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David McWilliams: Just imagine a new Dublin city on the sea. A 260-hectare golden opportunity

Can you imagine any other European maritime city treating the sea with the same disregard Dublin does?

Jonas Salk, after years of hard work and research, discovered the vaccine for polio and gave the patent away for free. Asked why, after such toil, he did not charge for his scientific breakthrough, he explained: “I wanted to be a good ancestor.” He meant that we should leave the place in better shape for the generations ahead of us, which implies thinking in a multigenerational fashion.

Some people have called this approach to planning, discovery and infrastructure as “cathedral thinking”. The people who built medieval cathedrals, which took centuries of work, knew they would not live to see their majestic structures completed. They worked all the same, knowing they would leave these monuments for future generations.

Building large infrastructural projects that will have enormous impacts on future societies should be informed by cathedral thinking, with the idea that we might become good ancestors, doing the right thing not just for the present day but for citizens not yet born. Future citizens have no voice, but someone needs to speak on their behalf.

A few months ago this column celebrated John Gray, whose statue stands on O’Connell Street because he built Dublin’s water system in 1862, a system that is still delivering fresh water to residents today. He was a long-term thinker in a short-term world. When it comes to building critical pieces of public infrastructure, our politicians and planners might find their inner John Gray and think in multigenerational time frames rather than the next few years.


Which brings me to Dublin Port. Last week the Dublin Port Company unveiled plans to develop the port. The plans suggest that even with the envisaged development, Dublin Port “will reach its maximum throughput capacity sometime between 2030 and 2040. This means additional port capacity will be needed elsewhere on the east coast of Ireland to cater for the growth, which Dublin Port will not be able to accommodate once this point has been reached.”

This should stop us all in our tracks; 2040 is only 17 years away. To put this in context, Saipan was 21 years ago. Building one of the most crucial pieces of national infrastructure for the nation requires far more perspective. Why do this now if we will have to rebuild in a few years’ time?

As this column has argued previously, Dublin’s is a fine port, handling a gross total of 36.7 million tonnes worth of imports (60 per cent) and exports (40 per cent), with some 7,473 ship arrivals per year. It is clear that the management of Dublin Port do a good job on behalf of their shareholders, the State – which means you and me.

The problem for the port isn’t the management, but the location. Dublin Port is in the wrong place. It should not be in the city. The days when ports needed to be at the mouths of rivers were in the era before canals were built, in the late 18th century, when rivers were the only way to transport agriculture from the hinterland to the sea for export and import. Those days have gone. The Liffey is many things, but a trading superhighway it is not.

The potential residential land on Dublin Port is 173 times bigger than the size of Croke Park. Or think about it as Ranelagh, Rathmines, Rathgar and Harold’s Cross combined

In the spirit of cathedral thinking, Dublin Port should be moved completely and the prime land upon which the port stands, now home to shipping containers, should be redeveloped into a new waterfront city, with building densities on a par with European cities, providing a long-term solution to Dublin’s housing shortage. Dublin Port spans some 260 hectares of prime land. It expands to 860 hectares when you include the waters enclosed by the sea walls and the Tom Clarke Bridge, according to a paper published by Dublin Port Authority. Even at the lower figure of 260 hectares of prime waterfront property, Dublin Port land is a third the size of Phoenix Park.

To give you a sense of how big this is, Croke Park is 1.5 hectares, meaning the potential residential land on Dublin Port is 173 times bigger than the size of Croke Park. Or think about it as Ranelagh, Rathmines, Rathgar and Harold’s Cross combined.

Just imagine a new Dublin city on the sea. The sea is one of Dublin’s best amenities but the city turns its back on it. Dublin city should open out on to the sea, but we block it off so that the sea is effectively sealed off from the city. Can you imagine any other European maritime city treating the sea with the same disregard?

Reclaiming their ports is what cities do, and many European cities have moved them wholly or partially, figuring out a way to operate, rebuild and relocate at the same time. For example, Genoa, Barcelona, Bilbao, Copenhagen, Oslo and Helsinki, not to mention London and Rotterdam, have all been relocated them.

In terms of capacity, Dublin’s 36.7 million tonnes is slightly larger than Bilbao (32.7 million) and is more than twice as large as the Nordic ports of Copenhagen and Helsinki. But it pales in comparison with the gargantuan Rotterdam (467 million) and is significantly smaller than the likes of Genoa (66 million) and Barcelona (71 million), which are all old European cities that have undergone port relocations.

Internationally, Singapore, a country that has set itself up as a trading entrepot like Ireland, is the exemplar. Singapore’s “port of the future”, due for completion in 2040, is set to be the world’s largest container port. It will also be fully automated. The new megaport is to be constructed in Tuas, in west Singapore. It will merge all Singapore’s container port operations – including those at Pagar Keppel, Brani and Pasir Panjang – into one. Singapore also plans to build housing on the plot of land previously occupied by some of the existing ports. The rest of the soon-to-be unused land will have mixed uses, from commercial to cultural. This is what Dublin could aspire to do.

Of course, moving the port requires an alternative location. Rosslare or Greenore look like the most obvious based on water depth. Rosslare makes sense in the context of Brexit, as it is closer to the Continent, while Greenore in Louth makes sense in the context of the coming united island economy. Both ports would have to be vastly expanded. Arklow and Bremore ports have also been considered. All these ports would have to be made deeper, as Dublin Port was deepened over time with the construction of the North and Bull Walls.

All this will require lots of money. However, the 260 hectares of land would provide a huge potential for raising cash by the State, as zoned residential land is far more valuable than port land. For example, in recent months, one plot of just 0.11 hectares in the nearby Silicon Docks sold for €4 million. This gives you a sense of how valuable the new waterfront city would be.

Money raised here could be used, as is the norm in most countries, to pay for interest on a bond to cover infrastructure of the new city. Such a project would also give planners and urban architects a site to reimagine a new city at densities not unlike envisaged Poolbeg West Strategic Development Zone (SDZ), anchored by the concept of a new sustainable community.

The prize would be to totally reorient the city and the industrial and maritime infrastructure of the entire east coast of the country: government by cathedral rather than prefab thinking, putting the longer term first in an endemically short-term world.