The people need to be kept in mind as the future of Dublin is planned
The city does not belong to Dublin City Council or to developers: it belongs to the people who live in it
Part of Dublin’s north docklands. “Dublin City Council recently approved the SDZ scheme, the friendly-sounding ‘strategic development zone’ plan for the docklands . . . If the SDZ scheme is totally approved, the council would have the power to approve planning decisions that couldn’t be appealed to An Bord Pleanála.” Photograph: David Sleator
Twenty-four years and two days ago, on November 9th, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. It would be a while before it was physically destroyed, but that day, East Germans climbed the wall into the West. Walking around Berlin on Saturday on that anniversary, I never physically bumped into or brushed against anyone. That might be a strange thing to notice, but there are no crowds. It’s an underpopulated city relative to its size, with double Germany’s national unemployment rate. There’s a well-placed smugness about how the city’s creative industries generate 20 per cent of its economy. It’s cheap, young (a quarter of the population is under 25), liberal, permissive, and about 60 per cent of the population have no stated religion. It shouldn’t work, but it does. If you wanted to paint broad brushstrokes about how the modern city became what it is, you could say it has developed “organically”, which would be a very Berlin thing to say.
Dublin City Council recently approved the SDZ scheme, the friendly-sounding “strategic development zone” plan for the docklands. The reason the council is now king in the docklands is due to the Dublin Docklands Development Authority being wound up. So what does SDZ mean? A total of 66 hectares of riverside land have been designated for development. If the SDZ scheme is totally approved, the council would have the power to approve planning decisions that couldn’t be appealed to An Bord Pleanála.
This isn’t small-time development. Some 22 hectares of the 66 are vacant. There is a possibility for 2,600 new homes to be built and up to 350sq m of commercial space. Structures 50 per cent taller than Dublin’s tallest building could also be proposed, with two areas being chosen for the potential construction of a 22-storey building. So council planners – unelected officials – will no longer be stalled by the planning board down the docks. Does that sound like a good idea? I don’t know.
The council and those pitching to it are great at publishing aspirational plans about the future of the capital city. This week, the 21st Century Liffey Project will be presented to the council, a pedestrian and cyclist-focused plan heralding the potential for civic plazas at O’Connell Bridge and the Custom House.
It’s a nice idea, but I’ve lost count of the number of digitally created images of Future Dublin I’ve seen. If I had a tenner for every document waxing on about civic plazas and town squares and boulevards of dreams that never come true, I could probably build them myself (preferably in the docklands where An Bord Pleanála couldn’t get in the way.) It’s amazing to be aspirational about what a city should be. But how often are those aspirations actually followed through?
Developing the docklands further is an interesting one. Arguably, the only successful neighbourhood that popped up during the boom was Grand Canal Dock. Architecturally, a lot of it is stunning, which means even when buildings lay vacant, like the building the Marker Hotel now inhabits, they didn’t feel like eyesores.
The most interesting building in Grand Canal Dock is not the Daniel Libeskind-designed and Bord Gáis-sponsored Grand Canal Theatre. Nor is it Google’s towering black office block that looks like a hard drive from an early 1990s hacker film. And it’s not the slim and sleek Alto Vetro. It’s an old Raleigh bike factory near Windmill Lane called Mabos, a multipurpose art venue, which Dublin City Council and the various agents who see problems, not possibilities, when it comes to new spaces in the city created through repurposing old buildings, have been hovering over disapprovingly for some time now.
One of the great tragedies of urban development during the boom was how many horrible buildings were lashed up for quick profit, as planning applications were thrown in the air like dollar bills from a rapper’s paw at a strip club. Dublin’s own unique docklands architecture, a lot of which was understated and beautiful, was bulldozed in favour of anonymous, ugly apartment blocks, flashing their steel and glass. They might as well be made of smoke and mirrors.
Development is not just about flattening the old and plonking in the new. Development also happens at a citizen level. Citizens develop spaces, and should be as encouraged and facilitated as so called “real” developers. Granby Park, Seomra Spraoi, the Chocolate Factory, Fumbally Exchange, South Studios, Mabos, Block T, Steambox, the Joinery, and other cultural community developments add much to the city’s cultural life – some with council support, some with opposition, many deliberately operating under the radar. If the local authority really wants to be aspirational, it would do well to supporting the very things that mirror its aspirations.
There are some fantastic minds in Dublin City Council, and some interesting architectural and development plans are being piloted. But the city does not belong to the local authority or to developers: it belongs to the people who live in it. And their desires, needs and aspirations should be prioritised. Because it’s not about what kind of city we want to build. It’s about what kind of city we want to live in.