Treasuring Ireland: Protecting the Built Heritage of Dublin

17th June 2020
News Item

In Dublin, the present Covid-19-generated lull in activity offers an opportunity to reflect on the merits, or otherwise, of the most recent flurry of construction in the city. How has it contributed to the great legacy of the historic city? Has it strengthened and reinforced, or has it damaged and weakened, the venerable urban qualities of Dublin? Intense activity, combined with an official pro-development climate, meant enormous pressure has been experienced on the planned streets and spaces handed down to us by the Georgian and Victorian planners and builders, and on the earlier medieval elements of the city.

The initial ‘Celtic Tiger’ property and construction bubble came to an abrupt stop with the economic crash of 2008, leaving the city reeling from a decade or more of reckless bank-lending, speculation and construction. Then it was back to business with equal abandon when the ‘Celtic Phoenix’ rose again in the early part of the last decade, as if the previous frenzy had not occurred.

Historically, Dublin has inherited a rich physical identity of streets, squares, rivers, canals, harbours and parks, along with a superb collection of public and institutional buildings such as courts, markets, museums, galleries, railway stations and churches. These represent enviable assets and characteristics for any city but require careful protection and jealous guarding against inappropriate development proposals or other changes which might adversely alter their special character.

Inner-city Dublin is characterised by an elegant and orderly network of historic streets and spaces, with its ‘human scale’ being a major attraction and defining feature. The restrained terraced streetscapes are contrasted with impressive neo-classical public buildings and gothic churches. The streets’ textbook height-to-width ratios, the prevailing traditional, narrow building plots and the diverse mix of uses create ideal conditions for commercial vitality and a vibrant, colourful street life enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.

The River Liffey and its quays form the city’s ‘central civic spine’ and remains one of its most successful and iconic pieces of historic townscape. Its character derives from the width and vistas of the river as it meanders west-east through the city, the gracious arched stone and iron bridges over it, and the calm mass of buildings lining it, occasionally punctuated by the grander architectural landmarks of St. Paul’s church, the Four Courts and Custom House.

Dublin’s renowned north and south Georgian cores date to the city’s great period of classical urban planning in the 18th century and the area has international significance for its contribution to European cultural built heritage. Developed by generous landowners, the elegant and spacious streets are balanced with good quality green spaces like Merrion Square and Mountjoy Square. Majestically-proportioned faded redbrick terraces lead to carefully-composed vistas of landmark stone monuments.

Georgian Dublin is, furthermore, regarded as a model of sustainable, high-density development which has stood the test of time, being still in use and in demand after more than 200 years. Though largely in office use today, in particular the southern core, An Taisce supports a return of the area to its original, residential use. With their ready-made structure of larger spaces, Georgian houses are ideal for single families with children. Alternatively, houses can be subdivided for generous apartments, normally on the basis of one apartment per-floor, making them ideal for downsizers. Guidelines are available for sensitive residential conversion, with advice offered on protection and preservation of historic fabric and features, accommodation of en-suites, and private open space arrangements.

In the Victorian inner suburbs, the strong architectural traditions of the inner city are continued, with carefully laid out streets of well-proportioned and detailed housing. The geometric façade compositions and decorative features, together with use of good quality materials - stone, brick, terracotta and iron - create a pleasing harmony and contributes to the understanding of the historical evolution of the city. Urban village centres are dominated by landmark heritage buildings of interest such as St. Peter’s church in Phibsborough or the Town Hall in Rathmines.

Apart from its inherent attractiveness as a daily backdrop to the lives of its citizens, as a place to live, relax or do business, the historic built environment of the city of Dublin is a major tourist attraction and revenue generator for the economy. However, the special character and identity of Dublin city is under threat in 2020 as never before. Recent moves show an alarming trend for removal, in response to lobbying, of long-standing objectives to protect the city’s skyline and inner-urban area, facilitating the property sector 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 (14m). This 28m low-rise limit is completely unrealistic and promotes 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 for the majority of the city considers anything above 20m as a “high-rise” building.

More seriously, Minister for Housing and Planning Eoghan Murphy introduced a document in December 2018 entitled Urban Development and Building Heights - Guidelines for Planning Authorities which effectively abandons restrictions on how tall a building can be, largely regardless of its setting. These guidelines impose planning standards by central government which override democratically-adopted development plans, undermining and eroding powers of local government so as to open up Dublin (and other Irish cities) for the possibility of 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 and where they will not visually intrude upon it. The planning for high buildings in Dublin had commendably proceeded on this basis until Minister Murphy’s guidelines and the calamitous 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 18th century architectural jewel of the Custom House, and close to areas of outstanding built-heritage importance and sensitivity, including Trinity College, College Green, the Liffey Quays and O’Connell Street, all of which are designated ‘Conservation Areas’.

Whereas, previously, the planning appeals board, An Bord Pleanála, could be relied upon as a sort of safety valve to curb the worst excesses of the development control process, now, the overwhelming majority of Dublin city planning applications taken to appeal are given permission, often in the face of robust and reasoned and arguments outlining why proposals are in conflict with local or national policy, would adversely impact on heritage and amenity, and require modification or refusal.

Effective campaign work by An Taisce and other organisations averted the loss of many significant historic buildings in the late 20th century. However resolution for a number key sites has remained stubborn over the course of two sucessive booms in the twenty-first century, including the Iveagh Market, Francis Street, and the former Carlton Cinema, Upper O’Connell Street, where multiple historic buildings of social and cultural significance have lain vacant and decaying over an extended period. Also problematic is the wider level of underused or vacant buildings in the city, with potential for an estimated 4000 apartments in the upper floors of existing shops and other buildings between the canals, which would address inner-city residential demand, reduce commuting and congestion, 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 gives the local authority powers to impose a levy on property owners who fail 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.

Protecting the built heritage of Dublin in the 2020s is not for the faint-hearted, with frantic levels of activity and seemingly everything being done to facilitate short-term economic interests at the expense of the longterm sustainability, beauty and setting of the historic city. However An Taisce will continue to seek to protect this great cultural built heritage legacy of European significance for now and for future generations.

by Kevin Duff, Dublin City Planning Officer, An Taisce

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