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Vertical Sprawl

Obfuscating high-rise with high density serves only deregulatory market-driven ideology

by Gavin Daly

Rule #101 of the neoliberal playbook – when faced with a housing supply crisis, attack the planning system! It has been thus at leasgt since Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s bouffant environment secretary in the 1980s, launched his famous broadside against the “jobs locked up in the dusty filing cabinets of planning departments”.

Of course, it matters little that there is zero evidence that the planning system is actually stifling supply – the ideology demands that planning regulation must remain firmly in the crosshairs. As planning academic Michael Gunder puts it – “planning is the chief remaining scapegoat of neoliberal governance”, a convenient patsy for contemporary political failures.

Housing and planning Minister Eoghan Murphy’s latest wheeze in this anti-planning crusade is a draft diktat to all planning authorities to overrule, what he sees as the overly restrictive maximum building height caps in our towns and cities. Ostensibly justified on grounds of sustainable densification, a presumption in favour of increased buildings heights will now become a mandatory policy requirement in all urban development plans. It is hard to fathom how high-rise development, an entirely niche issue in the context of a very serious housing crisis, has come to dominate public discourse about city planning. Certainly, it has become a lighting-rod for those who see planning regulation as the chief villain and bugbear in impeding housing supply, and development more generally. Influential commentators throughout the mediascape, cheered on by business lobbies and rightwing YIMBY Twitterati, fulminate that we must go “Up!Up!Up!”. Quizzical voices, on the other hand, are traduced as anti-progress, NIMBY, luddites for having the temerity to condemn an entire generation to overpriced homes and endless commutes.

It has, of course, long been documented that, contrary to common myth, a simplistic correlation between highrise and high-density is entirely misguided. It goes without saying that some of the tallest cities in the world are also, characteristically, the most sprawling. Indeed, Minister Murphy’s own cost modelling, published just last April, identifies building heights of up to six storeys as being optimal from a viability, density and affordability perspective. Above six storeys, building costs spiral exponentially, due to increased fire safety and other structural requirements. This is entirely counterproductive when the delivery of affordable homes for the estimated 100,000 people who languish on housing lists and the 10,000 homeless is the objective.

A mid-rise urban form of six to eight storeys also accords with all international best-practice principles for the creation of high-density, high-quality, transit-oriented, ‘liveable’ and equitable urban spaces, as in oft-cited archetypes Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Barcelona. Indeed it also conforms with long-standing Irish planning guidelines and policies, such as the sustainable urban development guidelines introduced by Government in 2009. Dublin City Council has been debating this issue for nigh on two decades now, which has culminated in a general consensus for a building-height cap of eight storeys with some select locations designated as potentially suitable for higher rise development.

So given that this debate has long been settled and the widespread acknowledgement that high-rise towers would make no meaningful contribution whatsoever to general housing affordability or urban density, why then is there a need for this latest edict from the Minister? Why does such an inconsequential fringe issue merit such an intervention and continue to enjoy such a prominent position in public debate? Cui bono? The answer, of course, lies in the hidden rationalities of a resurgent deregulatory ‘let the market rip’ urban growth machine politics and a planning system incessantly targeted by short-term profit-seeking masquerading as a supposed green shift to smart, sustainable urbanism. True to form, where its interests dictate, propertied power implicitly sets the terms of public discourse.

Professor Brendan Gleeson of the University of Melbourne describes this global phenomenon as “vertical sprawl” driven by coalitions of property developers, agents and other rentiers seeking to maximise their yields from high-value land. Barely ten years after the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, where poor planning regulation was rightly fingered as a key contributor to financial ruin, we are again witnessing the creeping recrudescence of a discredited deregulatory ideology. It is little wonder that, following his umpteenth failure to secure planning permission for a high-rise tower in Dublin city centre, charlatan urbanist, Johnny Ronan, has publicly stated his intention to try once again. No doubt his dogged perseverance will one day pay off.

Of course, it was Ireland’s original rightist ideologues, the Progressive Democrats, who were the progenitors for proposals to Manhattanise Dublin city centre with their ‘A New Heart for the City’ proposal for a gleaming, gentrified enclave of chrome and glass skyscrapers in the docklands, first mooted back in 2006 just before the economic implosion. Indeed, it was Ronan’s, now bankrupt, Treasury Holdings which was to the fore in ceaseless boom-time efforts (which haven’t gone away, you know) to relocate Dublin Port in order to clone a new sterile high-rise downtown.

Throughout the western world, these phallic citadels of global financial capitalism exclusively target the corporate elite and the Frappuccinosipping affluent, creative classes. It is with no hint of irony that all the recent exemplars of tall buildings triumphantly depicted in Minister Murphy’s proposed guidelines as architectural prototypes, such as the loftily christened ‘Millennium Tower, ‘Elysium’, and ‘Capital Dock’, exclusively provide for upmarket corporate offices, hotels and highend condos. As DIT housing lecturer Lorcan Sirr coins it: “High rise is for high rollers”. This in the midst of an ongoing social housing calamity.

That is why this debate really matters. The real rationality behind persistent clamours to lift building height restrictions lies not in specious claims of a supposedly green shift to intensified, highdensity compact urban forms or easing housing supply bottlenecks, but is synoptic of the battle for the type of cities we wish to create. Deliberately obfuscating high-rise with high density is a clever ruse which belies the deregulatory marketdriven ideology that underpins it, and serves only as an object to co-opt and deflect critique.

What the international evidence demonstrably shows is that, there may, in some contexts, be good reasons to build higher, but environmental sustainability, affordable housing and urban densification are not among them. High-rise buildings are voraciously energy and resource intensive, and are simply unaffordable to most.

We have the templates to produce high-quality, sustainable and just urban spaces for people to live in; and publicly subsidised, mid-rise, mediumdensity development always comes out on top. Regrettably, we have consistently ignored this model in favour of poorly conceived, low-rise, cardependent monotonous sprawl. True to form, these past blunders, driven by the self-same property developers, are now being opportunistically leveraged as justification to revalorise urban cores for profit-driven high-rise development.