Is it time to halt Urban sprawl and start to build upwards or should we preserve the current Dublin skyline?

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Is it time to halt Urban sprawl and start to build upwards or should we preserve the current Dublin skyline? Aakriti Sood and Joseph Kavanagh debate.

FOR Upwards build – Aakriti Sood

Dublin is one of the most popular destinations for firms moving from London since the talks of Brexit first commenced. Studies indicate Dublin will be able to attract more than 280,000 people by the year 2031. The city needs to anticipate this migration but with the ongoing housing crisis in the city, Dublin is increasingly becoming a less desirable place to live in. Only 6% of the Georgian Dublin on the south side is residential. To combat the abandonment of Dublin, the city needs to let go of its conservative planning, increase the density by building mixed-use developments within the existing fabric, and build up to sustain its growth and future. 

Dublin has only a little history of height. Liberty Hall and O’Connell Bridge house date back to the 1960s and can hardly be called skyscrapers by today’s standards; measuring 60 meters and 40 meters respectively. Since then, the buildings built in the city have been between six to eight storeys tall. The current tallest building in Dublin is the Capital Dock tower, completed in 2018, stands at 79 meters tall. Dublin falls 30% behind in building heights to other European capitals like Amsterdam, Stockholm and Paris which are viewed as exemplars of cultural preservation in European low rise cities.

Since 2019, when new planning guidelines lifted the restrictive maximum heights in the city, debates for and against high rise in Dublin have increased exponentially. The developers call the planning authorities too conservative, and the planning authorities criticise high rise for being out of proportion with the scale of the city. High rise buildings have more often than not have been met with resistance. Gherkin in London was highly controversial all through its planning phase, but since its completion in 2003, it has become one of the most recognisable landmarks and examples of contemporary architecture in London. 

Ireland is notorious for its suburban sprawl. This uncoordinated growth in the countryside, the expansion of community without the concern for its consequences is not a sustainable methodology for growth. 

Urban sprawl increases land loss in the countryside, which is disruptive to the native flora and fauna and creates instability in biodiversity. Ireland has a beautiful natural landscape that has been the source of inspiration for many artists through history, and has attracted people from all over the world and must be protected. From an environmental perspective, the climate crisis is far more impending than it has ever been, the impervious infrastructure on the natural landscape causes irreversible damage and increases the risk of flooding through runoff. Low-density single-use dwellings have an average life of forty years, which is half the lifespan of an average person. The greenhouse gasses emitted in the construction process are roughly 20% of all carbon emissions in the world. Suburban dwellings are an inefficient utilisation of resources. Therefore a dwelling in a suburban sprawl is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable. 

Furthermore, given the lack of adequate public infrastructure, sprawl increases car dependency, and in turn greenhouse gas emissions, with every household. Increased travel time to and from a suburban house has a significant connection to health ailments like obesity and hypertension. Within cities, research from a variety of countries has shown that denser metropolitan areas with a greater mix of land use and improved public transportation use fewer cars than less density suburban and exurban residential areas. Studies indicate that city dwellers in London and Paris produce half the amount of greenhouse gasses than their suburban counterparts.

Not only environmentally, but suburban sprawl is also not socially sustainable. Sprawl erodes quality of life; compact neighbourhoods foster casual encounters among the residents, while sprawl with the increased privatisation of space in gated communities and fenced backyards creates barriers. Many sprawl developments' relative homogeneity may reinforce class and racial divides by residential segregation. Commercial, social and residential infrastructure are usually single-use facilities and are zoned and segregated from one another with open space, infrastructure, or other. As a result, the locations where people live, work, shop, and play are often far apart, to the point where walking, public transportation, and bicycling are impractical, necessitating the use of a vehicle for all of these activities.

