It is extraordinary how uninterested we are in the problems caused by bad planning or indeed the possibilities for enhanced quality of life, that is to say happiness, that good planning would bring. It is egregious how decisions that may change the face of our capital city continue to be taken so casually and so wrongheadedly.
Of course a directly elected mayor would be the agent of debate and public enfranchisement, and that is precisely why we will not be getting one.
In 1905 James Joyce wrote, “When you remember that Dublin has been a capital for thousands of years, that it is the second city of the British Empire, that it is nearly three times as big as Venice it seems strange that no artist has given it to the world”. He of course changed that. It got some art. Now it needs some politics. Meantime it is assailed by bad policy.
Though it was the second city of the Empire, Dublin is not a city of great public buildings and its Georgian houses offer modest exteriors, though often – even if few seem to appreciate it – extravagant interiors. Its Victorian and modern legacy is very mediocre in international terms. The professional classes fled in turn the North City and then the whole City Centre for the suburbs as soon as it became feasible. They remain there though their children may pass through the City proper, before they become self-sufficient.
However, what we do have is a city centre that is largely intact, was built at a human scale and is punctuated by magnificently conceived setpieces, including the squares and quays. You can walk from Baggot St to Capel St and on to the Phoenix Park without feeling if you stop and talk you will be oppressed by anything on an industrial scale – whether a lump of built concrete or a motorway. It’s an intimate city with small shops and pubs a big part of the character. The legacy is in short, fragile.
Now the construction economy is rebounding and there is a crippling housing shortage it’s essential we have a vision for the city. As a new development plan wends its way through Dublin’s City Council it’s clear there is no clear vision. In its stead is a deference to the market, to international homogenisation, to quantity over quality, to the vogue of density over longterm quality of life.
No one is even talking about how we can facilitate a thriving, family-friendly mixed community well served by facilities and public transportation. All the talk is of the demands of the market and of international competitiveness: a tired embrace of the discredited ideology of yesteryear by out witless city fathers. In any event these tired agendas, would be served by emphasising quality, services and communities.
The future of housing in the city centre is clearly apartments but what percentage of the apartments in Ireland provide sustainable accommodation?
Apartments are mostly small and miserable yet nobody demurs. Much greater intelligence needs to be applied to what role apartments are to play in Irish life. That role never figures in the discourse and there almost seems to be an assumption that they are not of interest to anyone who matters. Perhaps this is because they have not been of appeal to middle class people with families – people with power and money. How they are designed and laid out and how they function is not a preoccupation for government, local or national.
Head of Planning, Jim Keogan, told the City Council in June that it was expected half of the population growth in the City would be for oneand two-person units, not families. These people are perceived to be transients; their interests fleeting.
Reflecting this long-term view of the demographic, most of Dublin’s apartment stock has been cheaply built, and the units tend to be small by European and US standards. I recall meeting the ‘architect’ of a large scheme about to be built on the Western quays in the early 1990s. He was happy to admit he was building “the tenements of the future”. Aspirations were low. Apartments were built for the builders, and investors, not for the long-term residents.
Inevitably ten years later it was clear that the inmates had little loyalty to their areas and a majority expected to be gone within two years.
You need at least 800sq ft to endure, for a family with two children. You need storage space to avoid going mad. For fifty years people have expected built-in wardrobes. You need light. You will need laundry facilities. You need proper management of common areas. Perhaps above all you need private, semi-private (ie semi-public) and public open space. These are rules of twentieth-century human existence.
Middle-class families will not consider locating to apartments while there are no parks, playgrounds and sports facilities. The return to city-centre living over the last 30 years has not been accompanied by the opening of a single park of any size.
On the contrary, much institutional open space has been built on, and several public parks concreted over. Too many Irish apartment units have no outdoor space at all – it is extraordinary how the model of double French doors leading to useless cast iron faux balconies, was ever allowed to evolve as a norm.
Against this background we have two depressing knee-jerk initiatives: Alan Kelly’s reduction in the minimum standards for apartments, and Owen Keegan’s City Council’s insidious long-standing attempts to raise height levels in the city.
