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Don’t Look Up

Kevin Duff

With a severe homelessness crisis, skyrocketing rents, a generation locked out of home ownership and a construction industry producing everything except affordable homes, the debate on the housing crisis is set to continue ‑ with no resolution in sight. Inevitably, high-rise buildings are put forward by some as a means to cut the Gordian knot of Dublin’s planning and housing problems; if only, it is suggested, the city could implement this simple solution and build lots of skyscrapers then everyone could live close to the city and commuting, sprawl and unaffordability would be a thing of the past.

In practice though, the business of delivering attractive, affordable housing in the right place is complex, and high-rise buildings form only a very small part of the whole picture. Notoriously, Dublin has some of the worst, low-density suburban sprawl in the developed world, extending for twenty or thirty miles, sometimes more, into the surrounding counties, with all of the associated negative social, economic and environmental effects. This is well-documented. And it is accepted that the city needs to consolidate and densify its existing inner area and suburbs so as to curtail the sprawl and so that more people are able to live closer to jobs, services and amenities.

The pattern established in the twentieth century of low-density sprawl is unsustainable on multiple levels, increasing the cost of providing infrastructure, services and amenities, consuming finite land resources,destroying wildlife habitats and condemning large numbers of people to long commutes, mainly by motor car. This reduces the time available for family and community life, reduces work productivity, and contributes to air pollution, greenhouse gases, biodiversity loss and increased traffic congestion.

But the debate is ridden with false assumptions, chief among them that it is necessary to build high-rise towers in Dublin city to achieve the type of high densities required to meet housing need, deliver affordable homes, accommodate a population increase and prevent further sprawl. Alas, evidence shows that the high-rise building is not an effective means of achieving the type of compact, vibrant, dense and sustainable city required in the twenty-first century, and that optimum urban density is in fact achieved at a height of about six storeys. Above this, there are generally no density gains as it is necessary to leave more land-space around a building for fire, maintenance and emergency services access, and for prevention of overlooking and overshadowing of other property, particularly at Ireland’s latitude, where high buildings will throw long shadows.

High buildings also cause downdrafts, wind tunnels and other microclimates which are not conducive to pleasant and successful urban streets. They have huge environmental and energy-consumption costs relative to lower buildings and are extremely expensive to construct, necessitating high-rent tenants and occupants, which in turn inflates adjacent land prices, creating more unaffordability. A large proportion of their internal space is consumed by lifts, stairs and the service space required for heating, cooling, ducting and pumping water to the top floors, all of which lower the net density yield. High-rise towers are expensive to build, maintain and operate and will not deliver affordable homes. Recent years have seen high-profile international cases of high buildings which went on fire, resulting in major loss of life. Are our fire services equipped to deal with a serious fire in a high-rise tower?

Instead, the emphasis of local and national planning guidelines over the past two decades has been for the creation of well-designed, mixed-use urban neighbourhoods which are generally no more than six storeys in height. This is shown to be the most “liveable” and cost-optimal height for construction and maintenance. Examples from Amsterdam, Vienna, Copenhagen and Barcelona show that six storeys can deliver high-quality living environments at residential densities of up to 130 homes per hectare, which is more than adequate to support good public transport, services and amenities. According to UCD academic Orla Hegarty, Dublin has enough residential-zoned land in its four local authority areas to accommodate a 300,000 population increase based on this model.

These new urban places should be human-scaled and should ensure good social and physical health for all by being well-connected to community facilities, schools, workplaces, shops and green spaces. They should include an appropriate mix of social and affordable housing, and should make for safe, attractive places to live, where communities and human beings thrive; they should enable residents to perform daily trips without a car.

Above five or six storeys, it becomes difficult to pick out a friend or relative in the window of an upper-floor apartment, or difficult for a parent to call down to a child playing in a courtyard, so that high buildings are unsuitable for family living. Buildings of four, five and six storeys are acknowledged as the comfortable height for the latitude and climate of northern-European cities, and are sustainable heights in respect of energy consumption.

