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Michael McDowell: We must build beautiful urban structures

City planners must nurture streetscapes and make aesthetically guided decisions

A recurrent theme in newspaper reports these days is the making of planning applications for high-rise developments in locations right across greater Dublin. Those who oppose or criticise such applications run a gauntlet of accusations of nimbyism and hostility to any proposals aimed at addressing our cities’ major housing crises.

It is true that there are some, perhaps many, among us who oppose all development that alters what they conceive to be the character of their areas, as they put it.

On the other hand, our cities need development to remain functional and vibrant. Development and conservation are two important aspects of living, beautiful and sustainable urban existence.

Is city-centre family accommodation to be left for social and affordable housing provided by housing authorities?

But what about “beautiful”? What about “pleasing”? What about “streetscapes”? What about “scale” or “consistency”? Is there any room left for vision in our urban planning and development processes? These questions struck me again when I read of several new applications for high-rise apartment developments.

One is a proposed 12-storey development in a site adjoining Middle Abbey Street, including 160 built-to-rent apartments and the retention of a part of an existing multistorey car park. The 160 rental apartments are to consist of 60 studios, 85 one-bed and 14 two-bed apartments, with some shared facilities including exercise rooms, a dog-washing room and a communal lounge.

Are the two-bed apartments to be the only provision for families to live in this development? Is this compatible with the much-vaunted 15-minute liveable city – the proposed alternative vision to commuter belt suburbia? Is city-centre family accommodation to be left for social and affordable housing provided by housing authorities?

High-rise issues

Another recently rejected proposal was for a 10-storey tower block of apartments to be built on a handkerchief (0.092 hectare) site at the corner of Leeson Street and the Appian Way. By any standard, it was totally out of character with its area, as the Upper Leeson Street Area Residents’ Association has successfully argued. It reminded me of an equally discordant plan for a 26-storey residential tower block beside the Garda station in Donnybrook which was rejected by the local authority some years ago.

This raises the question as to whether developers should be free to build a high-rise tower block apartment building on any tiny suburban site they may buy in an area zoned residential. If not, why not? The journey from Donnybrook to St Stephen’s Green moves from Victorian two- and three-storey streetscapes to taller Georgian buildings. Is that pleasant character to be thrown away because some tiny site becomes available to a developer?

If you continue that journey from St Stephen’s Green towards the mediaeval city centre around St Patrick’s and Christchurch cathedrals, what do you find? Cuffe Street and Kevin Street are ugly planning messes. There is no coherence or urban planning of streetscapes evident. An agglomeration of buildings which bear little or no relation to each other or to their surroundings confronts you.

Visually disastrous

This is the fault of Dublin Corporation and its successor, Dublin City Council, from the 1960s onwards. Take their own buildings, the apartment blocks on Cuffe Street and Kevin Street. They simply placed a series of four-storey off-the-shelf flat blocks designed for erection anywhere in the city on sites acquired for slum clearance and road widening on these streets.

There was no attempt at creating a streetscape at all. In terms of urban planning, these newly built flats were visually disastrous compared with the carefully designed Mercer House flats complex which their municipal predecessors had built 40 years earlier as part of the streetscape.

There is a different way to design and build cities. There is a place for planned high-rise

An ugly mess of individual buildings mostly with no architectural merit was then crudely plonked by developers along this route to complement the damage done by the city fathers themselves.

The entire precinct is ugly – is that planned ugliness? There can have been no masterplan for the streets and there was certainly no vision at work. Although the council still has an architects department, it is not obvious that it has aesthetic input into our city’s designed future. All of this applies right across Dublin city centre.

There is a different way to design and build cities. There is a place for planned high-rise. Dubliners owe far more to the long-dead Wide Streets Commissioners, the Pembroke Estate and the Gardiner Estate in terms of urban aesthetics and character than they do to our home-grown local democracy. If it weren’t for conservationists and residents’ associations, Dublin as we know it would have largely vanished.

The point is this. Our planners are not just engineers acting as arbitrators between developers and objectors. We will continue to build ugly and anti-social urban scar tissue unless we repurpose our urban planners to control and guide the building of beautiful.