Before he finally blew out, former Environment Minister Alan Kelly introduced a new minimum of 40 square metres for an apartment, reducing the previous minimum of 55 square metres, which was already lower than those of what our Multinational-fetishising city fathers regard as our ‘competitors’.
It has been let pass as truth that Dublin has unrealistically high standards in apartments. Writing in Village last year, Daft.ie’s Ronan Lyons asked: “If 50-square-metres is good enough for the citizens of Cork, Copenhagen or Cologne, why in Dublin is it a shoebox?”.
This is easily established as nonsense.
Writing in the Irish Times, Frank McDonald asserts that “in Copenhagen, the standard size of a one-bedroom apartment is 70sq m… It would also be normal to have extra storage areas in the basement of a block”. The problem for Dublin is the legacy: every other great European city has a legacy of magnificent apartments dating back a century and a half. For historical reasons, because of our unimaginative and self-serving middle class, we had next to no apartments until they were, without any reference to quality standards, tax-incentivised, from the 1980s.
City Chief Executive Owen Keegan warned in May of “severe repercussions across the city in terms of employment, international competitiveness, housing provision, together with critical infrastructure such as transport and hospitals”.
However, councillor Dermot Lacey (Lab) recently told the City Council that the city planners had always wanted high-rise. “They are using the housing crisis as an excuse”.
A review of lobbying submissions over the years shows that multinationals, whose agenda the Council always has to the fore, favour highrise buildings as statements that assert their corporate power. High-density as opposed to high-rise is an agenda that better serves the public, rather than the private.
The last development plan, led by planners and management and often fronted by former Lord Mayor, Oisin Quinn, dramatically raised maximum heights for new commercial buildings – in the knowledge that, because of the economy, few would be built.
The new draft 2016 development plan for Dublin city will now allow eight storey apartment blocks – 24m, five metres taller than currently allowed in what are anomalously designated “low-rise” areas of the city. Frankfurt considers anything above 20m to be high-rise, for example. In Dublin moreover, nine areas have been designated as suitable for mid-rise buildings (up to 50m), and four, the Docklands, and George’s Quay, Connolly and Heuston can have high-rise buildings in excess of 50m.
Owen Keegan had wanted to allow apartment blocks up to 28m tall – the same height that is currently permitted for office blocks. The existing maximum apartment height is 19m, or six storeys.
Many councillors lined up to support him. Sinn Féin’s Seamas McGrattan said not raising the proposed heights of apartments “sends the wrong message from the city” and another short-termist betrayer of the left-wing-planning agenda, Labour’s Andrew Montague who chairs the council’s planning committee, pushed for a 28m limit. “We have to make a choice: do we want to have high rents, high inequality and high homelessness or are we going to do the best for the people we represent. Cities that have restrictions on height have high rents and high homelessness”.
For the longest time it had been a selling point of Labour that it took the long-term public interest on planning decisions, and refused scrupulously to be deflected by vested interests dressed up as employment or housing imperatives, which can be best addressed anyway by good planning. High density, infill in derelict sites and high-rise at public-transport nodes, including for new suburbs, are imperatives.
High-rise superimposed on an unyielding city core is a short-termist recipe for incoherence, ugliness and a developer-driven anti-planning agenda.
Several motions referred to low-rise heights being retained as the “traditional height of the city”, the “historic height of the city” or the height of “Georgian terraces”, which are approximately 14m tall.
Cieran Perry (Ind) said he didn’t know how anyone could consider nine storeys low-rise.
People before Profit councillor John Lyons said anyone who believes 28m was low rise had been “spending too much time out in the sun”.
However, McGrattan saw it differently: “I agreed 28m and I haven’t seen anything to change my mind. My clinic is full of people who need housing”.
In the end there was a compromise in the draft development plan which will shortly go on public display for comments.
Councillor David Costello of Fianna Fáil, keen not to be conservative, and determined to instill “charm” into the city, counsels: “Let’s be brave. Let’s see the response we get. Let’s put it out to public consultation”. And so, at 24m, they have.
By Michael Smith