WE'VE never been much use at longterm planning in this country. The examples, as this column has pointed out before, are endless: a chronic overdependence on Dublin; regional urban centres hardly worthy of being described as cities; a countryside blighted by ribbon development and one-off housing; the busiest motorway in the country, built without spaghetti junctions and used as an access road for shopping centres; quality bus corridors and metro lines that take years to introduce; advance factories in every town in the country etc, etc.
But next month offers a chance to begin to change that. Dublin City Council is set to reveal its new strategy document that will govern the future of high-rise and high-density development in the capital city. The title of the plan . . . Maximising the City's Potential: A Strategy for Height and Intensification . . . certainly isn't catchy, but it will impact enormously on the lives of every one of Dublin's one million-plus inhabitants. It represents an opportunity for us to finally embrace the concept of a city and all that it should entail . . . centralised services, excellent public transport and a genuine urban landscape.
It would be churlish not to point out that Dublin has improved beyond belief over the past 20 years. It's not that long ago that the city was so blighted by derelict sites that special legislation had to be introduced to tackle the problem. And you don't have to be that old to remember the days when it wasn't safe to walk down the quays after dark or when people said the Jurys Hotels Group was crazy to build a new hotel at Christchurch, just a few hundred yards from Trinity College, because it was too dangerous an area.
While much of the development in the meantime has been humdrum . . . those dreary, unimaginative and pastiche apartment blocks built in the early 1990s being the most obvious example . . . some of the urban regeneration has been genuinely inspiring. The IFSC and the uber-contemporary Grand Canal Docks are just two examples. But despite all the improvements, Dublin essentially still resembles a US sunbelt city (without the sun). Its population is sprawled across an area three or four times that of a European city with a comparable population.
This lack of population density directly results in bad public transport, traffic gridlock, high CO 2emissions, bad services and reduced quality of life.
And, while people in many cases are forced to buy homes well over 50 miles from their workplace in Dublin, huge tranches of land well within the M50 remain undeveloped. Taking a train journey from Connolly Station across Dublin's northside to Maynooth, it's startling to see how much brownfield and greenfield land there is . . . a shocking waste of prime land right beside a commuter rail line.
The land around and including Dublin Port on the Poolbeg peninsula is another stark example of a waste of hugely valuable resources. Just a couple of miles from the city centre, it should be a spectacular Sydney Harbour-style development that is home to tens of thousands of people living in high density and well-serviced accommodation. Instead, it is home to a working port that could so easily be relocated to north county Dublin and a planned incinerator that would be much better located elsewhere.
We don't know what exactly will be in Dublin City Council's plan. It won't be perfect. Nor will it be a panacea for all the city's problems, and it certainly won't turn the capital into a high-density city overnight. However, it will represent a definite step in the right direction. It will not, as the city manager has made clear, result in "Manhattan in Dublin". But it will earmark certain areas that are suitable for high-rise and landmark building and higher-density development.
Despite the absolute logic of the need to develop a higher-density capital city, expect the plan's implementation to be vociferously resisted in many areas. Some politicians will inevitably take the lead in opposing high-density development, looking to reap a 'nimby' harvest in next year's local elections.
Obviously, not all new development proposals are good and in keeping with the areas around them . . . vigilance is certainly required. Nor are they all bad, and it is time we started to question those councillors and politicians who routinely oppose the most modest developments in well-serviced areas close to the city centre and adjacent to public transport. There are numerous examples of councillors opposing the development of what are effectively wasteland sites which serve only as a magnet for antisocial activity; bizarrely, that seems to be preferable to new apartment developments.
Councillors and other politicians have a responsibility to ensure a vibrant and sustainable city. If they are opposed to higher densities (and high density doesn't have to mean high-rise), then they should be asked to explain what their alternative is. They should be asked if they are happy to stand over the results of lower-density urban areas . . . young couples being forced to buy houses in unserviced housing estates far away from their place of work and bad public transport.
They should be asked not only because these are vital questions, but also because they simply won't have answers. And those of us who live in Dublin and who have a vote in next year's local elections need to ask ourselves what type of city we want. Do we want a smaller (and colder) LA or Phoenix or would we prefer a model closer to Amsterdam or Copenhagen? The future's not just down to Dublin City Council.