Urban villages: cities’ great engines for localism

Dalkey Co DublinCastle Street in Dalkey: welcome to suburban bliss
Great cities value their urban villages – and the best retain their unique character and charm. They’re a force for civility and engines for economic localism, provided institutional property ownership hasn’t turned them in to clones, suggests Dougal Paver.

Back in the day I spent just over three years in Dublin, on and off, and fell hard for the city. It remains the only place to which I’d move my family (come the lottery win, etc.).

At the heart of its appeal are its bustling high streets, offering a uniquely Irish mix of shops, bars, cafes and restaurants. On the city’s lovely south side, suburbs such as Rathmines, Ballsbridge, Monkstown and Ranelagh have largely avoided the attention of acquisitive pension funds and their clients, the chain stores, leaving room for a small army of local entrepreneurs uniquely in tune with the requirements of their neighbourhoods. The variety, quality, diversity and interest is in marked contrast to many UK suburban high streets.

Perhaps the loveliest of them all is Dalkey, eight miles out of town on the coastal DART network. Once a fortified village established by the Vikings, it is now a gentle (and genteel) suburban village with buildings that span the centuries. It still retains two of its seven mediaeval castles and sitting outside The Queens nursing a Guinness whilst reading the paper remains one of my guilty pleasures. Should you be in the area give Finnegan’s a try, too, whilst I’m on the subject.

Four miles to the west is an example of exactly what happens when institutions are given their head: Dundrum shopping centre. It’s a runaway success, set in the middle of miles of prosperous suburbs and linked to many via Dublin’s cracking modern tram system, the Luas. But does it feel Irish? Are you enjoying a uniquely Dublin experience? Of course you’re not: no local trader has the covenant strength to interest the sorts of funds that own such schemes and you could be anywhere. The fact that such a huge scheme sits in the middle of suburban scale housing is one for the planners to answer, but that’s not really my point, which is this: if you want to deal with the stultifying impact of ‘clone town’ retailing in our suburbs, you first have to change the nature of property ownership.

The business models of institutional funds simply aren’t geared towards independent retailers and the only way they would divest of their suburban holdings would be if (a) they were performing exceptionally well and they could sell the asset at a high price; or (b) if their tenants were struggling and they make a distressed sale. On that basis, suburbs’ only chance of reinvigorating their high streets with quality independent retailers is if they first go through the pain of failure and decay. Renewal will follow with the right owners and with a planning authority that encourages localism and helps, perhaps, with investment in the public realm. But it’s a big ask and, when set against the sheer number of dull, samey high streets across the country, it’ll be a generation or two before UK cities can hope to emulate the pleasures of a Saturday afternoon stroll through any of south Dublin’s local centres.