Frank McDonald’s future Dublin: Prepare for floods. Lose the ugly bridge. Dig an underground

In an extract from his new book, our former environment editor lays out his vision for Dublin

Prepare for floods

Although estate agents selling desirable period homes in Clontarf or Sandymount may not wish to acknowledge it, one overwhelming fact that must be faced is that Dublin’s coastal location leaves the city vulnerable to rising sea levels as a result of climate change.

The mean sea level in Dublin Bay has risen by 120mm since 2000, or 7mm a year, which is double the global average. Dublin City Council was working on the assumption that sea level in the bay would rise 500mm – 50cm – over the next 50 years and that new flood defences "should cover us" for that extended period. But the alarming rate of Arctic melting suggests that it may not.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with thousands of scientists worldwide contributing to its work, has projected that sea levels will rise by at least 900mm and possibly as much as 2,000mm – 2 metres – between now and 2100.

The drive for coastal protection in Dublin is not universally welcomed, even by those living on the frontline

As a coastal city, Dublin is on the danger list. A summary of scientific research compiled by the State-sponsored Discovery Programme shows that Dublin Bay is "highly vulnerable to marine inundation" and that virtually the entire coast from Rush, in north Co Dublin, to Bray, in Co Wicklow, could be affected by sea-level rise.


If the IPCC’s most pessimistic projection turns out to be accurate, the impacts would be catastrophic – without much stronger protection measures.

“The heavily developed area around Dublin Bay is vulnerable, especially from easterly winds and storm surges, which may result in structural damage and flooding”, according to a summary of scientific evidence by the Discovery Programme, which put the city centre itself in the “major risk” zone.

In a worst-case scenario, based on an extrapolation of geological data and the IPCC’s projections, Howth, at the northern tip of Dublin Bay, could become an island (with Sutton wiped off the map) and Baldoyle a peninsula, while Bull Island could almost entirely disappear. The Dart line between Merrion Gates and Monkstown, in south Dublin, has already been hit by periodic flooding, and a 2015 report for Iarnród Éireann concluded that its currently minimal coastal defences need to be upgraded.

If the capital is to be futureproofed, one of the ways to do it would involve constructing substantial marine booms in Dublin Bay to deflect storm surges, as proposed by a consultancy study several years ago.

At the time Dublin City Council downplayed this idea, saying the consultants involved had assumed a sea-level rise of 1.5 metres to 3 metres, “which on current evidence should not occur in the near future”. In preparing the planning scheme for Poolbeg West, however, the council’s planners had a strategic flood-risk assessment carried out and then specified that all future development in the area “shall be capable of withstanding a two-metre rise in sea level from 2017 average sea levels” – significantly more than earlier estimates.

Twenty years ago the Dublin architect Michael Collins put forward an imaginative proposal for an uninterrupted coastal cycleway and promenade from Sutton in the north to Sandycove in the south, aka S2S. Since then, much of the route has been realised, particularly on the north side of the bay, but there has been little or no progress on the south side, with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council recently proposing to delete its commitment to S2S from the county plan, replacing it with an inland “trail” on existing roads.

The cycling and walking route could be provided on a new embankment running along the coast of Dublin Bay, even on Sandymount Strand, doubling up as a defence against rising sea levels.

The drive for coastal protection is not universally welcomed, even by those living on the frontline. In Clontarf, pressure from outraged residents seeking to protect views of the bay actually led to a long stretch of a newly built wall being reduced in height by 300mm. There might have been considerably less controversy if Dublin City Council had opted for a toughened-glass sea wall, pioneered by Waterford City Council to protect its quays against storm surges.

Similarly, the flood defences along City Quay, on the Liffey in central Dublin, should have consisted of a granite quay wall at the river’s edge – in the long-established Dublin tradition – rather than threading it through the double line of trees on its campshire, along with demountable flood gates.

Shift the port

Inevitably, the future of Dublin Port must also be in the frame. It occupies a land area of about 240 hectares (600 acres), mostly on the north side of the River Liffey, which would become available for urban development if the port were to relocate to Bremore, just north of Balbriggan.

