A future for small sites in Dublin

16258640435_9e9e6dfc30_kSmall sites, interesting potential in Dublin

The Celtic Tiger’s Legacy

Dublin’s development has been like a roller-coaster ride over the last few decades. In the Eighties the city centre’s urban fabric was damaged by old-fashioned thinking that promoted road schemes and the destruction of historic buildings. Back then it was feared that Dublin would become a doughnut city like so many in the United States and elsewhere. Then along came the ‘Celtic Tiger’. Cranes appeared on the city skyline, and the city was transformed into a building site. A fifteen year frenzy of construction took place.  Suddenly in 2008 this came to a halt and there was time to think again. Some good buildings and a lot of mediocre ones had been built. On the positive side the inner-city population had increased by 50% to around 130,000 people.  However the city’s expansion has resulted in metropolitan Dublin expanding an hour’s drive down new motorways to the North, West and South. The wider city now has a population of 1.8 million people. Suburban sprawl has taken root but the city centre has experienced a renaissance.

As the dust settles from this boom and bust cycle it is time to consider what can be done to maximise the city’s potential. Three questions can be posed about the city in its current state. How can the traffic be tamed? What can be done to improve green infrastructure? What can be done to make better use of the small leftover sites? If these three issues can be tackled then urban areas can better face the unknown challenges of the rest of the twenty-first century.
Taming the Traffic

In some sense the traffic issue is the easy one: make it easier to walk and cycle, and improve public transport. This is already happening:  Over the 10 years from 2004 to 2014 the number of cyclists travelling to and from the city centre during ‘rush hour’ increased by over 150 %. There was almost a 15% increase from 2013 to 2014 alone. There has also been a 35% increase in the numbers walking over the last five years. These numbers are encouraging, but they relate to the inner city. The further away from the city centre the more people are wedded to their cars. The trick is to make sure car traffic doesn’t dominate the centre. This means more 30 kph zones, road narrowing, a gradual reduction in car parking spaces, and rail and bus improvements to move people around more easily. A new light rail is being built that will link two existing lines that run through the city centre, and this is good news. Returning more road space to the pedestrian will be difficult, but footpath widening is the secret weapon of the urban planner, and it will happen.

A cultural shift is also occurring, there is now a wider urban sensibility and it may be easier to argue for urban realm improvements. European initiatives to tackle urban noise, air pollution and carbon emissions are allowing civic leaders to argue the case for moving pedestrians and cyclists further up the transportation ladder. A 2014 study shows that pedestrians spend more money than car users in the central shopping district, and this is helping to make the case for investment in walking. Recently the city published plans for a ‘Liffey Boulevard’ cycle route linking the extensive Phoenix Park to the west of the city centre with the coastline of Dublin Bay to the east. Retails fear it may restrict car-users, but the benefits appear to outweigh any loss of road-space to car traffic.

Improving green infrastructure

Improving access to green areas is a crucial issue in improving the liveability of cities. It is often a make-or-break issue for families, and it has emerged as a factor that drives parents with young children to the suburbs. Large swathes of the city centre have little or no outdoor recreational space. The existing green spaces require better management and investment. More facilities in existing parks such as new cafes are being proposed. Extended opening hours can help, as well as making it easier to cross busy streets to get to these parks in the first place.

There are also many city centre sites that are unused and overgrown with vegetation. The State owns land earmarked for offices that it does not have the money to build, and other lands owned by bankrupt developers lie idle. Perhaps parks can be a solution for the next few years. In summer 2013 the temporary ‘Granby Park’ successfully allowed many to experience nature and cultural events within the city limits.

Opportunities for small empty sites

During the boom time development was concentrated on larger sites that could deliver greater returns, generally larger than 1000 square metres in area. Now is a time to think about the smaller sites that were overlooked or ignored when big sites were focused on exclusively. Smaller sites, particularly those that are less than 200 square metres are left to attract litter and anti-social activity. These small plots could be used for well-designed mixed-use developments. In some instances the developers have gone bust, in others the lands are owned by the city itself.

If economic growth continues the City could develop mixed-use development on these sites, or if not, consider selling them on with a design brief. This could allow housing associations or families to build affordable housing in the heart of the city.  No-one really know what future lies hold in store for Dublin, but experimenting is good, and it seems that ‘small is beautiful’ may be a motto to observe and follow over the next few years.

Ciarán Cuffe is an architect, city councillor and former Minister for Planning. He lectures in urban regeneration at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

First published in ‘The City at Eye Level’, Eburon, Rotterdam, 2016