How to build a better Dublin
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.
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.