In December 2020 Drogheda Port Company announced plans to develop a deep-water port at Bremore Head, with Ronan Group Real Estate as its partners, capitalising on its close proximity to the M1 motorway. With Dublin Port expected to reach maximum capacity sometime between 2030 and 2040, the provision of additional port facilities on the east coast – whether at Bremore, Drogheda, Arklow or Rosslare – is clearly needed to supplement it.

Moving Dublin Port in its entirety would cost more than ¤8 billion and could only be realised with significant State support whereas a supplementary port at Bremore would cost about half of that figure, according to the port company's chief executive, Eamonn O'Reilly, who pointed out that it was already planning to double the existing port's capacity to deal with 77 million tonnes of freight a year by 2040.

If Dublin Port is to be relocated to Bremore in the longer term, the way would then be open to creating a new urban quarter on the port lands

“We need to plan for how, when and where additional port capacity might be provided on the east coast of Ireland by 2040,” he said. “We know from experience that 20 years is a relatively short period in the context of delivering large-scale infrastructure projects, let alone a once-in-200-years megaproject.”

If Dublin Port is to be relocated to Bremore in the longer term, the way would then be open to creating a new urban quarter on the port lands – perhaps not quite so ambitious as the Manhattan-style metropolis envisaged by the Progressive Democrats in 2005 but, rather, taking its inspiration from European cities, such as Helsinki, that have done all of this already.

Either way, given its frontline location jutting into Dublin Bay, the area would have to be protected from rising sea levels. Sadly, Dublin Port Company’s plans to relocate its cruise-ship terminal from the relatively remote Alexandra Basin to a more urban site near the East Link Bridge had to be abandoned for a variety of well-considered reasons.

But O’Reilly is determined to change the relationship between the city and the port by softening the hard edge of heavily trafficked East Wall Road, where Port Centre is located. A renovated 1950s Stothert & Pitt crane, painted light blue and riddled with holes for architectural impact, now rises above what looks like the rusty hulk of an upturned sunken ship. Designed by the architect Tim Darmody, the prerusted Corten-steel panels are boldly etched with Dublin Port’s name while new Corten gates open to reveal a plaza in front of the port’s headquarters, featuring a re-creation in chromed steel of Ballast Office’s old Time Ball that reflects the six-storey building, and a walled “maritime garden” to the south.

The port’s latest plan is even more ambitious and aims finally to “cut the Gordian knot of the complex challenge to open up Dublin Port to Dubliners”, as O’Reilly put it.

The Barcelona-inspired Liffey-Tolka Project will transform East Wall Road into a tree-lined boulevard, with a 12 metre-wide promenade on its eastern side “offering a safe pleasurable landscaped space for people to walk or cycle”, according to Shelley McNamara, of Grafton Architects. “This new ribbon of space, bridging over Promenade Road, will connect the East Coast Trail and Dublin Port’s Tolka Estuary Greenway to the Liffey, terminating in a sunny public space on the water’s edge” – to be called North Wall Square.

Build a barrage

The idea of erecting a Liffey barrage, which has been kicking around for nearly half a century, might also be pursued. First proposed in Technology Ireland in 1975 by the civil engineer Conn Sheehan, it would retain the river at a constant level, just like Belfast’s Lagan Weir does.

The proposal never received a fair hearing and was rejected by Dublin Corporation, as the council used to be know, on the basis of specious arguments advanced in an unsigned “feasibility study” by the ESB, according to the late Ray Fay, a city councillor who supported the idea against “obdurate” opposition from corporation officials. One of its principal benefits would be to enable the provision of water-bus services on the Liffey, plying between Heuston Station and Docklands.

Repopulate the centre

The boat that really needs to be pushed out is to repopulate the inner city. In 1926 nearly 269,000 people lived in the egg-shaped area between the Grand and Royal canals, and they accounted for 85 per cent of the city’s population then. Over succeeding decades, the inner city’s population declined relentlessly in census after census, reaching a rock-bottom figure of just over 84,000 in 1991.

