In the Dublin high-rise debate, size matters less than quality
The deciding factor in any development should be the character it contributes to its place
Location, location, location: If a midrise building is appropriate for Ballymun why is it not for, say, Donnybrook?
With the recovering economy, and despite the potential fallout from Brexit, Dublin could be at a historic tipping point in its development. The city’s new development plan – to be debated by councillors next month – sets out a vision for the capital to be “one of Europe’s most sustainable, dynamic and resourceful city regions” – a beautiful, compact city, with a distinct character and socially inclusive neighbourhoods.
However, if successful, current lobbying to increase building heights in response to the shortages of residential and office accommodation in the city could have the opposite effect to the draft plan’s aspiration that the growth projected “takes place in a coherent sustainable manner”.
The large-scale Ordnance Survey plans of Dublin from 1847 depict the city as compact and contained, with a population of about 400,000. In the following century and a half it grew to more than a million. Now it stands at 1.3 million and is projected to increase by about 400,000 by 2031 – two-thirds of the State’s total projected growth for this period. This should all be positive – but the compact city illustrated in the 1847 maps is now circumscribed by low-density suburbia, extending from Drogheda to Gorey, and almost as far inland as Newbridge, Navan and Mullingar.
Today it is accepted that this type of sprawl is unsustainable economically, socially and environmentally. It increases the cost of providing infrastructure, services and amenities; the long-distance commuting it generates is bad for family and community life; and the private motoring on which it depends is a major contributor to our untenable carbon-dioxide emissions.
It is therefore self-evident that the challenge for Dublin in planning for the demographic and economic growth projected is accommodating this growth sustainably, in order to increase the city’s population without extending its urban footprint.
The draft plan’s distinction in building-height limits between the inner city and the suburbs will do the opposite: concentrate development pressure on the already dense historic core while curtailing intensification of the city’s low-density outer areas.
If Dublin is to achieve its ambition to be a beautiful and compact city the challenge is how to bring the two into some form of equilibrium, safeguarding the character and quality of the historic core while transforming the suburbs into higher-density urban neighbourhoods.
First, the special character and quality of the historic core – its built form, urban structure, public realm and building heights – should be protected and conserved. By defining low-rise (for offices) as anything up to 28m (92ft, or nine residential storeys) the plan is fraught with risks.
The calls for higher densities and greater building heights will have an irreversible impact on the city’s urban quality and its human scale, features that surely rank high on Dublin’s list of unique selling points in terms of its attractiveness as a place to live, work, shop, invest and visit.
It might be more appropriate to set a benchmark of, say, 18m – the height of Merrion and Fitzwilliam Squares – for offices and apartments alike. Developments would be allowed to extend above this “shoulder height” only when evidence showed that greater height and higher density – and design of the highest quality – would provide essential employment; provide essential retail space, residential accommodation, or both; and improve the character and quality of the public realm.
While accepting the correlation between height and density, my research into cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Barcelona, as well as housing designed by my own practice, demonstrates that heights of no more than six storeys can comfortably provide high-quality living environments at residential densities in the region of 130 homes per hectare. This is more than enough to support transport, shopping, education and leisure facilities in the locality.
Second, outside the inner city there is no logical reason why the heights allowed in the centre should not be permitted as a way to curtail sprawl and reconfigure the suburbs as more sustainable and higher-density places.
The four storeys envisaged in the draft plan will make apartment and office developments economically unviable in these locations. If a midrise building – that is, under 50m – is appropriate for Ballymun or Cherry Orchard, why is the same height or higher not allowed in, say, Donnybrook or Rathfarnham? What is important is to ensure that the development proposed is of the highest quality and that its height doesn’t harm adjoining properties or the receiving environment generally.
That said, it can be argued that all quantitative height standards, whether expressed in metres or storeys, should be replaced by qualitative criteria that assess development proposals in terms of how they will deliver “planning gain” for their locations.
Wherever the location, the deciding factor ought to be whether a development can contribute to improving the character and quality of its place. Those that don’t should not be permitted.
The task, therefore, is to reconfigure the Greater Dublin Area – from the low-density suburbia envisaged in Patrick Abercrombie’s 1922 plan, into a metropolitan area made up of sustainable neighbourhoods, or “urban villages”.
These urban villages must be compact, enabling residents to perform daily trips without a car. They must be diverse, combining residential with other buildings. They must be planned, focused on a civic, commercial and cultural core. They must be attractive, providing a high level of amenity and open space.
In addition, they must be legible, structured around a fine-grain street network. They must be high-density, capable of supporting local services, schools, shopping, leisure and transport. And they must be integrated, providing a mix of age, class, race and tenure. This is the challenge that members of the city council should address rather than arguing about whether height should be restricted to 24m, 28m or 50m.
With our recovering economy, and the city coming under increasing development pressure, this may be our last chance to get it right.
Paul Keogh is a founding partner of Paul Keogh Architects and a former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland