SJD8 #1: Sustainable Communities and the Publicly-Engaged University: Introduction to the ‘Spatial Justice in Dublin 8’ blog series

This is the first in a series of blogs on 'Spatial Justice in Dublin 8' (SJD8 #1), as a contribution to Maynooth University Social Justice Week 2022. 

Human geographers at Maynooth consider ethical research relationships and respect for local knowledges as central to our publicly-engaged teaching and learning. We teach our students about the importance of community-based partnerships for conducting research about pressing issues in our world, including social and environmental injustice. Critical to this approach is building relations of trust over years with community partners who produce local knowledges in the ‘real world’ (i.e. beyond academic institutions) and collaborating to realise projects together. When scholars and students value such relationships and knowledges, we can begin to rethink the parameters of what constitutes knowledge about ‘sustainability’ away from existing models based on neoliberal values of economic development (Aldson, 2011; Kopnina & Cherniak, 2016; Till & O’Sullivan, 2020).

Only by working with living communities and local experts can we address past and ongoing forms of injustice to realise healthier and more sustainable communities together. This remains especially important as the UN’s 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (UN, 2022) remain unclear about who decides what precisely is to be sustained, by and for whom (including more-than-human lives), and over what time periods. Also unclear is who is responsible for already existing unjust processes, practices, and outcomes that have resulted in unsustainable places, communities, environments, and practices, and may continue to damage our future relations. If we want to create sustainable communities that support relations for a healthier and less damaging future, and are inclusive of inter- and intra-generational and multi-species equity, a decolonising and geographical approach to justice is needed. Reframing UN SDG 11, ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ (as well as other SDGs) from such an approach means to study and change processes and structures that led to and reinforce injustice.

This blog series – ‘Spatial Justice in Dublin 8’ – is a step in that direction. It emerges from a partnership in 2020-21 with the community-arts organisation Common Ground based in Dublin 8, and Maynooth Geography. Before introducing our partners, I first provide a brief overview of geographical approaches to justice, which Professor Gerry Kearns discusses in more detail in the next blog of the series (SJD8 #2: ‘Historical Geographies of Injustice in Dublin 8’). As I describe below, a geographical approach to justice includes decolonisation, which calls upon us to acknowledge and repair past harms, change legacies of inequality (including existing structures and processes reproducing injustice), and imagine and enact more inclusive worlds together (Kearns, 2020; 2021; Ramirez & Daigle, 2019).

Following my brief overview of geographical approaches to justice, I briefly introduce our partner, Common Ground, and the goals of our partnership in 2020-21. As part of our collaboration, students and staff also worked with the Common Ground artist in residence Kate O’Shea. I conclude with an overview of the ‘Spatial Justice in Dublin 8’ blogs, which include essays authored and edited by Geography staff and postgraduate students, a conversation between the artist Kate O’Shea and our postgraduate students, and a final reflection from the director of Common Ground, Siobhán Geoghegan. The blogs are intended to reflect our shared commitment to working in solidarity with community partners to imagine and create more sustainable futures.

Geographical and Decolonising Approaches to Justice

In Spatial Justice and the Irish Crisis, Kearns (2014) argues that geographers bring distinct perspectives to bear on researching and understanding inequality and social and environmental crises, including environmental, spatial, and place-based justice (see also Kearns, SJD8 #2). This is because geographers do not understand space, place, and environment as static containers, locations or backdrops (Till, 2005). We understand spaces and places as always shaping social relations as well as being shaped by them. As a species, we are always embodied and emplaced (Casey, 2009), but as we move through and create social relations and meanings, we also create homes and places, transform our environments, relate to natural worlds and more-than-human species, and produce spatial relations at multiple levels (from the body to the globe). Such social-spatial relations have histories resulting in ‘power geometries’ (Massey, 1991) in which not everyone has the same ability to move or access power and resources. Indeed, our actions are often limited by social-spatial boundaries at one moment in time in particular places that result from, and have effects on, other places, peoples, species, matter, and environments. Consequently, as geographer Edward Soja (2010) argues, ‘justice, however it might be defined, has a consequential geography, a spatial expression that is more than just a background reflection or set of physical attributes to be descriptively mapped’ (p. 1).

