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Capital in crisis: What can be done now to save Dublin for the future?

The pandemic has highlighted the city's many shortcomings, as the flight of house buyers to the countryside shows. What needs to be done to improve the capital? City-centre resident Katy McGuinness asks the experts


‘Investing in Dublin is good for the country as a whole’

‘Investing in Dublin is good for the country as a whole’

‘Investing in Dublin is good for the country as a whole’

Since the 1980s the population of Dublin between the canals may have increased significantly, but many residents, particularly in the north inner city, live in poor-quality, overcrowded apartments. And the majority of those who could afford to live in the city's beautiful Georgian houses choose the suburbs instead. In other cities around the world - London, Paris and New York, for instance - city-centre homes are prized. But not here.

Despite the good intentions and vague aspirations trotted out in successive development plans, recent policy decisions - motivated in part by the need for Dublin City Council (DCC) to bring in revenue in the form of development levies - have diminished housing standards and prioritised hotels and Airbnbs over family homes.

Planning guidelines introduced in 2018 by then Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy reduced minimum size requirements for apartments, increased the cap on the number of apartments per floor and dropped the requirement for windows on more than one wall.

Meanwhile, after years of sky-high rents and lack of supply, the number of Dublin rentals jumped 92pc year on year, according to August figures on Daft.ie, thanks to an influx of properties previously listed on short-term rental sites such as Airbnb. Pre-Covid, there were 5,000 Dublin listings on Airbnb alone.

Fáilte Ireland's accommodation capacity figures for 2019 showed that Dublin already had over 20,000 hotel rooms, and earlier this year there were proposals to add a further 15,000 - how many of those will materialise now?

Because so few people live in the city centre, the retail and hospitality businesses formerly kept going by tourists and office workers are dying on their feet.

The city is not safe for pedestrians or cyclists, nor does it have an efficient, integrated public transport system. Its amenities are poor, there aren't enough trees and much of the public realm is unattractive. There is no proper food market and a scant number of restaurants can facilitate outdoor dining.

But instead of bemoaning all that has gone before, what can be done now to make Dublin a vibrant city that's a great place for everyone - from students and young professionals to families and older people - to live in the future? How do we densify the city in a sustainable way? And who speaks for Dublin? Do we need a directly elected mayor, or should there be a Minister for Dublin at the Cabinet table?

"At the moment," asks Labour councillor, Dermot Lacey, "who do you call when you want to speak to Dublin? Conor Faughnan?"

Dublin Chamber recently published its 15-Minute City planning vision, envisaging a liveable, walkable city in which Dubliners can access most of their needs within 15 minutes of 'active transport', ie, walking or cycling from their homes.


‘Many aspects of urban life were struggling anyway and Covid has brought issues to the fore’

‘Many aspects of urban life were struggling anyway and Covid has brought issues to the fore’

‘Many aspects of urban life were struggling anyway and Covid has brought issues to the fore’

Who wouldn't want to live in such a city. But do the will and resources exist to make it happen?

"The 15-minute city is not a new idea," says Ali Grehan, Dublin City architect. "The concept was inspired by Jane Jacobs in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities from 1961. One issue for Dublin becoming a modern sustainable city is that the four local authorities are not in charge of all the things that need to happen to make it one. That might explain why the development plan seems aspirational - many things that need to happen are down to other agencies, so we have to work around that."

Ali Grehan thinks the shock of Covid may offer an opportunity for Dublin to get its act together.

"Many aspects of urban life were struggling anyway, and Covid has brought issues to the fore," she says. "But it has also put a rocket under everyone, and if the city is to thrive, affordable housing and other initiatives have to be fast-tracked. The pilot cycle lanes were put in because of the need to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians, which shows things can be made to happen quickly when they have to.


Ali Grehan

Ali Grehan

Ali Grehan

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"One thing that Covid-19 is shouting at us is that substandard housing in the city centre is unacceptable and unhealthy. It doesn't make the city covetable. And if the city is unaffordable for the people who work in it, that's a big problem. We can't keep reducing space standards and lowering the benchmark. Everyone agrees we need to densify and make more family-friendly homes, of which there are very few, when it comes to apartments. But they cost too much because land and construction costs are too high."

One of the things you notice walking around Dublin city centre at night is how few of the upper floors of the city's retail buildings are occupied.

Darragh O'Brien, Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has spoken about the need to get people back living in cities, pointing to 'above the shop' living as one of the ways in which this could be achieved. If the current requirement to retain the internal footprint of old buildings did not have to be retained, he suggests, the cost of conversion could be reduced.

He is also keen to explore different models of development, such as those used by Clúid Housing, a not-for-profit charity which is now the largest approved housing body in Ireland, and to amend and streamline planning rules to allow for a single-stage approval mechanism for projects with a value of up to €6m.


In a submission to the Oireachtas Housing Committee in January 2018, Orla Hegarty, architect and assistant professor of architecture, planning and environmental policy at UCD, stated that with large numbers of dwellings and commercial premises lying vacant, "existing buildings are the most readily available, cheapest, quickest and most sustainable source of housing supply in the short term".

"The repurposing of existing buildings for housing is the fastest way to make more housing available in Dublin city centre," she says. "These buildings exist, they do not require infrastructure, they have connections to utilities and drainage, are close to shops, services and public transport.

