Paddy O’Dea: How communications failures put Dublin City Council on the back foot

The council has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory more than once by failing to meaningfully engage with the public and explain its plans in a clear and timely manner

10th September, 2021
Paddy O’Dea: How communications failures put Dublin City Council on the back foot
How did the once extremely popular and progressive initiative of pedestrianising Capel Street open Dublin City Council up to criticism? Picture: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Last month, Dublin City Council (DCC) posted a tweet confirming that the 11-week trial pedestrianisation of Capel Street and Parliament Street would come to an end on Sunday, August 29.

The two streets, connected by Gratton Bridge, had been closed to traffic on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings since mid-June as part of an effort to help outdoor dining and a more pedestrian-friendly Dublin city centre.

The tweet, which was curiously upbeat in tone, highlighted the success of the initiative, suggesting that over 300,000 punters had taken advantage of the traffic-free streets, while simultaneously confirming that it was to be discontinued.

Within minutes, local residents, business owners, media, and elected representatives took to social media to express their anger and exasperation at the news. Panti Bliss, owner of Pantibar on Capel Street, described the move as “absolutely enraging”, “weird”, and “bizarre”.

Fine Gael north inner city councillor Ray McAdam argued that the decision was “grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory”. Street 66 Bar on Parliament Street expressed its frustration at businesses not being consulted and called on DCC to share the results of the trial.

On the back foot

How did this once extremely popular and progressive initiative land DCC on the back foot?

In early May, DCC held a public consultation seeking views on reducing city centre traffic to facilitate greater pedestrianisation.

According to media reports at the time, the two-week consultation received approximately 4,500 submissions and a largely positive reaction to the proposed changes, with 85 percent in favour of pedestrianisation.

This led DCC to adopt even more bullish measures than initially proposed, including the six-week trial pedestrianisation of Capel Street and Parliament Street. Six weeks later, they declared it a success. However, rather than commit to making the trial permanent, they opted instead to extend it until August 29.

Defining success and misreading the room

The decision had many scratching their heads. If the trial was a success, why not make it permanent? More to the point, what was DCC’s definition of success? This ambiguity was not an isolated issue.

On 18 June, DCC installed a Pride Rainbow Walk outside Pantibar on Capel Street in celebration of Pride Month. On the day of its unveiling, DCC tweeted: “If as expected, the rainbow walk is deemed a success, we plan to paint more in other city centre locations next week.” Cue more social media puzzlement. Yes, the initiative was very well received and soon replicated in other locations around the city, but once again, a positive initiative was overshadowed by poorly phrased ambiguous messaging.

The Council has endured a long summer misreading the room. It was repeatedly taken to task for the lack of public toilets in the city centre, and it took two very public kickings for its mishandling of the temporary closure of Portobello Square and its stuttering sales pitch for a white-water rafting facility at George’s Dock.

While the Council may have had clear rationales for these very different operational challenges and approaches, the underlying theme is its continued failure to effectively communicate or sell its message. On each occasion, it lost control of the narrative and left others to second guess its decision-making.

Responding to outrage, not dialogue

Ultimately, in the case of the Capel Street and Parliament Street experiment, the Council, clearly taken aback by the level of public outcry, agreed to extend the trial period until Sunday, September 26.

“The decision to extend the traffic-free weekends was made by Dublin City Council management following representations by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alison Gilliland, and her fellow councillors,” said DCC’s press release.

The release also included details of a renewed public consultation commencing on Monday, August 30, which, according to DCC, had always been part of the plan.

This lack of communications direction is particularly frustrating because the Council has actually got a lot right this summer.

The pedestrianisation of South Anne Street and Dame Court, the partial banning of cars from Drury Street and South William Street, and improved cycling infrastructure have all proved popular.

However, instead of being recognised for its efforts to create a greener and more pedestrian-friendly city, the Council’s passive, disjointed communications have cast it as an indecisive and opaque body.

More frustrating again is the perception that, as articulated by Panti Bliss, the Council “only seems to respond to public outrage, rather than talking to the public or talking to businesses”.

Looking to the future

The past 18 months of Covid restrictions have given many cities pause for thought in relation to how we interact with our cities and how we can make them more sustainable and human-friendly. Major cities including New York, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, Montreal and Seoul have all capitalised on reduced urban footfall to push through ambitious new green initiatives.

In Paris, for example, more than 1,400km of new bike lanes have been laid across the city in a very short space of time. Large swathes of the city have been pedestrianised or shut off to traffic completely. In January, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo committed to investing €250 million to turn the Champs-Élysées into a “green pedestrianised garden” and plans are already under way to create new urban forests around the city, all with an overarching vision of “building the city around the individual” and putting nature back into urban life.

Inevitably, many of these changes have been met with resistance, with taxi drivers, among other groups, staging protests. However, the city authorities achieved sufficient political and stakeholder buy-in to push these changes through.

In Dublin, public consultation to date has shown an overwhelming support for greater pedestrianisation of Dublin city centre. Yet, as DCC embarks on its next phase of public consultation, it is incumbent on it to demonstrate meaningful leadership on this issue.

This means being able to sell its vision, achieve buy-in, pre-empt any potential resistance and define “success” for a very diverse group of stakeholders. While DCC is moving in the right direction, setting the public agenda needs to be at the centre of its strategy, as opposed to allowing itself to be perceived as merely responding to the agenda or “outrage” of others.

Paddy O’Dea is a client director at 360

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