As human rights activists around the world have clearly demonstrated, democracies do not treat all social groups and individuals in the same way. We need to understand how individuals and groups have been marginalised by dominant ideologies that normalise injustice, such as colonialism, patriarchy, racism, and neoliberalism. Historically, over more than the past five-hundred years, individuals from so-called democracies have engaged in the purposeful and systematic destruction of indigenous peoples (Brown-Rice, 2013), resulting in the loss of people, land, family, culture that continues to have intergenerational traumatic and unjust effects (Brave Heart & Debruyn, 1998). Neoliberal cities and the geographical imaginaries that maintain them are unsustainable and unjust (Till & O’Sullivan, 2020). In most cities, as Soja (2010), and David Harvey (1973) argue, even the most progressive forms of planning, policy and civic engagement cannot dismantle ‘the normal workings of an urban system, from housing, labor, and land markets to the strategies of retailers, developers, bankers, and planners, [which] tend toward a redistribution of real income in favor of the rich and more politically powerful’ (Soja, 2010: 86).

With other feminist and radical scholars (Young, 2011 [1990], Soja, 2010), human geographers are critical of hegemonic Western European normative discussions of justice derived from ancient Greek traditions of limited membership (male property owners) and understandings of modern Western nation-states that assume a distributive system based upon a capitalist economy (which is inherently uneven (Harvey, 1973)). When nation-states determine ‘universal’ rights and the ‘public good’ according to understandings of liberal individualism that assume white European male norms of reason and respectability, people not culturally identified with such norms become oppressed by mainstream institutions and policies (Young, 2011 [1990]). Despite this, legal orderings of space based upon criminal understandings of justice reinforce already existing inequalities because state laws assume that a fair democracy, with fair systems of distribution, exists when adjudicating standards of guilt and innocence, and ‘fair punishment’ (Soja, 2010). Moreover, many social justice theories draw upon Rawls’s distributive approach to justice which does not address: how inequalities were created in the first place, if and how inequalities increase or decrease across time and/or space, why where one is located geographically matters, why some individuals and groups are not treated the same in a given society (Young, 2011 [1990], Soja, 2010).

Therefore, a first step is to identify and analyse how individuals and groups become marginalised and oppressed by mainstream dominant ideologies. Here we can draw upon indigenous theorists’ understandings of justice (Waziyatawin, 2008) which require first decolonising our minds, bodies, and lands/waters (Waziyatawin & Yellow-Bird, 2012). Decolonisation includes a ‘politics of refusal’ and active resistance to past and ongoing white colonial forms of subjugation and exploitation (ibid; Daigle and Ramirez, 2019). It includes taking down social-spatial colonial borders, acknowledging and making reparations for past harms, and creating an oppression-free society (Waziyatawin, 2008). To fight forms of oppression across space and time, we can support indigenous groups seeking to reclaim languages, placenames, and stories, and to restore bodily, land, and water sovereignty. Working together we might learn respectful and inclusive ways of relating to places, ecologies, and more-than-human species across generations, and imagine our connections across space and time to work in solidarity to fight forms of oppression (Till & O’Sullivan, 2020).

An indigenous perspective highlights the importance of historical and geographical imaginaries in making past and ongoing spatial processes of injustice visible in the present-day. With feminists, geographers value local knowledges because they result from the hard work of community groups and activists who ‘stay with the trouble’ (Haraway, 2016) over many years, and who are best situated to generate alternative models to existing cultures of injustice and unsustainability within their communities (Till, 2020a). To (re)imagine our worlds and create new alternatives, learning from local community activists and artists must become a central part of our research, teaching, and learning (Till, 2008).

Community-Based Experiential Learning and Collaborative Research in Dublin 8: A Partnership with Common Ground and the MA in Spatial Justice at Maynooth Geography

To expose our MA in Spatial Justice students to the challenging work of advancing goals of justice from a geographically grounded perspective, we collaborate with partners through field-based classes, ethics and methods workshops, conversations, guest lectures, and collective work. Several Maynooth human geographers work with, write about, and collaborate with artists, including curating exhibitions, as part of their research and public engagement (Bresnihan, 2020; Bresnihan & de Bath, 2020; Foley, 2020; Kearns, 2015; Kearns & O’Sullivan, 2020; Till, 2008, 2010, 2016, 2020b, 2022). Some of our partners include arts-based organisations and artists who introduce students to the importance of research and creative practices in addressing important societal and geographical concerns (see also SJD8 #12, SJD8 #13, and SJD8 #14). As such, Maynooth Geography has also hosted artists and creative practitioners as: postdoctoral research fellows (Dr Silvia Loeffler), PhD students (Dr Fearghus ÓConchúir, Dr Zoë O’Reilly; Dr Aoife Kavanagh), artists in residence (Dr Rajinder Singh, Kate O’Shea), and through the Irish Arts Council mentorship programmes (Seoidín O’Sullivan, Susan Gogan).