But as more and more people were attracted by the idea of city living, the population of Dublin’s urban core increased to 112,000 in 2001 and continued rising to almost 136,000 in 2011. This historic shift needs to be built on and reinforced, rather than left to wither hopelessly on the urban vine.

The most obvious place to start in making room for more residential in the city centre would involve converting the often-vacant upper floors of retail buildings into apartments. But although living over the shop has been an urban-planning mantra for years, there is not much to show for it – primarily due to overly stringent building regulations, particularly fire safety and universal access.

If tax incentives were provided to return Georgian Dublin to residential use, we would be within reach of achieving the 15-minute city

No 1 Capel Street has been restored to provide three apartments – albeit for tourist short lets – above two retail units on the ground floor. Similarly, a derelict house on Henrietta Street was rescued from ruin and turned into seven luxurious apartments – the Henrietta Suites – here again aimed at the short-let market.

The restoration by Dublin Civic Trust of a merchant's house at 18 Ormond Quay Upper is an inspiring example of what can be achieved when historic buildings end up in the right hands. Dating from 1843, with an older house from the 1760s to the rear, it won a Europa Nostra award in 2021. "The project was undertaken specifically to be a model for others, showing that the heritage of buildings common to Dublin has value and contributes to a more sustainable development of the city," as the jury noted. "Meticulous research was carried out with significant efforts made to ensure a conservation-restoration that was consistent with the original values of the building and to conserve as much of the remaining details as possible."

Generations of Dubliners lived in such buildings, just as they lived in the grand Georgian houses on Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square. Yet with relatively few exceptions, most of these are now in use as offices, with their rear gardens paved for car parking – unlike Edinburgh’s 18th-century New Town, where the housing stock is still largely residential.

The Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green Party programme for government, Our Shared Future, pledged to introduce a new scheme to “expand and build on” the Living City Initiative, targeted at regenerating historic areas. If tax incentives were provided to return Georgian Dublin to residential use, we would be within reach of achieving the “15-minute city”.

Clarendon Properties, owned by Paddy McKillen and Tony Leonard, showed what could be done by installing eight large luxury apartments above the H&M store on College Green in 2015. Nobody had ever lived in the former Hibernian Bank building, but Clarendon took the view that it would be wasted as offices. “We wanted to do something that would show what you could do with the upper floors of retail buildings in the city centre,” Leonard said at the time.

The spacious two-bedroom apartments, renting for €3,000 a month, were targeted at the new breed of executives employed by Google and other tech multinationals who prefer city living – especially with grandstand views of the historic core.

Lower high-rises

We also need to stop confusing proposals for high-rise buildings, which can be highly controversial, with a drive for greater urban density, on which there is general agreement.

“We can get high densities without great height, just as so many European cities have achieved for decades. And it is not as if there is any shortage of land – Dublin is not Hong Kong,” says Dublin Port Company’s Eamonn O’Reilly. “What we need are developments that deliver homes, communities and places to work and recreate in with a reasonably high residential density – far more than the 27 units per hectare in the outer suburbs, but not necessarily at the maximum level of 238 units per hectare in Poolbeg West.”

Orla Hegarty, assistant professor at University College Dublin's school of architecture, has pointed out repeatedly that high-rise residential towers are much more expensive to build, per square metre, due to the need for more lifts and extra fire-safety precautions, such as sprinkler systems and secondary staircases.

Fire risks are real, as shown by London's Grenfell Tower inferno in June 2017, when 72 residents died, yet Dublin Fire Brigade is simply not equipped to deal with fires in high-rise buildings

Apartment blocks of five to eight storeys are much more economical to develop while also retaining Dublin’s human scale, which has long been recognised as one of the city’s defining features. Thus the rush to develop random high-rise buildings in areas not specifically designated for such developments in the city plan should be resisted, and the mandatory guidelines on building heights should be repealed.

