Considerations in the Future Design of
Creative Identities Symposium
Garter Lane, Waterford
22 November 2018
1. I am grateful for the invitation to speak. I hope I can add something to the occasion in these
very brief remarks after the excellent contributions to date. I have no answers here; my
presentation will I suppose seek to offer some frameworks within which to ask hopefully
meaningful and useful questions about more practical matters to do with the future city. I
will propose a number of questions that might inform the conversation to follow.
2. Shelley, “Ozymandias”.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
3. I take this familiar poem as my starting point for this exploration of creative identities and
urban design. The post-apocalyptic image of the ruined statue in the sands seems to me
apposite at this time when we have been warned, repeatedly and with increasing despair,
that organised human society is—if organised at least according to current principles and
practice—incompatible with life on the planet. Without “rapid, far-reaching and
unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, says the report of the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change, global warming will continue to adversely impact on human
activity to the point of catastrophe—and, we can conclude, ultimate annihilation.
image of a wrecked monument surrounded by “boundless and bare” sand can be taken
literally. Here is our future, the poem seems to say, as do the voices of scientists worldwide:
the future of our cities, homes, monuments; and of course of ourselves.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Selected Poems London: Oxford University Press, 1913, p.358.
The report is available through http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/. The phrase quoted is from the report’s
advance press release, available at https://www.ipcc.ch/news_and_events/pr_181008_P48_spm.shtml.
4. Surely the first and the most critical set of design challenges for the future are established
by this bleak and terrifying vista. We must it seems to me use all our resources and ingenuity
to conceive of a very different type of city that must be realised now and not generations
hence. Project 2040, Ireland’s National Planning Framework, imagines a much bigger
Waterford in years hence; it is perhaps in the light of recent reports rather naïve to presume
there will be a Waterford in years to come, or at least a Waterford that is broadly similar to
the Waterford we have now. We might give some time later to thinking about what a
climate positive city would look like. Are we talking about a car free city or one choked by
fumes? Are we talking about a city powered by sustainable sources (wind, solar power, wave
power) or one in darkness? What kind of Waterford are we imagining?
5. It would seem that critical to addressing that future is coming to terms with a form of society
that is stable—that is, where there is a brake on growth in all its aspects—and in a very basic
way coming to terms with a society founded on consumption. It’s this latter point I want to
focus on in these remarks, for it seems to me that amongst the many design-related
challenges facing us is imagining our future city selves as other than consumers. I shall come
back to this point.
6. Importantly, when we look at this image and think of the poem, Ozymandias was not the
only one to die: the powerful have a habit of taking the powerless with them, and the sands
of the desert took away everyone! We should also give some of our attention it seems to me
to the power relations at work in deciding the future shape of our city, and to consider what
kinds of organisational structures and city governance best equip us to design, execute, and
sustain the city into the future. This is critical because what recent reports on climate change
for me have highlighted is what might be called a “democratic deficit”: for multiple reasons,
the few dictate to the many, no more so than in Ireland; but while in most things we
concede this authority, never before have the stakes been so high when it comes to the
future city design, because the decisions of the few will impact not just on another few but
actually on everyone. Understanding how decisions to the benefit of the few will necessarily
impact on all is critical as a framework within which to consider how we move forward. We
should give some time to this later also.
7. Shelley’s poem is of course primarily intended symbolically; the poem functions through the
ironic juxtaposition of a number of things. “Look on my works ye mighty and despair,” the
ruins say. The irony is multiple. In the first instance, the poem reminds us that all humans
pass away, and despite the likeness of his face on the sculpture, Ozymandias the man has
long gone—his monuments did nothing to protect him from the inevitable. Secondly, of
course, the monuments themselves are now ruins, so even the great sculptures designed to
commemorate his existence are themselves fallen into decay. This makes the statement,
“Look on my works ye mighty and despair”, doubly ironic: what is written on the ruins as a
defiant, arrogant, boastful celebration of power is in fact a reminder of how fleeting that
power is, the despairing feeling produced in those who look at the monument not the
despair of being faced with absolute power but rather a different despair, a recognition that
all power is fleeting and destined to disappear. “You may seem mighty now,” the rocks say,
“but all might is passing and you will not be mighty forever.”
