Category: The Great Neighbourhood
Date of visit: July 2017
Assessor: Tim Challans
1. Taking the long view
The local authority and the developer have a long view of its development and the personal commitment of the local developers to the area that they were brought up in has given some focus to the development of the area. It is this single-minded commitment, coupled with the extent of their land ownership, that has ensured that the area has been regenerated and thrives.
2. The strength of diversity
Smithfield is a small but distinctive part of the city that has genuine variety and interest. Although in urban design terms the relationship between the built environment and the square is imperfect, the incremental development that has taken place offers a diversity of design and sustains a variety of public and private rented property that gives the area its social diversity and interest.
3. Strong public realm
The central space is well defined and it is enhanced by other smaller spaces that have been added into surrounding development and by the retention of historic street patterns. The open space is impressive but would benefit from an animation programme to create interest and support local businesses.
4. Heading in the right direction
Although at this stage it is uncertain that the development of the area has yet created a strong neighbourhood, it certainly going in the right direction.
Smithfield first appears as a defined space on the 1756 map of Dublin as a livestock and produce market. Most famously, it was the location for the monthly horse fairs with dealers bringing animals for sale from the surrounding countryside. These fairs continued until relatively recently, even after Dublin City Council had developed the space. Until 1971, Smithfield was also the location of the Jameson whiskey distillery. It is the largest open paved area in central Dublin as, when the city was developed in the 18th century, the then British government did not encourage the creation of public spaces where large crowds could gather.
There is not a single vision for Smithfield as the area has evolved for a number of purposes, however, in recent years the city council and major local landowners and developers have worked closely together to improve and develop the area. The Jameson site was developed for residential, retail and hospitality uses in the 1980s and, following this the city council held a design competition for Smithfield Plaza in 1995/6.
The winning landscape design for the square was subsequently completed with the public realm developed first when the former open market area was resurfaced by the city council creating a large open square. Around the square remained the former distillery and some low-rise 1980s public housing on the east side; largely government buildings, law courts and legal offices to the south between Smithfield and the River Liffey and an area of light industry, scrap merchants and car repair sales to the west. Dublin City Council gave incentives to develop rundown areas in the 1980s including local tax incentives and allowances, which benefitted the development of Smithfield at the time.
The public square is impressive in its scale and on the west side it has a number of very tall lighting columns that incorporate (now unused) gas fired braziers that originally celebrated the exploitation of cheap natural gas. Recently, further improvements have taken place through landscaping that provides both a visual focus and a more user-friendly public space to the north and a children’s play area to the south. The public realm was effectively completed when the east/west tram route, the Luas, was completed in 2006 with a Smithfield stop on the south side of the square.
In the 1990s, following the creation of the public space the owner of the land to the west – the Linders family and its development partners – developed a large part of its site with a combination of apartments, cafes, restaurants and retail. The development includes an ‘anchor’ cultural use, the Light House cinema. After an initially poor start the cinema reopened under a new management and is an important night-time destination. The retail uses include a high-end supermarket, chemist and some vintage clothes shops; there are also chain restaurants.
On the east side in the Jameson development there is a visitor centre, restaurants, a gym and a Generator hostel (which replaced an unsuccessful hotel and is popular with younger visitors to the city). All these uses serve tourists, residents and office communities during the day. The development of a site to the north of Smithfield by Dublin Institute of Technology will create more pedestrian and cycle traffic between the Institute sites and the city centre on the south of the Liffey, ensuring that there is more passing trade.
The history of the Smithfield area gives it distinctiveness and a real sense of place. The council-managed public space and the surrounding private sector development have created a place with real character, with a variety of architectural and building types. It has a diverse population living and working in the area, from the barristers and solicitors in the legal businesses to rented and owned apartments. The area is also the home to a monastic order that provides a soup kitchen for homeless people and one part of the site is housing for military veterans.
The public square dominates the area and is well used during the working day as a through route and destination for local workers and residents. It is a space that cries out for large public events to animate it, although there is no specific programming policy. It is used for occasional public events but the council resists its use for activities that might cause too much noise or otherwise disturb residents. Landscaping in large plant containers looks temporary and would be better replaced by more permanent planting.
This is still a young and developing neighbourhood but the range of amenities, the quality of the open space and buildings, the Luas stop and the proximity to the city centre make it a very attractive place to live and work in the city. Some of the retail units have not been successful but have been taken over by creative industry uses. The best example of this is Brown Bag, which makes very successful children’s animated films and has taken over a prominent site originally intended for two-storey retail. The location of this company and the Light House cinema has attracted other film and digital-based companies that appreciate the creative atmosphere and networking opportunities. To encourage businesses to establish the developer offered reduced rents. Smithfield is an interesting area and its path to improvement has some valuable lessons.