How to build a better Dublin

Sat, Nov 10, 2012, 00:00

Ireland needs a well-functioning capital city, but suburban sprawl, poor transport and weak administration are dragging Dublin down. A new series starting today examines ways to reinvent the capital

Dublin is the principal driver of the Irish economy, with such heavy hitters as Intel, IBM, Google and Facebook congregated in and around the city. The success of Ireland depends on Dublin’s success. Conversely, if Dublin fails, Ireland fails. That’s why it’s so important to put things right, even at this stage.

The importance of Dublin is underlined by the fact that more than half of the State’s 8,704 “active enterprises” in information and computing technology are concentrated in the capital, accounting for 46,365, or 63 per cent, of the 72,764 jobs it provides here. And that doesn’t include Cos Meath, Kildare and Wicklow, which are in the greater Dublin area.

As in Italy during the Renaissance, city regions are competing across national boundaries for inward investment and tourism. Given that Dublin is Ireland’s only large city region and the centre of public administration and cultural life, it ought to be able to take on cities of similar size, such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen.

Yet Dublin is not particularly well placed to capitalise on an economic recovery, whenever Ireland emerges from the recession. Compared with many other European capitals it scores poorly in several key areas, particularly traffic and transport; there is too much traffic and no effective or comprehensible public transport system.

If Dublin wants to be competitive, it must compete for the hearts and minds of Ireland’s citizens as well as those employed by the foreign investors it wishes to attract. Competition for inward investment is about more than finance, grants or 12.5 per cent corporate tax rates. People have to want to be here and to live here.

As a city to live in, Dublin has a lot going for it. Last November it was ranked 26th in the world by the Mercer Quality of Living survey of businesspeople. Vienna came out on top, followed by Zurich, Auckland, Munich, Düsseldorf and Vancouver.

Not so smart

But Dublin has shortcomings. An Economist Intelligence Unit survey, also published last November, ranked it 14th out of 33 European cities for shopping. Although it scored highly for affordable hotels, choice of shops and sales seasons, the city’s public transport “ranks low in terms of affordability and ties with Sofia for last place in terms of quality” – an embarrassing result.

Last year, to the surprise of many, Dublin was shortlisted for the title of World Design Capital for 2014, on the strength of an impressive bid. But the Montréal-based International Council of Societies of Industrial Design gave it instead to Cape Town, which will therefore have the chance to follow in the footsteps of Turin, Seoul and Helsinki.

Two years ago Dublin City Council announced a collaboration with IBM to make Dublin a Smarter City test bed. But apart from the belated introduction of integrated public-transport tickets, real-time passenger information at bus stops and the annual Innovation Dublin Week, there hasn’t been much sign of smartness on the ground.

Digital mapping and other technologies allow us to experience the city in new ways, whether that’s knowing traffic patterns, finding the nearest Dublinbikes station or discovering what restaurants are close by and whether tables are available. Free wifi was to be rolled out in city parks in September, but that’s as far as it goes.

And what of Dublin’s environmental sustainability? Given our excessive car dependency, as well as failures in waste management, water use, and air and noise pollution, it seems improbable that the city’s bid to become European Green Capital in 2015 will be successful. Stockholm won the title first, in 2010, followed by Hamburg in 2011, Vittoria, Nantes and, for 2014, Copenhagen.

Public transport has always been Dublin’s Achilles heel, since the old tram network was scrapped in 1949 on the basis that buses would be more flexible. That was true for a while, but over time the buses became snarled in traffic as the numbers of cars grew inexorably, and it wasn’t until 1981 that the first two bus lanes were introduced.

By then the bicycles that once filled the city’s streets were forgotten, the number of people cycling to work declined year after year and the authorities concentrated on building a vast road network that ultimately included the M50, the Dublin Port Tunnel and motorways to the capital from nearly every point on the compass.

In the boom years these new roads facilitated suburban sprawl, with bits of Dublin leapfrogging all over Leinster and even in parts of Ulster as a result of the unplanned surge of commuterland within a 100km radius of the city.

Getting to grips with the consequences has proven very problematic. Uncontrolled sprawl means far too many people are heavily reliant on their cars, even to go to a shop or drop children to school. Levels of obesity are rising, and neither cycling nor walking is a safe option on major roads, especially for children.

During the boom the dominant thesis among Dublin’s planners was that the city needed “iconic” high-rise buildings, to become like other cities. This was inspired by the notion of the American pop sociologist Richard Florida that cities must cater for a “creative class” of highly mobile young professionals rather than by any real understanding of Dublin.

Even though Google, Facebook and Microsoft – the type of companies that would employ “high bohemians”, in Florida’s term – were already here, the planners repeatedly approved high-rise schemes that would have changed the city’s skyline profoundly if they had been built. Most of these plans lie in tatters, including the U2 Tower at Britain Quay and Harry Crosbie’s Watchtower, as well as Seán Dunne’s scheme for a “diamond-cut” 37-storey tower on the Jurys Hotel site in Ballsbridge.

