Dún Laoghaire has never quite cut the umbilical cord that connects itself to Dublin City. Although it is the County Town from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown it has never quite come to terms with itself, and is constantly under pressure from the relentless expansion of Dublin City. This manifests itself in a frenzy of land rezoning every few years when the County Development plan comes up for renewal. The gradual expansion of the county to the south and west puts pressure on Dún Laoghaire to expand and compete with shopping centres and retail parks in Dundrum and Cherrywood. However if properly planned, Dún Laoghaire can hold its own and compete successfully as a vibrant east coast town.
Dún Laoghaire has a lot going for it. It has a magical location on the edge of Dublin Bay beside one of the largest harbours in the country. From many of its streets you can look across the Bay to Howth and the Irish Sea. The Stena ferry connects Dún Laoghaire to Wales and beyond. As a planner I believe it has many of the key components that make a successful mixed-use urban neighbourhood: the People’s Park and coastline are within walking distance; good public transport exists with the DART and bus routes running through the town; a mixture of housing and shops are side-by side with schools, pubs and churches within the town. The refurbished Royal Marine Hotel and the Pavilion Theatre attract many visitors, as does the Festival of World Cultures held every August. However, the town has its fair share of challenges, and action is required to ensure it does not get left behind.
At the height of the boom new residents were all but excluded from the town. High residential property prices meant that many residents’ sons and daughters had to move to Wicklow or Kildare rather than closer to home to find affordable housing. Hopefully the current slide in house prices will attract more young families to the town to sustain schools that have suffered from declining numbers over the last decade. However, Dún Laoghaire has an ageing demographic compared to the younger suburbs of Dublin, and there is an opportunity to provide more services to an active older population. More housing will support shops and other facilities, but it is crucial that such development is well planned. For instance the rezoning of the Dún Laoghaire Golf Club lands was highly controversial. People saw this as a loss of a green lung of the town and worry that the price of new homes will be unaffordable to many. People fear that the higher densities of new development will overlook and overshadow existing neighbourhoods. Better planning and architectural standards are required to overcome people’s very real concerns.
The retail heart of Dún Laoghaire has been challenged in recent years by the bling of the new Dundrum Shopping Centre. Perhaps as the economy changes gear, people will better appreciate the shops and businesses in Dún Laoghaire that did not succumb to the frenzy of the boom years. Some retailers need to pull up their socks, but there’s a healthy mix of shops in Dún Laoghaire.Dún Laoghaire Shopping Centre was refurbished recently yet still presents a brutal edge to the town. I’d be happy to see a controlled explosion on the site similar to the Ballymun Towers! It should be replaced it with a state-of-the-art mixed-use development.
Liverpool recently redeveloped part of its city centre with a park and pedestrian streets beside the Mersey. Dún Laoghaire could benefit from that city’s imagination. At the other end of Georges Street, removing a cluster of three buildings in front of Bloomfields Shopping Centre could create a wonderful urban square beside St Michael’s Hospital with space for outdoor cafes and a fountain. In recent months a decision was made to reopen Georges Street to car traffic. This is a backward step. Instead, a decent parking and traffic management plan would allow for a proper car-free area in the heart of the County Town. Successful businesses such as Hughes and Hughes bookshop, Alexis Restaurant and Harry’s bar and Grill have increased footfall. There are bold plans by the Council for a new Library overlooking the sea, and for covering part of the railway line with a new pedestrian promenade. Hopefully the Council will also develop the Dún Laoghaire Baths site as a modest development with a public pool, seaweed baths and a seaside café.
Dún Laoghaire has a bright future if it can strike the right balance: high density not highrise; smart growth not suburban sprawl and sustainable transport instead of more car dependency. I’m cautiously optimistic that it will build on its natural strengths as a seaside town of heritage and character, and reinvent itself for the twenty-first century.
Ciarán Cuffe is a town planner and Green Party TD for Dún Laoghaire.