"Most immediately, I'd like to see us tackle the vacancy of upper floors, reinhabit existing buildings and bring footfall to the streets, which is good for retail, business and schools. 'Over the shop' currently involves lots of regulatory hoops - an owner can get planning permission but stumble at a fire safety cert or disability access cert. Streamlining the regulatory process for pragmatic solutions within safety standards - like an NCT from the local authority - could be implemented quickly, and with underemployment in the construction sector there is capacity to do this work. And if we have lots of vacant offices, perhaps we will see a different approach to more liveable city housing with conversions to loft-style apartments?"


Conservation architect James Slattery sees another possible way to encourage development of better-quality housing in the city centre through a more strategic approach to the conservation of certain areas in the north inner city.

"Funding available to DCC for grant schemes is insufficient - and without a clear vision for the area, investment is limited and the financial and planning risks for individuals are often too high," maintains Slattery. "Wholesale interconnection of these [historic] terraces is never considered best practice as it has a tendency to dilute historic plots and layouts, but it has nevertheless been very successful in many cases, including at the Merrion and Shelbourne Hotels."

He says, "A similar approach could succeed with regard to reinstating high-quality residential use to these streets. Allying a strategic view in relation to the alteration of historic roof profiles to protected structures in these areas might help also, as it could provide high-quality private outdoor space to upper floors - essential to sustainable residential amenity. Making certain parts of the city a special case for a limited period and providing a strategy for rescuing streets rather than hoping to save individual houses/fabric might generate sufficient investment to arrest that decay."


According to Fiona Meade of DCC there have been only 119 valid applications under the Living City Initiative (LCI) - a tax incentive available

to both landlords and owner-occupiers of pre-1915 buildings, intended to increase the number of residents in the city's historic core - since it was launched in 2015.

Not all parts of the city fall within the area covered by the LCI and the South Georgian Core, with substantial townhouses ideally suited to reuse as large apartments, excluded. The LCI applies to 'over the shop' premises falling within the designated area, and commercial premises are exempt from the requirement to pre-date 1915.

"We are disappointed with the numbers applying," says Fiona Meade. "We have assembled a multi-disciplinary team to support applicants and advertised it on bus shelters and on Facebook. We don't understand why people are not coming forward as those who have done it say they are happy with the process and outcome."

Architect Felim Dunne believes that one of the reasons for the disappointing uptake is that the geographical remit of the LCI is too narrow.

"Almost every part of the city within the canals, north and south, needs a shot in the arm so the Living City Initiative should be extended," he says. "The biggest single impediment to the old buildings being lived in is the financial risk inherent in the development, so it needs to be made attractive through tax incentives and creating routes through. If building owners employ an architect and are returning a building to its original use, for instance, it shouldn't require planning permission. DCC owns many buildings around the city but it can't bring them all into residential use itself, so it should encourage a sustainable mix of housing types and ownership models by letting others take them on. We need an easily accessible inventory of available buildings and sites owned by the city and state."


Ali Grehan points to a new affordable rental development on Emmet Road in Inchicore, for which the design team has just been appointed, as a way forward that could be replicated across the city.

"It's a mixture of one-, two- and three-bedroom units available for long-term rental to those earning below an income threshold," explains Grehan. "It requires a level of government subsidy, but it becomes a public asset, the city always owns it and recoups the cost over 30 years. It makes more sense than the city renting from the private sector.

"Living in the city is always going to involve compromise. A family may not get a three-bedroom semi with a garden, but they will be closer to work, have a good choice of schools, and be close to healthcare, universities, shops and cultural experiences. But if we want families to choose an apartment in the city over a three-bedroom semi in the 'burbs, we need to compensate them by giving them good amenities.

"Making the city better won't happen by accident. It requires a shot of investment from central government. If the city is not attractive, safe and enjoyable as a place to live, it will struggle to regain its position post-Covid, and this needs to be recognised at national level.

"In principle, I am in favour of there being recognition that Dublin is special. It's the capital city where a lot of stuff happens. The argument against it is that it sucks resources from the rest of the country, but there are reciprocal benefits - if there are more people in Dublin, then there is less sprawl. And there is a general acceptance that urban living is a route to sustainable development and addressing climate change. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that cities are a sustainable system because people live closer together, share resources and use less energy getting around.

"Whatever the governance structure, the capital city is special. Investing in Dublin is good for the country as a whole. It would be shocking if Covid triggered another retreat from Dublin, as happened a century ago when people legged it, and saw the city as a place of last resort. We have no choice. If we want to save retail, we have to save everything else first by making big, bold investments such as in Metro North."

"We need to stop dividing the population into categories of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists who all hate each other and don't recognise each other's different needs," says Councillor Dermot Lacey. "There are now 63 statutory bodies with responsibility for traffic in Dublin. We need a Dublin Transportation authority.

"And the city should be an innovator of new types of housing, but at the moment Dublin issues are not taken seriously on a national level. Who leads the debate? It shouldn't be down to celebrities, the city needs a voice. The current system of local government means that at managerial level the officials are answerable to the Department and do the Department's bidding, so there is no public debate. National things that happen in Dublin get debated but not Dublin issues, even though it's the most natural region in the country."

With the capital in crisis, it seems that good ideas alone will not be enough to save it, and that direct government funding, tax incentives for developers - a combination of public and private funding - and an empowered champion for Dublin are all needed to make things happen before it's too late.

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