Fire risks are real, as shown by London's Grenfell Tower inferno in June 2017, when 72 residents died, yet Dublin Fire Brigade is simply not equipped to deal with fires in high-rise buildings. Its tallest ladders have a reach of 33 metres, which would only be adequate to rescue people from buildings of up to 10 storeys. "Anything above that would be classified as a tall building and is outside our comfort zone," the firefighter John Mahon, a Siptu committee member, told the Dublin Inquirer in August 2021. At present the fire brigade has only three 33-metre "aerial appliances" with baskets on top that people could climb into in the event of a conflagration. Training to deal with high-rise buildings is also deficient.

Housing solutions

The housing crisis in Dublin is essentially a crisis of affordability, and it will certainly not be solved by building more high-rise build-to-rent money trees. Quite the reverse, in fact. Current Government policies that favour developers and investment funds have resulted in the betrayal of an entire generation, with only 12 per cent of young people in their 20s and 30s owning the homes they live in. As a result, Generation Rent will almost certainly exact their revenge on Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil by voting for parties such as Sinn Féin at the next general election.

As Dr Rory Hearne has noted, the current housing emergency “has been caused by wider government policy from 2010 onwards to encourage the entry of global investors and vulture funds (via various tax incentives, lobbying and fire sale of assets) into Ireland in order to offload toxic loans from Nama and the banks.

“Rising house prices and rents post-2013 were viewed positively and were promoted as an enticement to investors, while rising prices and rents were also viewed positively for rehabilitating the balance sheets of the banks, a core aim of all policy post-2008. The impact on the housing system was not considered an issue, despite myself and others highlighting the potential problems.”

"Our objective as a nation should be to ensure that everyone who wants a permanent home should have one," the businessman and financier Dermot Desmond wrote.

In October 2018, Desmond noted, the government announced the formation of the Land Development Agency with €1.25 billion of permanent capital and a target to develop 150,000 houses over the 20-year period to 2040. "The LDA could be an important intervention though arguably not sufficiently ambitious in terms of social objective, [as it] is subject to a government policy that all public land disposals must deliver a return for the taxpayer, rather than affordability for the residents." But given that the Government can borrow long-term money at an interest rate of only 0.1 per cent, he suggested that it should make an additional €4 billion available through the LDA to fund local-authority housing needs.

Desmond’s call was reinforced in June 2021 by the Economic and Social Research Institute, in a report that urged the Government to borrow money in a “sustained and prudent manner” to fund the provision of more social and affordable housing. Otherwise, it warned, Ireland “will fall significantly short of meeting the level of demand for accommodation [and] risks experiencing another decade of inadequate housing supply and resulting upward pressure on residential prices and rents”.

If this challenge is to be met exclusively by the LDA, however, it would effectively strip local authorities of their housing functions, thereby centralising an already highly centralised State even further.

The lack of real power at local level was underlined by the revelation that Dublin City Council had sought to acquire the 15-hectare (37-acre) Irish Glass Bottle Company site in Poolbeg West from Nama in 2019 at a substantial discount on its market value but was blocked by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Had the council been able to borrow the money for this strategic acquisition, it would then have been in a position to provide social and affordable housing in the area.

But no local authority is permitted to borrow substantial funds without the department’s approval, so Nama agreed to sell an 80 per cent stake in the Glass Bottle site to Ronan Group Real Estate and the US investor Oaktree for €200 million.

Say no to data centres

Dublin’s water supplies are already on a knife edge, with just about enough to meet demand. With the city’s population projected to increase by up to 400,000 over the next 20 years, Irish Water plc is planning to abstract 330 million litres of water a day from the River Shannon, downstream from Lough Derg, and pipe it 170km across the Midlands to a reservoir at Peamount, in west Co Dublin.

Naturally, this audacious scheme has generated a great deal of opposition from those who fear it would “drain the Shannon”, including Zurich-based lawyer and investment analyst Emma Kennedy. She has argued that widespread leaks in Dublin’s distribution network should be fixed first, before Irish Water proceeds with its Shannon scheme.

