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David McWilliams: Dublin Port is a waste of space. Move it

One solution to the housing crisis? Move the port and build a new kind of capital city

There is an obvious solution to Dublin’s crippling capacity problem: move our Port and develop one of Dublin’s greatest natural assets into a new, gleaming city. Dublin is one of the last major cities that continues to have a port on its most valuable prime land. Cork is moving its port, and if it’s good enough for Cork, it’s good enough for Dublin.

In the past two decades Barcelona, Bremen, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Oslo, Bilbao, Buenos Aires, Genoa, London and Cape Town have all moved their ports and liberated the land to create beautiful new cities in which people can work, live and play. Auckland is doing the same. Old port cities realise that they no longer need ports to be at the mouth of rivers, as rivers are no longer used for transport.

Roads and rail are key to transport. Furthermore, transport depots do not need to be by the sea these days, but can be further inland at the nexus of inland motorway systems where land is much cheaper and people don’t want to live. The goods can be landed at a new, efficient port in containers, put onto automated trains, delivered 24/7 to a sorting depot and, from there, uploaded to trucks for delivery.

This is the future, driven – like so much else in the coming years – by the possibilities of data rather than the limitations of geography.


In contrast to inanimate freight, it is people who want to live on the water; people-based service industries want to be close to amenities and close to the sea. There is a reason why property with sea views is the most expensive. We do like to be beside the seaside.

We have hundreds of acres of such land in Dublin, but it is full of massive oil drums and empty containers – a huge waste of development land.

Wrong place

Before we explore the imperative of moving the port, let us acknowledge that Dublin Port management is doing a fine job in terms of managing trade in and out of the country. The problem with Dublin Port is that it is in the wrong place, and the opportunity cost of keeping the Port there is simply too big.

In a city with a massive housing and transport crisis, the opportunity cost of 640 acres of prime land occupied by a port that employs only 140 people is enormous. When you fly over it, you see that most of the land is unused most of the day and night.

Mirroring the density of, for example, Smithfield, we could build 40,000 units there and still have over 220 acres (10 times the size of St Stephen’s Green) for offices, retail, museums, sports facilities, parks, cafes, bars and clubs.

We have a crippling housing shortage, particularly around Dublin. People and businesses, like those in Silicon Docks, want to be close to the city not out in the suburbs. The Port is the obvious place for a New Dublin.

All over the world, old docks are now home to parks, museums, little harbours and thousands of tourists, as well architecturally exciting residential developments and offices

But rather than developing the jewel on the sea to the east of O’Connell Bridge, we are sprawling to the west, north and south. This low-density approach makes public transport expensive, makes citizens more car-dependent and makes planning for schools and hospitals contingent on where developers put the next remote estates.

An obvious medium-term solution to Dublin’s housing and planning problem encompasses a vision that completely reorients the city towards its most obvious natural resource: the sea.

A clear solution to Dublin’s congestion, high rents and office capacity problems is to move Dublin port north, integrate the new port with the motorway system and reclaim the entire area for high-density development. We could build a new Dublin on this land and create an entirely new city for the 21st century.

Enjoyed and used

The sea is something to be faced, enjoyed and used, rather than something to turn your back on. All over the world, old docks are now home to parks, museums, little harbours and thousands of tourists, as well architecturally exciting residential developments and offices.

Places like Copenhagen, Oslo and Barcelona have also created new areas with low-rent artistic spaces, clubs, late-night bars and cafes.

At the moment Dublin Port is the greatest waste of prime land imaginable. The main part on the north side of the river comprises some 205 hectares (510 acres) at the end of East Wall and North Wall from Alexandra Quay. The port on the south side of the river is much smaller but still constitutes 51 hectares or 130 acres of prime development land with waterfront aspects within about a mile of the city centre.

As Dublin Port only employs 140 people, the costs of moving the port are small, given the huge potential prize.

The State could make a small fortune on the trade because the price of land in the port based on present valuations is between €8 million and €10 million an acre. Industrial land further up the coast is trading at around €20,000 an acre. Therefore, the State could sell the Port lands for between €6 billion and €7 billion, and build a new port at a fraction of the cost.

Transforming Dublin would take time but this is what great cities do: they build for the future with 100-year visions

The underused Port Tunnel gives the new port city ideal initial infrastructure.

And because the Port is doing a good job, is well managed and is making a profit, the same expert management are well placed to deal with a move.

Remember the Port is owned by you, and you pay the opportunity cost in higher rents, house prices and daily congestion. The State is the shareholder and that means it’s yours. This type of deal makes common sense as well as commercial sense.

United economically

In 40 years, it’s highly likely on present demographic trends that Ireland will be more united economically and politically. Therefore, the Dublin-Belfast corridor, with half the population of the island, will be the most commercially significant part of the country. An international state-of-the-art port that serves this region situated around the northeast coast is an absolute must.

Transforming Dublin would take time but this is what great cities do: they build for the future with 100-year visions.

Think about the Dublin we know and celebrate now. All the squares, the streets, the landmark buildings, virtually all of what we now call “Dublin city centre” were built in the 1700s. It was the great 100-year project of the Anglo/Irish aristocracy.

O’Connell Street, Dame Street, College Green, Henry Street, the Quays, Grafton Street and virtually everything around them, including the front face of Trinity College (1759), City Hall (1769), The Customs House (1781), the Four Courts (1786), Leinster House (began 1745), Parliament House, now Bank of Ireland College Green (1729), the Guinness Brewery (1759), Abbey Street, Leeson Street, Baggot Street, Merrion Street, Dawson Street, Henrietta Street and everything else in between were built in the 1700s.

If they could build a magnificent city then, why can’t we build a beautiful new city now?

If moving Dublin Port is not in the Government’s latest national plan, surely it would be a great vote-winner for someone thinking of running for the directly elected mayor of the capital?