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Una Mullally: Why does Dublin City Council’s latest water-based plan feel so shallow, never mind murky?

Residents of Copenhagen, Zurich and Berlin enjoy river swimming. Even the Seine in Paris, once biologically dead, is being cleaned. Meanwhile, Dublin is getting an €18m glorified jetty

I recently went for my first outdoor sea swim of the year at Seapoint in Dublin. It was freezing, and it was great. Back in town, I trundled up the Liffey’s quays home. The city centre part of the Liffey is probably the most under-utilised public space in the country. The Liffey Swim is seen by those who don’t participate as an admirable but foolhardy tradition. In summertime, I find the sight of young people diving into the river fun but the idea of river swimming in town makes many people baulk. Why? Why don’t we make the Liffey a clean, safe, swimmable amenity?

If you think that’s impossible, I give you the Seine. For a century, swimming has been banned in Paris’s great river, because it is polluted, and because of high levels of E. coli. Then mayor Anne Hidalgo came along and so did the prospect of the Olympics in 2024.

In the 1960s, the Seine was declared biologically dead. A century on from the Seine swimming ban, things are changing. “There is going to be a big transformation,” Hidalgo announced of her intention to clean up the river. “It is a beautiful project.” The construction of a giant underground rainwater tank is well under way. Capable of holding 10 million gallons of water, this tank will store runoff rainwater, meaning sewage will be kept out of the river during storms, something which has plagued the Seine’s water quality. That water will be transported upstream, through sewage treatment plants, and returned to the river. And the cost of this river transformation? It is €1.4 billion since 2016; money well spent. In the meantime, Piscine Joséphine Baker is a city centre floating pool with a retractable roof on the Seine’s left bank.

The council’s unelected executive warned that the current procurement process would have to be abandoned if their ‘water activities centre’ project went back to the central area committee

In Copenhagen, in the middle of the central business district, is Islands Brygge Harbour Bath. There are five pools, including two for children, and three diving towers. In Zurich, you can swim for free close to the city’s main train station in a 1950s-era bathing pool. On the Spree in Berlin is Badeschiff, a heated pool made out of a repurposed submerged industrial barge. It’s well-lit, so you can enjoy a dip until midnight. Arhus in Denmark is home to the largest seawater bath in the world, including a children’s pool and a diving pool. I could go on; open-air city centre swimming amenities in Helsinki, and Bern, and the workers in Basel using their river’s current as a commuting route, storing their clothes and other items in watertight dry bags and floating home.


Back in Dublin, there was movement last week on plans for an amenity at Custom House Quay. A “water activities centre” has been pitched by Dublin City Council to the tune of €18 million. I think this is probably the first time a lot of people have heard about this particular plan for the area. We have gone from the white water rafting facility, which went down the drain, to an excellent vision from those advocating for George’s Dock Lido, who previously presented plans for “a world-class, outdoor, heated swimming pool for locals, families and visitors”.

The council’s unelected executive warned that the current procurement process would have to be abandoned if their “water activities centre” project went back to the central area committee. Who is actually making the decisions here with regard to major city centre amenities? Abandoning a project based on questions and comments elected councillors may have feels incredibly dramatic. At least two councillors thought so, with Nial Ring and Christy Burke accusing the executive of “blackmailing” the council. Richard Shakespeare, the council’s assistant chief executive, countered this, saying the council would start to “lose the confidence of the construction sector if we chop and change”. On we paddle.

Eighteen million euros feels like a very small budget for a large public amenity. The Markievicz Leisure Centre across the river, for example, is set to be demolished. The council wants to replace that with a new pool in Ringsend; the cost being floated is €48 million. The “water activities centre” quayside would mean demolishing the Dublin Docklands Development Authority’s building. In its place, two new buildings — neither of which is a swimming pool — are planned. One of those will be new office space for the council, which I’m not entirely sure should be prioritised when it comes to waterside amenity space. The rest of the development would be a pontoon, a canopy, changing rooms, a “visitor orientation area” and a couple of other rooms. This isn’t the kind of facility people have been calling for. It’s a glorified jetty. We are told there will be “water tours”, kayaking and rowing. What about swimming?

Why on earth would you build this thing and not actually zoom out and incorporate whatever its intention is into a much more ambitious plan for locals and visitors alike; something that generations of people in the area would enjoy? Why would you segment small plans for the area? Do they simply want to get something piecemeal over the line? That’s not a vision. While I would never deign to accuse the council of river blindness, why does this latest water-based plan feel so shallow, never mind murky?