8. The poem gives expression to an important idea: how we choose to live, including how we
choose to impact on our physical environment, are a version of who we are. At the end of
the day, the poem tells us that Ozymandias by the things he built revealed both his own
arrogance and his own humanity. The geographical, spatial world became the canvas on
which (in ways he both recognised and did not recognise) he expressed himself. In simple
terms, in our own case, to take an example, the cathedral becomes an expression of a godly
community who recognise the numinous and want to acknowledge it. Or, the sports field
becomes an expression of a community that values physical exercise and competitiveness.
9. More than this, the spatial world becomes not just a material expression of who we are, but
also a component in the future fashioning of who we are. In making the places we inhabit—
in which we live, work, and play—we are engaged in an exercise in making ourselves, a
dynamic process. Just as we make a building or a streetscape, so the streetscape makes us
by releasing (or indeed limiting) certain kinds of identity-creating possibilities. In the poem,
the statue talks back, it expresses who the King was but also forms the people looking at it
and arguably forms the personality of the King. There is, as it were, a dynamic relationship
between the self and the environment wherein our making and remaking of ourselves takes
place. In the example of the cathedral, not only does the building express a godly people but
the very presence of such a temple encourages godliness, the lofty vaulted ceilings boosting
a sense of divine power, the stained glass stirring a love of beauty, so that the interaction
with the physical environment itself becomes a process of self-formation.
10. In thinking therefore about the relationship between identity and design, particularly urban
design, we are interested in two things: (1) what kind of identity is reflected in the design;
and (2) what kinds of possibilities are released by the design. The street manifests who we
are; but the street also creates possibilities for us to become someone new. There is a
twofold dynamic at work here that we are interested in.
11. By necessity, this dynamic has an ethical dimension. If we accept that there is an intrinsic
relationship between space and self, there automatically must follow a recognition that this
relationship has an ethical component—there are rights and wrongs, elements of justice and
injustice, in the relationship between place and self. This is because place-making is, we
might say, a human right--arguably as important as every other human right. It follows from
this that there is an ethics to place-making and to the geography of place design. This ethics,
I suggest, has two dimensions: (1) we must consider the ethics of the form of expression of
the individual in the physical environment; and (2) we must consider the ethics surrounding
the access individuals have to the processes by which they themselves as individual beings
are made and remade. Or, in other words, put in terms of rights: (1) humans have a right to
express themselves in their physical environment, and we must consider how that right is
upheld in the forms physical design takes; and (2) humans have a right to make and remake
themselves through their interactions with the physical environment, and we must ensure
that the physical environment supports the opportunity for that refashioning. Recognising
these rights, and figuring out ways to uphold them, seem to me to be serious challenges.
12. Normally of course we do not have a great deal of choice about the design of the places in
which we live and work; we surrender, in the most part, the creation of these places to
others—urban planners, architects and so on. We trust, therefore, that these people who
design our places for us have a keen appreciation of the ethical dimensions to what they do.
Understanding that ethical—and necessarily therefore political—dimension is critical.
Another way of asking this is: who benefits if we do not in urban design and redesign? If we
do not have control over how we represent ourselves and form and reform ourselves, who
does, and to what end?
13. This raises important questions of structure and governance. It seems to me that before we
do any thinking at all about specific design challenges and solutions, it is vital to have clarity
on how decisions about future such solutions are to be made and by whom—and in whose
interest. Something we can consider in the discussion is perhaps to sketch out the power
relations involved in decision-making about the future city, and how these may be impacted
on by this sort of group. How specifically are decisions made about the future city and do
those structures protect the rights of citizens, or do they benefit others and, if so, who?
14. It is my thesis, of course, that how decisions are made in the city—by formal national
authorities, by regional and local groups and by individual citizens—is wrapped up in a
discourse that is increasingly neoliberal, and therefore guaranteed to protect the interests of
the few (and the interests of capital) in favour of the interests of the many (the citizens).
Neoliberalism as we know “proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by
liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework
characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” to quote David
This ideology involves the purposeful “withdrawal of the state from many areas of
social provision”—particularly in Ireland’s case from housing, which is the most visible for
me demonstration of Ireland’s neoliberal turn.
15. Pause briefly to reflect on housing. The view of the government is essentially that the
market will correct the housing crisis. The visceral reaction of Irish people to the current
property crisis—both the crisis in home access and homelessness, and the extraordinary
increase in the rental market and the numbers of people in and moving into rental
accommodation—surely confirms that Irish people do not buy such neoliberal spin. The
tribal memory is short; it is not too long ago (less than 150 years) when the Irish Land League
sought to bring about the abolition of so-called “rack-rents” and to facilitate greater home
and land ownership, made famous for those of us schooled in Ireland in the three F’s of their
manifesto: Fair Rent; Free Trade; Fixity of Tenure. According to Professor Tony Fahey of the
ESRI, this manifesto is becoming increasingly relevant in Ireland today where landlordism—
which the League strove so hard to abolish—is on the return.
The visceral and emotional
response of the Irish is interesting; as a people, we see the current crisis as a poor
expression of ourselves, certainly as not who we are as human beings and people, and we
recognise the ethical and political dimension involved in the current manipulation of space.
The lack of access to housing is not who we think we are, and we recognise the injustices
inbuilt in the current system. What to do about them is another thing.
David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford/New York: OUP, 2005, p.2.
conference-here-where for a video of Professor Fahey’s lecture.
16. The neoliberal turn in spatial policy is visible both in the National Planning Framework and in
the shift recently in the iconography associated with Waterford city, if we think of our own
case. That shift has been from Reginald’s Tower (a thirteenth century fortress, certainly a
vivid expression of the “untaken city”) to the North Quays and the imminent construction of
a shopping centre, transport “hub”, office accommodation, and so on, an identity that
involves severing connections with the “untaken city” and (ironically, given the branding) the
ideas associated with being Ireland’s oldest city and embracing something more modern,
something “regenerated” (to use the language that has been audible in discourse around the
17. Neoliberal rhetoric is strong on the need for “reform” but often unspecific in what that
reform means. But pause for a moment on the notion of “regeneration”, which of course is a
pejorative term and implies failure and a solution to failure. We need to ask of course in
whose interests the term is utilised and what the consequences of following a thought-
process aligned to “regeneration” really means. The National Planning Framework gives
some guidance, I think. We read: “In the context of the overall management of the
development potential of State lands to support implementation of the National Planning
Framework, a new national Regeneration and Development Agency will be established to
work with local authorities, public bodies and the business community, harnessing public
lands as catalysts to stimulate regeneration and wider investment”.
In other words, the
release of public land for private development will be a mechanism for future development.
With regard to the new agency, “The Government will consider how best to make State
lands available to such a body to kickstart its development role and to legislate for enhanced
compulsory purchase powers to ensure that the necessary transformation of the places
most in need of regeneration can take place more swiftly and effectively.”
This is because,
as the plan says elsewhere, one of the major challenges in with “existing communities, who
may have a preference for the status quo to be retained”.
If one were to be unkind here,
one might say that the government is going to set up an unelected agency to release public
land for private investment and to find means to remove any likely objections from the
people who live nearby through legislative means. This does not strike me as democratic but
perhaps we could discuss.
18. My point is this: recognising the existing power structures and, more importantly,
recognising the prevailing ideology and its rhetoric, surely must be the beginning for
imagining design solutions for the future? A challenge for designers, it seems to me, is to
speak with a different rhetoric and imagine with different sets of power relations at work.