Equally alarming was the news that EirGrid, which operates the national electricity supply network, is planning to provide emergency generators in Dublin to ensure that the city doesn't run out of power. As The Irish Times reported, electricity demand "has grown sharply in recent years with economic growth and a big rise in energy demand from power-hungry data centres".

We need to get our heads around the little-understood concept of a circular economy, which aims to minimise the world's wanton waste of resources

Although the Government has been rolling out the red carpet for these big tech installations, even though they consume vast quantities of electricity, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities has warned that “consumers were facing rolling blackouts” if the current system of permitting data centres to connect to the grid was not changed.

We will also need to get our heads around the little-understood concept of a “circular economy”, which aims to minimise the world’s wanton waste of resources to the greatest possible extent.

"Our relationship with products and services will be unrecognisable in 10 years," according to Dr Sarah Miller, chief executive of the Rediscovery Centrein Ballymun, in north Dublin. "The very definition of 'consumer' will be a thing of the past." Disposable plastic packaging would disappear, second-hand clothing would replace fast fashion and "stores will be used for resale, repair, rental, refill and material recovery for products, food and technology", she told The Irish Times. And all of this is to be teased out in legislation, supported by the European Union.

Go underground

On the transport front, more joined-up thinking is urgently required. If there is to be a new high-speed rail line between Belfast, Dublin and Cork, it must surely be routed via Dublin Airport. Not only would this cater for about a million Northern Ireland residents using the airport (before Covid-19 struck), it would also free up the existing coastal railway line south of Drogheda for commuter services.

And if a high-speed rail line were to be routed through Swords and Dublin Airport, running into the city centre underground and then onwards to Cork, where would that leave MetroLink, the proposed metro line? Clearly, it would make little sense to have two rail lines serving the airport, so a strategic choice needs to be made now.

The most strategic public transport in Dublin is not MetroLink but Dart Underground – the on-again-off-again project to transform disparate commuter-rail services into a coherent network, with an underground line running from Heuston to Spencer Dock via Wood Quay, St Stephen’s Green and Pearse Station, on Westland Row.

In the meantime, journey times on the existing Dart line could be improved if trains didn’t linger so long at stations and instead limited door opening and closing times to intervals of 15 to 20 seconds, as on the Paris Métro. Nobody using the existing service, which must be one of the slowest in Europe, would imagine that trains have a top speed of 100km/h.

Serious consideration must be given to removing the Loopline bridge, described by the broadcaster Joe Duffy as a “hideous monstrosity [that] divides the riverscape in two”. It not only cuts off the Custom House and everything else downriver, as seen from the Ha’penny Bridge, but also visually eliminates Dublin’s connection with the bay, leaving the plague of seagulls in the city as our only reminder of its maritime location.

The case for putting the railway line in a tunnel is overwhelming, and bound to happen sooner or later, so why don't we get on with it? James Joyce pithily characterised Dublin as "the centre of paralysis" more than 100 years ago, and sadly that's still true of transport planning for the city.

Ireland’s population is expected to grow by more than a million, to 5.7 million, by 2040, and this will drive greater demand for transport, which already accounts for about 20 per cent of the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions. “Furthermore, air pollution emitted from transportation contributes to poor local air quality in the form of increased microparticulates and nitrogen oxides, which reduces people’s quality of life and harms their health,” as the government’s 2019 climate action plan noted. “These issues cannot be ignored and provide further impetus for addressing the challenge in this sector.” Indeed, EU air-pollution limits were being repeatedly breached on heavily trafficked Pearse Street prior to the pandemic.

The climate action plan’s magic “solution” was to set a target of having 840,000 electric cars on the road by 2030, plus 95,000 electric goods vehicles and 1,200 “low emission” buses. Whether this target will be achieved is anyone’s guess. With more than two million cars registered in Ireland, the phasing out of diesel or petrol vehicles would obviously reduce air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions from transport, but it would do nothing to relieve congestion in the city.

A Little History of the Future of Dublin, by Frank McDonald, is published by Martello