As the late Noel Purcell sang "Dublin can be heaven, with coffee at eleven and a stroll in Stephens Green", developers were bulldozing parts of Georgian Dublin in a smash-and-grab raid on the historic centre. Those days have faded and the city has changed, becoming wealthier, more cosmopolitan and congested in the process. A serious housing shortage has emerged and elected representatives and planners are struggling to respond to a variety of challenges. A projected population growth of almost half-a-million citizens during the next 25 years underlines the urgent need for a revitalised planning and implementation process, supported by public discourse. Today, Irish Times writers and contributors suggest a range of responses to existing and potential challenges.
Official defensiveness and political cowardice, along with deep-seated inertia, have obstructed innovation. Councillors and ministers have competed for votes and for control of the decision-making process. The idea of a directly elected mayor for all of Dublin, with extensive executive powers, was recommended more than a decade ago. But political and bureaucratic interests sabotaged it. The project has now been revived, but in an anaemic form.
Disagreements within councils over urgently needed social and affordable housing have been well ventilated. Local opposition to apartment blocks has slowed or stopped developments. Banks and developers – amongst others – have favoured the construction of traditional, three-bedroom homes when well-designed apartment blocks are more appropriate. Nothing should be taken for granted. Two city projects offer cautionary examples of extraordinary delay and poor and inadequate planning: the construction of a cycle path along the Liffey and delivery of a pedestrianised College Green Plaza.
The provision of funding for expensive projects has provided governments with a choke-hold on council independence. Interference could be minimised if the US model of issuing municipal bonds was followed. That approach may pose problems, however, if cities file for bankruptcy. Encouraging and funding cultural and social interaction should be regarded as an intrinsic task of local government. A vibrant, user-friendly city, with a diverse nightlife, attracts skilled workers while generating wealth and employment in return.
Re-imagining and modernising the city, while addressing its transport, housing, educational and health shortcomings, is an enormous challenge. Rising water levels are expected to threaten suburbs and sea booms and barricades may be required to hold back the tide. Consulting the public on all of this is essential. Huge investment will be needed, along with single-minded implementation, if the words of the ‘Dublin Saunter’ are to resonate with future generations.