A reinforced high-rise cluster around George’s Quay and Tara Street, as envisaged in the current Dublin city development plan, has yet to materialise; the same goes for a plan to replace Hawkins House, the dilapidated 1960s horror occupied by the Department of Health, with a building more respectful of the surrounding streets.

Also pigeonholed for the moment are plans for two big shopping centres off O’Connell Street: Dublin Central, a huge scheme by Chartered Land on the Carlton cinema site that stretches westwards to Moore Street; and the Northern Quarter planned by Richard Nesbitt, the chairman of Arnotts, for a site extending eastwards from its department store.

Closing shops, shelving plans

The fragile state of retailing is a worry. Lower levels of consumer demand, combined with the Government’s refusal even to tweak standard upward-only rent reviews for fear of further offending pension funds, have led to the closure of numerous shops, most recently Kennedy McSharry on Nassau Street, and left many others on a knife-edge.

There’s very little to show for the Digital Hub that was supposed to bring new life to the area around Thomas Street. There, too, the plans by developers were so overblown that they even included a Manhattan-style high-rise cluster, with a 56-storey tower as its centrepiece. The credit crunch and property crash saw them all off.

Realisation of an ambitious local area plan for the Phibsborough area is also stalled because of the additional complication of uncertainty about whether ill-fated plans to build, on a remote site in north Co Dublin, a prison to replace Mountjoy will ever materialise. There was also the fiasco over the gargantuan children’s hospital at Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, now earmarked for Dublin 8.

Nothing much is likely to be built until the property market stabilises, of which there are only tentative signs. Much of the available landbank for development is now under the control of the National Asset Management Agency, which has been extremely opaque about its intentions.

Meanwhile, funding for heritage projects has almost dried up. Dublin City Council can provide only modest aid for just two deserving historic buildings each year. This is despite the parlous state of many protected structures, notably Aldborough House, the last of the city’s great Georgian mansions, and the former Hume Street cancer hospital.

Fáilte Ireland recently started promoting Merrion Square, but Dublin needs its own independent tourism organisation, as the economist Felim O’Rourke has cogently argued. How else can it compete with the likes of Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Lisbon, Lyons and Vienna? Dublin is clearly losing out.

Tourism potential

Lyons might play second fiddle to Paris, but it has a highly successful tourism and convention bureau that involves the public and private sectors. With a clever, insouciant slogan, “Only Lyons”, it works to promote not only tourism but also the city’s academic and economic attractions, marketing them in Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, London, Milan and elsewhere.

Not only is Fáilte Ireland’s brief too wide, it still focuses on traditional markets: Britain, the US and some European countries. Without direct access by air it can’t do much to sell Dublin in Brazil or China, but it could be doing much more to promote English-language schools here for Brazilian and Chinese students.

Throughout the peak tourist season here, as the artist Robert Ballagh has noted, Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane was half-closed, the National Gallery was two-thirds closed, and Imma and the Abbey Theatre were closed for renovations. The Joyce tower in Sandycove was also closed because of lack of funding, at least until volunteers took over running it.

Resilience in recession

The lack of joined-up thinking is aptly illustrated by the juxtaposition of Dublin City Council’s very elaborate repaving of what’s left of Palace Street, in front of Dublin Castle, and the fact that, once inside the gates, visitors must negotiate their way through the Revenue Commissioners’ vast surface car park in the lower castle yard to get to the chapel royal.

A key selling point in postboom Ireland, the perception abroad that Dublin offers good value for city breaks, is in danger of being undermined by greedy hoteliers. Hotel room rates rose by nearly 8 per cent over the previous 12 months, which is well ahead of the annual rate of inflation.

But, despite the recession, Dublin remains a vibrant city, its central area full of life during the day and at night. Visitors are amazed by the indomitable spirit of its citizens, even in an era of austerity – so far, at least. Their sense of  humour, as exemplified by Ajai Chopra, of the IMF, being greeted with a cheery “Hello, Chopper”, sums it up.

Dublin is also blessed by its temperate climate, maritime location, cultural diversity, well-educated workforce, comparatively low crime rate, proximity to still relatively wild mountains to the south and accessibility from all parts of Ireland.

But it’s not clear that all of these are being packaged as a sales pitch for the city in the cut-throat competitive global environment.

And despite the ravages of the recession, we can be thankful that the swagger of the boom years has gone. Chastened by the bust, “Dublin has reverted to being a nice place where there’s still a lot going on,” as the architect Alfred Cochrane notes.

We’ve also managed to maintain much of the city’s fabric and prevent it turning into something like Pittsburgh, randomly peppered with skyscrapers.

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