Through such exchanges and collaborations, and because of a broad commitment to the values of social-spatial justice, we were delighted to be invited by Siobhán Geoghegan to partner with Common Ground, a community-based arts organisation in Dublin 8, for their ‘Just City/Counter-Narrative’ artist’s residency. For the last twenty years, Common Ground has hosted a range of relationships with local groups, activists and artists to support innovative and creative approaches to build more healthy, creative, and sustainable communities in Dublin 8 (Common Ground, 2022). Such projects need time and care, and are especially important when one considers the historical and geographical contexts of the area.

As the blog series attests, Dublin 8 is an historically rich part of the city but has been ignored by the state at multiple levels over many decades through systemic exclusions from resources and support, including housing, resulting in what geographer Rachel Pain (2019) describes as ‘chronic urban trauma’. Local residents and activists continue to build upon many decades of hard work to advance fair and affordable social housing projects. Following years of austerity, and an endemic housing and homelessness crisis, city boosters have instead decided to develop Dublin 8 through rent-only apartments, student and visitor accommodation, a new national children’s hospital development, and gentrification projects. This form of ‘urban renewal’, with high-rent zones, privatised green spaces, and new sites of cultural consumption, has resulted in further displacement and social instability. In this context, the work of Common Ground with local communities and artists in residence is both challenging and inspiring.

Common Ground works to foster acts of resistance that inform the possibilities for collaborative and embedded artistic practices (Common Ground, 2022). For Director Siobhán Geoghegan: ‘Common Ground’s site of practice is located in a contested landscape and surrounded by a well-developed and sophisticated community development matrix whose activism embraces dissent and sets rigorous debate about how and why we work together’ (quoted in Till & Geoghegan, 2021, p. 56).

Over the past two years, staff and students of the Department of Geography have explored the area of Dublin 8 through guest lectures, walks, and conversations with local experts, as supported by Common Ground, and in collaboration with the artist in residence Kate O’Shea. We also learned from Dublin-based filmmaker Joe Lee, historian Liam O’Meara, and activists and community workers Rita Fagan and John Bissett. Lee regularly collaborates with the Family Resource Centre St. Michael’s Estate (FRC), local historians and residents, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art when making films in relation to the community work of the FRC. Rita Fagen, also an artist and founding organiser of the FRC, and John Bissett, a co-founding organiser of Housing Action Now, are key members in the St. Michael’s Estate Community Regeneration Team, and were among Kate’s mentors during her residency.

There were numerous outcomes of the collaboration between Common Ground and Maynooth Geography related to four shared goals. First, as part of the field-based instruction for the MA in Spatial Justice, Postgraduate Diploma, and MA in Geography, students were introduced to concepts of geographical justice and how they may be operationalised in geographical field work in Dublin 8. In ‘GY607: Field School’ (led by Professor Gerry Kearns in 2020, and myself and Professor Kearns in 2021), students learned field-based methods, including going on focused walks in Inchicore (some with local historians) to ground truth their focused research using archival materials and historic maps. Subsequent field walks including meetings with local experts in relation to current planning issues and ongoing housing justice concerns of the local community. Students were directed in ways of using historical sources to test hypotheses about the social and spatial structure of this part of Dublin in the early twentieth century, and student blogs in this special series result from their archival research and learning from local experts.

Second, as part of his ongoing research on the historical geography of Dublin more broadly, Kearns incorporated the ward of New Kilmainham (which includes much of Dublin 8) into new research about the spatial granularity of social life and of the contested interpellation of the Irish working class into the Irish polity. Some preliminary results of this work as it relates to New Kilmainham in 1911 was introduced to the students, and inspired further research and maps by Kearns, reported on the next two blogs, SJD8 #2 ‘Historical Geographies of Injustice in Dublin 8’, and SJD8 #3 ‘The Urban Palimpsest of New Kilmainham, 1911’, both of which include original archival research and maps.

Third, as part of her residency with Common Ground and Maynooth Geography, Kate O’Shea collaborated with me to teach our postgraduate students about the relevance of visual and creative communication methods in developing stories about spatial justice to publics beyond the academy. In ‘GY629: Spatial Justice’ (Semester 2, 2020), Kate developed a series of online ‘Spatial Justice Zine’ workshops asking students to think about and visualise their research differently. Kate invited researcher and designer Enya Moore, based in Sydney, Australia, to co-lead the final workshop. Students now use some of these methods in their own work (Figures 1 and 2). In ‘GY607: Field School’ (Semester 1, 2021), at the end of the semester, Kate and I facilitated two student conversations, one with Rita Fagen and John Bissett, and one directly with Kate. The later took place in Kate’s studio 468 in Rialto, Dublin 8, also included writing exercise to direct students in ways of learning from artists and incorporating these insights into geographical scholarship. An edited transcript of the conversation, with some new artwork by Kate generated in response to the conversation, will be published as part of this blog series (SJD8 #13 and SJD8#14).

Finally, through Kate’s residency, I learned more about creative practice, the politics of print and community-embedded artistic practices of ‘caring-with’ (Tronto, 2013), which has expanded my existing research about feminist methodologies, wounded cities and a place-based ethics of care (Till, 2012). From these exchanges, I am writing a creative essay about Kate’s practice and her ‘HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?’ residency that will be published later this year. We also hope to collaborate again on future projects through the Just City Collective and the Space&Place Research Collaborative.

The Blog Series: Spatial Justice in Dublin 8

Working together in solidarity with local groups and organisations such as Common Ground, Maynooth Geography seek to address pressing societal and environmental challenges by addressing past and ongoing spatial processes of injustice. The following fifteen blogs in the Spatial Justice in Dublin 8 series are among the outcomes of our collaboration with Common Ground and Maynooth Geography (Table 1). In the next two blogs, Professor Gerry Kearns will describe what we learn when taking an historical geographical approach to in/justice in Dublin 8, and provide new research, including new maps, of the area of Kilmainham. Then a series of ten illustrated blogs written by MA Spatial Justice and Postgraduate Geography students will present new research based upon their essays from ‘GY607: Field School’ and resulting from our collaboration. The final blogs include an edited conversation with artist Kate O’Shea in studio 468, which emerged from questions that our postgraduate students prepared for the artist, and a closing response by the director of Common Ground Siobhán Geoghegan. A full table of contents is below. We are delighted to launch this series of blogs during Maynooth University Social Justice Week 2022 and have it simultaneously co-published by our partner, Common Ground.

Table 1. Spatial Justice in Dublin 8 Blog Series: Table of Contents

— Karen E. Till

Karen E. Till is a Professor of Cultural Geography at Maynooth University, Co-Director of the MA in Spatial Justice and Postgraduate Diploma in Geography, and convenor of the Space&Place Research Collaborative. She is curator and editor of the ‘Spatial Justice in Dublin 8’ blog series published as part of Maynooth Social Justice Week 2022, and in partnership with Common Ground.

Acknowledgements

A special thanks is to all of the students for their excellent contributions, to Siobhán Geoghegan, to the artist Kate O’Shea for her wonderful workshops and conversations with the students — we learned so much!–, to Dr Alistair Fraser for his guidance using WordPress, and especially to Professor Gerry Kearns who helped doing final editing and formatting for the series. Thanks also to Rita Fagen, John Bissett, Joe Lee, and Liam O’Meara for their inspiration and support of our Geography staff and postgraduate students in learning about their important community activist work in Dublin 8. Finally, I would not have been able to teach ‘GY607: Field School’ (Semester 1, 2021) without the generous support from Gerry, who, while on sabbatical, took time from his own writing to help me develop content for a new class and support me in teaching the class when I had a particularly bad case of Covid.

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5 comments

  1. […] this blogpost is part of a series on ‘Spatial Justice in Dublin 8’, I venture some brief reflections on how we might interpret this history of worker housing in […]

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  2. […] needs to go ‘outside’, she may confront the legacies of ‘chronic urban trauma’ (see Till, SJD8 #1: ‘Sustainable Communities…’), including economic decline and drug- or crime-related violence due to the lack of state […]

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  3. […] It is clear that Kate’s connection with Common Ground, and with the FRC in particular, has brought about positive change and a new way in which the SME community can frame and react to social issues. As the community deals with the regeneration of this land, it will be important for artistic practices and thinking to continue to be a part of the community’s response. It is also important more generally, that as the discipline of geography progresses, that we remember that art has a significant link with human geography (see Till, SJD8 #1 ‘Sustainable Communities and the Publicly-Engaged University‘). […]

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  4. […] mentioned in the first blog of this series (SJD8 #1: ‘Sustainable Communities and the Publicly Engaged University’), Maynooth Geographers regularly engage with artists in a number of ways, such as by organising […]

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  5. […] our collaboration with Kate as part of the MA in Spatial Justice at Maynooth Geography, see: Till, SJD8 #1: Sustainable Communities and the Publicly-Engaged University: An Introduction to the ‘…‘ series, and Till, ed. SJD8 #13: ‘Art and Spatial Justice in Dublin 8: A conversation with […]

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