern life, and it's very unusual to have that sort of resource in a big city."

As a historian, he has long been intrigued by the park's origins and the fact that both it and the surrounding areas had a strong military presence, with the former Islandbridge Barracks, the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and Richmond Barracks within a 2km radius.

"The 15 Acres [part of which was used to house attendees at the two papal visits] was used for artillery exercises," he says. "The remnants of the trenches that were dug during World War I for training can still be made out on Google Earth. I think the 'Commemorative' zone certainly has merits, especially when it comes to the Magazine Fort.

"But on the whole, for me, it's a case of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'."

Richard Killeen, author of The Historical Atlas of Dublin, says the park's potential to attract visitors is not helped by its location. "Let's be honest, it's on the western side of the city centre which has always been the less fashionable side," he says. "People always talk about northside and southside but I think it's the east-west divide that is more significant. If you draw a vertical line through Christchurch Cathedral, most of fashionable Dublin is east of that line. And that's been the case since the 18th century.

"I think the park manages to be under-utilised on weekdays, the footfall seems to be relatively modest, but by contrast it seems overwhelmed at weekends - especially by cars at the zoo end. When I look at some of the plans they have for its future, I think the idea of trying to discourage car usage there is a thoroughly good thing. I think the principle of having an improved public transport in the park stands out as a positive.

'Lungs of the city'

"If they can achieve an increased public use of the space and decrease private transport, it will be really impressive. You can't persecute drivers for the sake of it but if they can encourage an alternative way to get to and around the park, then that can only be a good thing."

For Dublin urban geographer Karl Whitney, author of Hidden City and the forthcoming Hit Factories, the Phoenix Park has had a significant impact on the development of Dublin. "It's a sporting amenity, a leisure amenity and generally a nice place to spend some time. Looking at it on a map, it's vast - comparable in size to Dublin city centre. And its use as a park has meant restrictions on the development of housing on the northside - the early suburbs spread northwards, rather than westwards."

Whitney says the parks' uses have changed over the years, but they remain essential - especially when the scale of the Phoenix Park is taken into account. "Even if they're not going to run around in parks for fitness, people need access to green space, clean air and the natural world for mental health reasons, not to mention the health benefits of being away from road traffic pollution.

"Nineteenth century town planning, which constructed the city as an organism that needed to be healed, saw parks as the 'lungs of the city' - and it's been repeated so much as to be a cliché - but there is an undeniable truth to the conception. Even if you lived in Dublin and never visited the park, you would benefit from its absorption of pollutants."

Meanwhile, back at the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, Superintendent Paul McDonnell is hopeful that the proposals for the future of the park will help generate a conversation about the best way forward. "These are just proposals for now," he says. "We would encourage anyone who feels passionate about the park to look at the Visitor Experience Strategic Review - which they can read in its entirety online - or to come here to see the proposals for themselves. It's your park and my park, and we all want the very best for it."

* The Visitor Experience Strategic Review can be seen at phoenixpark.ie/visitor-experience-strategic-review/

* Observations on the draft report can be made to visitorpark@opw.ie or OPW, Heritage Service, Dublin Castle, Dublin 2 by close of business, May 30

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