Many urban theorists including Jacobs and Plater-Zyberk have affirmed time and again that walkability between workplace, recreation spaces, and commercial facilities is an essential component for a successful balanced urban life. Hyper-proximity in urban living is becoming the focus of urban planning in many cities in Europe, in the 15-minute neighbourhoods in Paris and Barcelona (all your everyday needs are accessible within a 15-minute walk), and in the 20-minute neighbourhood in Melbourne. Dublin needs to follow suit to ensure a new lease of life. 

Covid-19 has highlighted and accelerated the need for and planning of good density neighbourhoods within the city. Failure of the Ballymun Project used is a misleading argument against high rise; the homes built were that of good quality but like many other estates built around the world at the time were 100% public housing, erected off a roundabout - a dead end. The scheme was doomed to fail as amenities were not developed for a long time and the maintenance was neglected by the City Council. Dublin is capable of accommodating pockets of socially inclusive, high rise and high-quality developments that can enhance the cityscape and quality of life. The success of a city densification strategy requires the collaboration of all city stakeholders. High rise structures cannot be built in a vacuum, urban landscape and placemaking need to become the focus in order to develop and densify Dublin sustainably.

Rebuttal – Joseph Kavanagh

My colleagues’ argument is an incredibly persuasive business plan. It has the language and arguments that the multinationals and developers adore! All those tantalising ideas of 15-minute cities and the perfect work-life balance. I do wonder though if these are not unlike the ideas sold to us about suburbia in the previous century? 

Perhaps it would be worth mentioning how Dublin’s Planning Authorities have made alterations to what they define as “residential” development. A blurred definition of what long term leases are has allowed developers of new high-rise projects to bend the rules and construct hotels and student accommodation. Under the new guidelines of the planning authorities, these short-term rentals are considered “residential” development. Does anyone believe all those student residences in Dublin were the result of student-led campaigns? I think not. You are looking at beds for the wealthy internationals, so our Universities can shake them down for their high fees. My colleague talks about densifying the city, but what happens when you densify it with temporary citizens? What sort of city do you get? It may not become a 15-minute city, but a one-night-stand city. 

Moving onto my counterparts' mention and comparison of Dublin to Amsterdam, Paris, London, and Stockholm? I do ask, has she opened a history book? Each of those cities are former hearts of Empires and all have considerable higher populations. Their urban language is bound to differ from the Dublin experience. Ireland was a slum at the start of the 20th century, so I do believe we are trying to cram in two hundred years of construction into a tenth of the time. To compare our small capital to these cities is like comparing my daily trip to the shows to scaling Mount Everest.

Despite the points made in both pieces, action needs to be taken in our capital. Our people need places to live, whether we repopulate our dwindling towns or reach into the sky.

AGAINST – Joseph Kavanagh

Globalisation has its perks, don’t get me wrong, but it has driven planning authorities, developers, and employers to try and blur the cultural differences between cities across the world. Cities become varying versions of one another, with architecture, retail chains and other urban features copy and pasted into urban centres across the globe (I am looking at you, “I heart Amsterdam” sign). The aim of this is to make cities more familiar to the ever-moving, nomadic multinational worker. Firms such as Google do not want to send their workers into culture-shock when moving from city to city. The result is a skyline that is beginning to repeat itself across the planet. Some city authorities are keeping a handful of features to make sure cultural and national identity is not lost completely, or maybe their tourist boards are making sure there is something for the Influencers to take a photo of for Instagram?

What makes Dublin so unique you may ask? Why should its skyline be preserved? Dublin is one of the British Isles’ Georgian cities. It is in good company with places such as Bath and Edinburgh also falling into this category. One cannot deny that the Georgian features have been knocked and chipped away during the last two centuries. However, it continues to retain quite a number of these features. Urban squares such as Fitzwilliam Square and St. Stephen’s Green are very much present and valued by the people of Dublin. Other iconic buildings such as Leinster House date from this period. These features are what make it unique and give the city its personality. You must remember at the time, Georgian Dublin was the second city of the British Empire. Dublin was one of the busiest ports in Europe, an epicentre of commerce and culture. Of course, as we know this began to decline, but the buildings echo a time of great prosperity for the city. The Georgian terraces and streets are in themselves interesting, while appearing to be uniform at first glance, on further inspection you see that houses vary in height and window size etc. This is down to them being built in groups of twos or threes, and it gives what should be a very uniform street a language of a patchwork quilt. To replicate the glass towers of the world make it feel like any other place in the world and would thus lead to the capital losing its cultural identity. 