Dublin has begun to bear the fruits of a more intensive development approach, with new, higher-density residential concentrations appearing in locations such as Clongriffin, Pelletstown, Park West and Sandyford. These new urban places are served by public transport and deliver a varied mix of higher-density housing including two-storey “own door” units, duplexes and multi-storey apartment blocks. In the city centre, examples from the west end of Temple Bar and at the Gasometer site, Barrow Street, show how quality high-density, pedestrian-focused residential schemes which integrate successfully into their surroundings can be delivered without the need for high rise.

Currently, and not without controversy, provision for “strategic housing development” allows the fast-tracking of applications through the planning system with the specific aim of increasing housing supply across the city. There is a place for high-rise buildings within the Dublin housing picture, primarily in the Docklands area, for example to accommodate the mobile, international population of thirtysomethings who drive the tech sector, and to some extent along higher-capacity public transport corridors such as the Kildare rail line. But on a general basis across the city, high buildings are not required to achieve high density.

In seeking to create successful new higher-density urban neighbourhoods in Dublin, it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel. The city’s existing legacy of historic districts offer some of the best quality urban environments to examine and analyse, so as to determine what makes them successful places. Key characteristics include their compact form, their street-based layout, their walkability, their strong “sense of place” and their low-rise scale.

These include the city’s historic urban villages such as Portobello or Phibsborough, which are successful examples of residential design on a low-rise, higher-density basis, and which are vibrant and family-friendly places in which people like to live. Georgian Dublin too is a model of sustainable, high-density development which has stood the test of time; its buildings are still in use and in demand after more than two hundred years. Developed by generous landowners in the eighteenth century, these houses show that the Georgians knew how to use space, balancing the dense but elegant streets with good green spaces like Merrion Square and Mountjoy Square. Although these properties are now largely in office use ‑ in particular in the southern core ‑ the Dublin City Development Plan 2016-22 contains objectives encouraging a return to residential use for the Georgian areas. With their ready-made structure of larger spaces, Georgian houses are ideal for single families with children.

Alternatively, houses can be subdivided for apartments, generally on the basis of one apartment per floor. Guidelines exist for sensitive conversion, with guidance offered on accommodation of en-suites, protection and preservation of historic fabric and features, and private open space arrangements. Measured purely in square metres of floorspace, the streets of the inner city, with their four- to five-storey buildings in terraces, have a potential density comparable to that of any European urban centre.

In the two-storey terraced streets of the inner Victorian/Edwardian suburbs – Harold’s Cross, Rathmines and Ranelagh to the south and Drumcondra, Glasnevin and Phibsborough to the north – densities are still relatively high, though property prices and “empty nest” syndrome mean that a significant level of these inner-suburban houses are underused or almost empty.

Incentives need to be introduced to encourage the occupiers of family homes to downsize where appropriate, and for their subdivision into apartments to improve density, particularly in respect of the larger semi-detached or detached properties in locations such as Palmerston Road or Clontarf Road. This would simultaneously reduce the perception of the inner suburbs as an enclave of privilege and enable better use of this strategic land close to the city centre.

Despite these issues, it is in the city’s twentieth century suburbs where Dublin’s density problems really begin, with their pattern of two-storey, semi-detached housing with front and back gardens, on distributor roads with roundabouts and cul-de-sacs. Here, the density goes off a cliff. But the older city, between the canals, and out to the inner suburbs, is a high-density area.

Nevertheless, significant issues remain in the city centre in respect of vacant/derelict sites and buildings, and the large quantity of unused space over shops, with potential for an estimated four thousand apartments in the upper floors of existing buildings between the canals, which would answer inner city residential demand and help revive the social and economic vitality of their locations.

Following years of land-hoarding and decaying empty buildings, the vacant sites levy of 2015 gave local authorities powers to impose a levy on property owners who failed to utilise empty buildings or develop prime housing land, but critics say the levy has been set too low and a more aggressive and punitive approach is required to effect results. Similarly, there are large tracts of underutilised lands, often State-owned, close to the city centre which should be re-purposed and freed up to deliver the affordable homes needed to tackle the housing crisis, along with provision of generous new green spaces. These lands consist of Army barracks, bus depots, railway yards, storage-warehouse districts and former religious and institutional lands. Examples include Cathal Brugha barracks in Rathmines and Broadstone bus depot in Phibsborough, both of which are within walking distance of the city centre and could easily be regenerated for homes. Occupation of large pieces of land just a mile or two from O’Connell Street by single-storey buildings and surface car-parking for employees is simply unsustainable.

