This time last year, there were 161 restaurants, cafes and pubs within the Dublin City Council area with licences for “street furniture”, meaning tables and chairs and barrels for people to eat and drink outside, shows a council list.
Since June 2020, the council has run a scheme of free six-month permits for businesses that serve food and need outdoor seating.
“There are currently 282 street furniture licences issued across the city with more applications being received and assessed on a daily basis,” said a spokesperson.
The city needs businesses to recover – and especially independent businesses, says Janet Horner, a Green Party councillor.
But she has one major concern, she says. “There’s a tension there at some stage between supporting businesses to recover, and allowing the public realm to be privatised.”
If Dublin becomes more of an outdoors city – even if only for this Covid summer – with more streets pedestrianised, and new seating is installed on newly widened footpaths, should that seating be run by cafes and restaurants?
Or should it be public, available to anyone, whether they are paying for a coffee or not?
Space given over to businesses to use now might be hard to make public again in future, says Horner.
Businesses then can purchase their own tables and chairs – and umbrellas, windbreakers or electric heaters, say – and can be reimbursed under a new grant scheme, getting up to €4,000 each.
Businesses are already gearing up for a summer of outdoor dining – and have mixed views on whether public or private seating would be preferable.
Alfie’s restaurant on South William Street is already taking outdoor bookings, says owner Niall McMahon.
They have room for about six tables outside their restaurant, says McMahon. But if the street were pedestrianised, they could double that by putting more tables on what’s now the road, he says.
It would be nice to have public seats too, he says, but he’s not sure if it would work because the street is narrow, and he prefers the idea of private seating.
“The whole idea of pedestrianising the street, I’m assuming, is to help businesses who are trying to sacrifice their business inside,” he said.
Public seating would defeat the purpose of assisting businesses, he said. He thinks it would lead to anti-social behaviour, he says, while businesses can ask people to leave private seating.
South of the city on Blackrock’s Main Street, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has already put out some public seating – installing picnic tables, removing a parking spot and extending the footpath.
It’s one of 25 locations where it’s put in public seating since April 2020, according to a map sent by the council on Tuesday.
Stephen Deasy, the owner of Bear Market Coffee on Main Street, says that his customers often use the picnic tables.
“Along with the one-way system, it’s allowed people to relax a bit more in the village. It’s a far more enjoyable place to be,” he says.
Deasy says he plans to apply for the grant scheme there, so he can add tables and chairs to the benches in front of his coffee shop too, for his customers.
Businesses can buy personal liability insurance and be more responsible for what happens on their own seating than in public seating, he says.
But there should still be more public amenities, he says. “Communal stuff is really good when it’s serviced by the council. The intentions are right, it’s definitely lifted the village up.”
If seats, tables and benches are put out along Capel Street in Dublin city centre this summer, Luisa Buruiana would like them to be public, she says.
Buruiana, who is co-owner of Hot Bubble Café, says more outdoor seating would be a boon for them. “That would be a plus for us. Obviously, it’s just seasonal, the weather in Ireland we’d get just a couple of months,” she says.
They could open later perhaps until 8pm, she says, as they could serve seated customers rather than just takeaways, under restrictions. “We’ll see how it goes.”
For How Long?
Adding private seating this summer is for the short-term, says James Geoghegan, a Fine Gael councillor. “Right now, we need to get our businesses going again.”
In the medium- to longer-term, the council can take advantage of the fact it has created new seating areas, he said. “And really that should all be about the public realm.”
“I don’t think anything that’s decided now should be the template for the future,” says Geoghegan.
Horner too says it’s a public good to get businesses back in action. “We need space to eat and have a drink for the summer. That’s a good thing.”
But, once the economy is back on track, it may be hard getting the space back from businesses, she says. “There’s something to be very careful of, about how much we allow.”
Her fear is that in the future, people will only have a place to sit outside if they can afford to pay for a drink, she says. “Or if you’re a customer of a particular business, which have the right to refuse people.”
“There’s a situation where the public seating now is for exclusive businesses who are actually making a mint out of using up the public realm,” says Horner.
Geoghegan says he favours a mixed use of public space, where space outside businesses would be split between private and public.
It could mean a public bench to sit on with a coffee bought anyplace on one side and tables for a private business on the other, he says. “I think you can get that balance right with good design.”
The council is working on different plans for seating, a spokesperson said.
In 2020, Dublin City Council delivered an overall scheme for Smithfield Square working with local businesses, said the council spokesperson.
This will be expanded and further developed for 2021, they said – and similar projects are being worked on for Newmarket Square in Dublin 8 and Suffolk Street off College Green.
“As you can imagine, public space in the city centre is at a premium with most spaces already having a clearly defined use or local businesses currently looking to use it for their own purposes,” they said.
Dublin City Council is also investigating the introduction of “dwell zones” in the city centre and will develop this concept in appropriate spaces, said a spokesperson.
In December last year, Bannon Commercial Property Consultants drew up a report for the council as part of its ongoing process to put together the next city development plan.
In the report, the consultants recommended the council look at creating “dwell zones”, which it said were areas that encouraged people to stick around, “with the overall focus of enhancing the attractiveness and vibrancy of the streetscape”.
These zones can be permanent or temporary, it said. They may also be functional, with seating, or a retail role such as coffee carts, or engaging as with an interactive street installation.
The report highlighted nine streets that might work for dwell zones, including Palace Street, Pearse Street, and Stephen Street.