For another day is a discussion on how neo-liberalism impacts on design thinking and on
what kinds of power-relations are perpetuated, not challenged, by certain types of design
Government of Ireland, Project 2040: National Planning Framework. Dublin: Government of Ireland, 2018,
19. When it comes to thinking about the kind of society we represent to the world in our built
environment, it seems to me that it is our identity as consumers that is predominantly
reflected in the thinking about the future city of Waterford: we are opting for shopping
centres as the future icons of the city. It would be naïve to think that this would be
otherwise; it has been proposed by anthropologist Daniel Miller that “'mass consumption' is
now the dominant context through which people in modern societies relate to the material
It would also be simplistic to conclude that we need to build less shopping centres
and more, say, art galleries to put the world to rights. (Recognising of course the
“Guggenheim effect” in Bilbao where very significant investment in an art gallery performed
precisely the regenerative function that investing in a shopping centre will do here.)
Consumers are not dupes, and it would be wrong to reach any conclusions based on such an
assumption. Waterford may well through this development be declaring itself “open for
business”, with all that implies, but that does not necessarily mean it will be closed to other
possibilities. It seems to me worth exploring what those other possibilities might be.
20. The question therefore for this symposium: what sorts of design solutions present
themselves for a shopping centre, say, that create new and interesting and engaging forms
of identity-making possibilities? Are there ways of conceiving future retail design in the city
that do not close down identity-making but rather open up new and interesting possibilities?
In the terms I have proposed so far, are there ways of thinking about shopping centres
where not only do they give expression to a set of identities that are not solely tied to
consumption but also “talk back” to consumers in ways that stretch people’s sense of
themselves in new and interesting ways? And, moreover, recognising that the control of
what happens within a shopping centre is largely the remit of the people designing it, what
kinds of overall design solution for the wider city could create new and interesting
possibilities? Are there ways in which the design of the rest of Waterford can complement
and to some extent disrupt consumer identity in new and interesting ways?
21. We may ask the following questions perhaps:
a. While some welcome the familiarity of the shopping centre, the safety of it as well
as the uniformity and convenience, many lament its “soullessness”. How might we
define “soul” in this sense? Are there design solutions that counteract this notion?
Are dangers in conceiving the Cultural Quarter as the “soulful” part of the city,
distinct from other parts?
b. The shopping centre may be said to be a safe place, involving in many cases a literal
policing of disruption to discourage “anti-social” elements—which often manifests
itself in ethnic, racial and class-based discrimination. Are there design solutions for a
shopping centre that avoid the domestication of the environment in such a way that
is discriminatory? Are there ways in which the diversity of the city and its embrace
of that diversity can otherwise be recognised and given spatial expression?
c. Shopping centres make shopping “easy”. Are there opportunities in the future
design of the city or indeed of the shopping centre to expose what David Harvey
calls “the intricate geography of production and the myriad social relationships
Quoted in P Jackson and B Holbrook, “Multiple meanings: shopping centres and the cultural politics of
identity”, Environment and Planning A, 1995 (v.27), 1913-1930, p.1913.
embedded” within the commodities we consume?
In other words, are there
solutions that make shopping in some sense “hard”? Are there ways of pulling back
the veil that has fallen over the process of consumption, in so doing exposing the
ethical dimensions to commodification and consumption? What might the cultural
quarter contribute to such an unveiling as a kind of gravitational field in the wider
22. I don’t have answers to these questions but present them here for discussion. My point is: if
we accept that consumption is a necessary foundation for our society, an essential colour in
the fabric, are there way so conceiving consumption and consumers that are different than
23. My questions therefore are these:
Can we think of ourselves as other than consumers and, if so, what kinds of selves
do we dare imagine? And how might those selves find expression in the city?
Can we talk in a rhetoric that is beyond that of neoliberalism? In our official and
unofficial conversations, can we conceive of new terms of engagement that do not
implicitly accept the primacy of markets, the reduction of the state, and a future
founded on growth?
Do we need to rethink the governance and management structures for planning in
the city and the country and if so what might those structures look like if they are to
protect the interests of the many?
For one thing is certain: the city will outlast us. Whether it will outlast us as a celebration of
our ingenuity and of our commitment to justice and equality, or whether it will outlast us—
like the statue of Ozymandias—as a reminder of our folly and arrogance remains to be seen.
Quoted in P Jackson, “Consumption and Identity: the cultural politics of shopping”, European Planning
Studies, 1999 (v.7: 1), 25-39, pp.26-27.