Provided these types of solutions are implemented, there is no fundamental problem with densities in the inner city. It is Dublin’s famously sprawling, low-density, mid- and late-twentieth century suburbs which need to be reconfigured as more sustainable, higher-density places, to act as a counter-point to the city centre and spread density and activity more evenly across the city, reducing commuting and congestion and improving their vitality. With this type of focus, it would not be necessary to be contemplating very high increases of densities and/or building heights in and around the precious historic centre of Dublin.

Recent moves, though, show an alarming trend towards the removal, in response to lobbying, of long-standing objectives to protect the skyline and inner urban area of Dublin, facilitating property owners and other interests at the expense of the invaluable character and heritage of the historic city. Dublin City Council, for example, in its current Dublin City Development Plan, has set the definition of a “low-rise” building at a height of up to 28m, which is twice the height of a Georgian house. This 28m low-rise limit is completely unrealistic and promotes the creation of incoherent streetscapes and random jumps in scale in the historic core of the city. It would be much more appropriate to set a benchmark of 20m for the historic centre and facilitate increased height in previously identified locations, primarily Dublin’s Docklands. Frankfurt, for example, has a financial district with very tall modern buildings but the rest of the city mostly considers anything above 20m to be a “high-rise” building.

More seriously, the Minister for Housing and Planning, Eoghan Murphy, introduced a document last December entitled Urban Development and Building Heights ‑ Guidelines for Planning Authorities, which effectively abandons restrictions on how tall a building can be, and largely regardless of its setting. Most shockingly, these guidelines impose planning standards by central government which override democratically adopted development plans, undermining and eroding the powers of local government so as to open up Dublin and other Irish cities to the possibility of the construction of high-rise towers in almost any location.

The civilised approach, as followed by Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Vienna, Lyon and those other historic European cities which are comparable in scale and form to Dublin, is to carefully protect and conserve the skyline of the inner city as a fragile and valuable asset, and to locate any taller buildings at a suitable distance from it, where they will not visually intrude upon it.

The planning for high buildings in Dublin had commendably proceeded on this basis until Eoghan Murphy’s guidelines and the extremely regrettable subsequent permitting by An Bord Pleanála in April 2019 of a twenty-two storey office and hotel tower at the corner of Tara Street and George’s Quay, directly opposite the eighteenth century landmark Custom House, and close to areas of outstanding architectural heritage importance and sensitivity including Trinity College, College Green, the Liffey quays and O’Connell Street, all of which are designated “Conservation Areas”.

What “skyline” means here really is not so much the profile of the city in a view across the rooftops, important as that is, but the feel and character of the historic inner city streets; their sequence and the serial vistas that unfold; their consistent and fine-grained “human” scale, occasionally punctuated by grander landmark buildings – courts, market houses, churches, banks and other public buildings carefully positioned for best effect. If a twenty- or thirty-storey building is inserted into this type of environment the impact is enormous. One has only to go to Brussels to experience the incoherent, disorienting effects of modern high-rise office and hotel towers randomly inserted into the historic urban structure and looming up behind old streets and buildings.

Cities in countries of the developing world struggle with identity and often seek to “put themselves on the map” through large scale construction of skyscrapers in a short period of time, with frequently disastrous results in terms of producing a coherent or attractive cityscape. Dublin has no such problems and already has a highly defined identity deriving from its elegant and orderly network of historic inner city streets and squares, its superb quality eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture, its rivers, canals and parks, together with its rich literary and artistic associations, and its lively street life. It does not need and certainly does not warrant re-identification by modern high-rise towers.

Yet a view pervades in certain sectors that, in order to be a big global capital, a city has to have big global buildings. Dublin has and will have a number of modern taller buildings in its Docklands area and marking other key points, but the current noisy clamour for high-rise is absurd. Dublin isn’t and likely never will be a high-building city. That is not what it’s about. Instead, the city should focus on what it’s good at – the activity on the ground and cherishing and enhancing the renowned character of its streets.

1/7/2019

Kevin Duff is Dublin City Planning Officer for An Taisce.

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