How to build a better Dublin
Ten ways to make Dublin a better capital city for Ireland, including Reclaim the Liffey, elect a mayor, borrow books in the bank, cycle from Sutton to Sandymount, spend a penny without spending a penny, and plan your journey
1 Create a science museum in the Docklands
A 32-storey residential tower once planned for a site near Heuston Station was to be flanked by Exploration Station, the State’s first interactive science and discovery centre. It was to be a “world-class facility” for children, adults, teachers and families, on a par with W5 in Belfast, but has since vanished from the radar.
Although Trinity College has since opened its Science Gallery on Pearse Street, this is is used only for temporary exhibitions. Yet an ideal space is available for Exploration Station: Stack A, in Custom House Docks. Renovated at a cost of €45 million, it is now a ghost shopping mall known as CHQ and urgently needs a new people-pulling use.
2 Elect a city boss
Dublin accounts for 40 per cent of the population, but nobody speaks for the city in the way Michael Bloomberg does for New York and Boris Johnson for London. Civic governance is incredibly weak, with an array of public bodies, from Dublin Port Company to the National Transport Authority, exercising power in the city. Any chance of metropolitan cohesion was squandered when Dublin was carved up arbitrarily between four local authorities in 1994.
Dublin City Council is beholden to the Department of the Environment and, apart from revenue from commercial rates, must seek approval from a broke central Government beholden to its troika creditors for every cent it spends on capital projects. Plans for a directly elected mayor of Dublin, with executive power, have been put on the long finger, with talk of a possible plebiscite in 2014. Such a mayor, backed by a metropolitan council, could really change things.
3 Move the central library to College Green
There’s an unrivalled opportunity to rescue Dublin’s Central Library from the upper level of the Ilac shopping centre and place it on the city’s most important public space: College Green.
The Central Bank is due to relocate to Anglo Irish Bank’s unfinished headquarters at North Wall Quay by 2015, leaving its iconic building on Dame Street vacant. So why not do a swap with Bank of Ireland: it gets the Central Bank building and the people get the old houses of parliament?
The neoclassical banking hall, with its high windows, would make a fine reading room, and there would be plenty of room in the vaults for book storage. It might even be possible to relocate Dublin Writers’ Museum from Parnell Square to the old central bank, on Foster Place, which is currently a waxwork museum.
The State can’t force Bank of Ireland to return the old parliament, to which the bank feels a strong historical connection: only public pressure offers any hope of changing its stance. And with the plan to run the Luas through College Green, there’s an opportunity to reorder the space, transforming it from a traffic thoroughfare into a European-style piazza.
4 Promote a simple, sensible transport map
A simplified map of Dublin’s transport network, including frequent bus routes as well as Luas, Dart and suburban rail service has been compiled by a DIT graduate, Colin Broderick, who works for Eirgrid. Frustrated that the transport providers were “unable to produce clean, useful network maps”, he produced his own integrated transport map for the city.
The idea behind Broderick’s map is to provide public-transport users with the basic information they need to get around Dublin and to “visualise transport in the city as a network where there is a possibility to interchange between services”.
His version does not include every route. The benchmark for including bus services on the map was that they must operate on a minimum 15-minute frequency, “so that you can just turn up at a stop on the route without much need to consult the timetable”.
Broderick’s goal is that his map will become the official transport map for Dublin city. It is available at his website for €5.
5 Reclaim the river
The Tall Ships Race in August reminded us all that Dublin is a port city, yet over recent decades the river has become barren, lifeless and little-used. Dublin has the raw materials of greatness; the Liffey is surely one of them. We need to reclaim the river: Anna Livia Plurabelle, as Joyce called it. The revival of the South Bank in London and the stepped banks of the Rhône in Lyons show what can be done.
The Liffey Cruise waterbus does a U-turn beneath the Ha’penny Bridge because the Liffey is not navigable farther upriver at low tide. One solution would be to build a barrage, similar to the Lagan Weir in Belfast, to hold the water at a constant level.