Of course, it is all well and good to say save our Georgian streets and features and protect structures, but no one can deny the country needs more homes. We are in the grips of a housing crisis that the state has not seen before and the amount of stock that needs to be delivered in the next number of years is on a level that would make any government quiver in fear. So where will people live if not in sky-high soulless glass towers? The answer to me is clear and has become ever more obvious in the last year under the current global pandemic. The word that has been thrown around since the 70s, decentralisation, holds the answer in my opinion. Decentralisation, for any of you who do not know, is the idea of moving certain parts of government bodies outside of the capital city, to spread them around the urban centres of the island. This has of course happened, with the State Examinations Commission being based in Athlone as well as various other examples. Some were successful, but most were not. I feel it is time to try this again, but the difference this time is the apparent use of remote working. 

Something that is worth mentioning is the new RTÉ show “Cheap Irish Houses”, in which the presenter shows potential buyers affordable homes located in areas around the country that are underpopulated. This program highlights the presence of homes that are left derelict in areas or towns that are crying out for repopulation. My point is, that at one point this island had a population of around 8 million, and while a lot of people lived in poverty and in small tenement farms, they did live somewhere. Connacht went from having a population of 1.5 million before the famine to just over half a million in 2016. This statistic resonates with the underpopulation of this region and that there is a real opportunity to spread our people into these underpopulated areas. With high-speed internet and infrastructure, these places can come alive once again and take the pressure off the city of Dublin. This in turn would make it more achievable to preserve the city’s skyline.

While I acknowledge the need to build, it does not mean we need to continue to build on top or around Dublin. We must protect our urban landscape and its identity. In doing this we can also revitalise our rural towns and villages. This would have dual benefits, revitalising the economies of these areas while being a more sustainable move. The use of existing structures is one of the most basic things we can do for the environment. Sending concrete and steel into the sky consumes energy during construction phases, but also in the production of building materials. It is all about balance in my opinion. We can house our citizens and minimise environmental impacts while also protecting our cities skyline. 

REBUTTAL - Aakriti Sood

Both sides have pointed out the need for more homes for the rising population. My colleague has pointed out several architectural monuments in the city and yes of course these buildings have stood the test of time and what are we without our history? But the city extends beyond the historic core; the Docklands, areas around George’s Quay, Heuston and Connelly lie within the city centre but would be no threat to the visual character of the Georgian core. These areas are capable of accommodating high rise structures, adding contemporary landmarks, and can become positive additions to the existing skyline of the city.

Where the soullessness of high rise structure is concerned, there is no denying the fact that commuter towns with their hours and hours of travel time, fenced off dwellings can also become a lonely and isolating experience. Humans are instinctively social beings and cities have always been the nucleus of civilisation. Since the ancient Greek Agoras, civic centres that served as the city's athletic, cultural, business, social, spiritual, and political hub, and facilitated people to come together and share their common interests with others. One of the most influential urban theorists, Lewis Mumford, wrote that cities are “a product of earth ... a fact of nature ... man's method of expression.” Cities have always drawn people back, and the pandemic hiccup will be the same.

Decentralisation is a term that looks good on paper but the waves of mass migration seen in the last century have already littered the country with a number of ghost estates. Decentralisation may work in cities in other parts of the world which have become too large to function, but in the case of Dublin, a good density is required to aim towards economic and environmental sustainability. We need to learn from the ghost towns of America to protect the Irish landscape from the soulless, unplanned sprawl and bring people back into Dublin before the core of this historic city becomes hollow.