Simpler solutions involve more maritime events and extensions of the boardwalk, so that the river unites rather than divides the city. Restrictive rules on waterways have resulted in a “ghost marina” at Grand Canal Dock.
Designating it for houseboats and a boat hotel, as in Amsterdam, would complement the vibrancy of this emerging urban quarter.
6 Bring life to the city centre
The decline in the population of the inner city, which happened over many decades, has been dramatically reversed in the past 20 years. The egg-shaped area between the Grand and Royal canals has seen its population increase from 84,055 in 1991 to 112,044 in 2001 and 135,827 in last year’s census, which is a spectacular achievement.
But the southside Georgian core is devoid of life after dark because so few people live there. During the property bubble, houses on Merrion Square changed hands for €7 million or more, which meant residential conversions were practically impossible. But now they’re selling for €2 million or less, which would make it economically feasible to convert them into family homes or apartments.
The city architect, Ali Grehan, is also promoting the potential of small-scale residential development of between two and six units on infill sites, aimed at individuals, families or even groups of friends who want to make a home for themselves in the city or inner suburbs. It’s an idea that deserves support at the highest levels.
7 Get on your bike
The outstanding transport success of recent years is Dublinbikes. With more than 70,000 subscribers and more than 3 million trips made since the scheme was launched, in September 2009, it has civilised the city for cyclists.
Introduced on foot of a controversial deal with the French outdoor-advertising company JC Decaux, which got a large number of onstreet poster displays in return, the rental-bike scheme is to be extended eastwards to the Point and westwards to Heuston Station by the end of this year.
Other well-received initiatives include the popular Grand Canal route. Another visionary project, S2S, will create a continuous cycleway and promenade right around Dublin Bay, from Sutton to Sandycove. Apart from its value as a public amenity, it will improve the city’s flood defences. Construction of the section between Sutton and Fairview is due to start next year.
8 Let them have space
Many visitors from continental Europe remark on the dominance of traffic in Dublin, the inadequate facilities for pedestrians and the city’s grimy public realm. Too often pedestrians are corralled within sheep-pen railings, such as those at Christchurch Place on the main east-west tourist route between Trinity College and Guinness Storehouse.
These should all be removed or replaced with something more sensitively designed.
At any hour of the day or night more people than cars are on the streets. Wider footpaths, such as those on O’Connell Street, are needed on heavily used routes.
Traffic signalling also needs to be changed to give more priority to pedestrians at key junctions in the city. The same goes for Luas.
No other European city would make its trams stop at lights to yield to traffic. If we followed their example it would be possible to shave several minutes off the long journey from Tallaght to the Point.
9 Scrap the Poolbeg incinerator plan
Nothing sums up the lack of accountability and transparency in the way Dublin is run than the Poolbeg incinerator saga.
Planned in one form or another since 1998, the proposed waste-to-energy plant has grown like Topsy to the gargantuan capacity of 600,000 tonnes a year that is now envisaged.
It was to be procured as a public-private partnership, with the contract originally awarded to the Danish conglomerate Dong Energy.
Then it was taken over by the American waste-management company Covanta, which has been given numerous extensions of a deadline to start construction. The project should either be scrapped or scaled down to a more manageable level, say 200,000 to 300,000 tonnes a year, not least to ensure that we continue making strides in recycling.
10 Bring back public toilets
In the 1970s Dublin had more than 60 staffed public toilets. By the end of the 1990s it had none.
Toilets were originally part of the Dublinbikes deal with JC Decaux, but they had to go when the amount of advertising the company was being allowed was cut.
The best we at have the moment are portable urinals at two locations on weekend nights, to cut down on the worst excesses of male revellers, but there’s nothing for women.
The council’s latest plan is to persuade businesses to allow the public to spend a penny without spending a penny. That’s not good enough.
There’s no money for staffed toilets, but other cities operate self-cleaning automatic ones successfully. The cost for use should be enough to deter antisocial behaviour.