The New Development Plan Is Right on Building Heights

David O'Connor

David O’Connor lectures at DIT and co-runs the MSc in Transport and Mobility, a new multi-disciplinary programme in transport planning. Follow him on: www.twitter.com/doccer


There is much poorly informed media commentary blaming the lack of housing supply on overly restrictive planning regulations.

Let’s be clear. Our planning regulations are the lightest in Europe, and yet we have this problem of lack of supply.

Within this uninformed commentary lies a groundless but popular narrative, that planning is holding up the supply of housing, most particularly through the restriction on building heights in our cities. Irritatingly, as DIT Housing Lecturer Lorcan Sirr points out regularly, it is one that is not being openly refuted by our government.

In fact, allowing taller buildings will not help at all. For starters, they usually take too long to deliver. But there are bigger issues. Tall buildings are primarily a design issue. The real question is do we want them or even need them?

The Dublin City Development Plan for the period 2016–2022 came into effect on 21 October last. These milestones usually go by with little fanfare, yet the plan is the blueprint for the development of the city for the next six years and beyond.

The new development plan is quite balanced and nuanced on the matter of heights. It envisages clusters of tall buildings at strategic nodes around the city, particularly the docklands and around major transport hubs such as Heuston Station.

This is a good thing. Tall buildings, in architectural and urbanist terms, can have a big role in creating identity, structure and a sense of place.

Clustering tall structures at strategic locations around the city, as the city council proposes, makes sense. These locations are opportunity areas, and how we develop them is critical to building a sustainable city for everyone.

For the remainder of the city centre, heights are restricted to 28m (seven to nine storeys, depending on use and design) to protect the surrounding fabric and heritage.

The historic city centre is hugely important both economically and culturally. It is part of our urban heritage and identity. The city council is correct to recognise this.

Many German cities, for example Hamburg and Nuremberg, have legally protected skylines.  They see their medieval steeple-scapes as culturally important and worth protecting.

These are prosperous and sustainable cities with performing property markets. It is good that they are not afraid to protect their medieval heritage (something Dublin shares with them).

In suburban areas, building heights are cut back by the council to 16m (usually a maximum of four to five storeys, again depending on their purpose and how they are designed).

This is a really sensitive issue, and since many of us live in low-rise areas, we don’t want obtrusive towers overlooking and impeding our privacy. There might be a case for sensitively designed landmark structures in some of the urban villages and maybe at transport hubs, but more for “place-making” purposes than anything else.

Exceptions are allowed where the council prepares a Local Area Plan or other place-making scheme. It is hugely important that the city council invests fulsomely in meaningful public consultation in any such designs.

Good place-making implies a lot of things – proper public participation, very good design quality, provision of amenities and integrated planning. It is an understatement to say that we have not been very good at this in the past, but it is the future of planning if we want to survive at all.

Ironically, where planning permission for some of the tallest buildings in the city has been given, developers are not even taking it.

The North Lotts & Grand Canal Dock SDZ Planning Scheme permits U2 and Harry Crosbie to build 22-storey towers, architecturally framing the most dramatic gateway to the city, on either side of the Liffey Quays. But the U2 Tower is out of the ground and will only be 18 storeys.

It is not surprising that developers are building below their permitted height. Tall buildings are expensive, with low floor-to-building ratios. Some say they can even be used as an indicator of an over-heating property market – not quite what we are experiencing right now – and this is probably true.

What the city needs is higher densities, but in the right places and well designed. Economists, in particular, tend to conflate high rise with high density. This is not the case.

Brent Toderian, the former Vancouver chief city planner, talks about this. He terms it “density done well”.

A good local example of what he is talking about is Ballymun, where the tall buildings were demolished. The new Ballymun, not only has higher densities, it also boasts really lovely parks and streets, well worth a visit. This is “density done well”.

Let’s repeat it again: our planning restrictions are the lightest in Europe and yet we have this problem of lack of housing supply.

To understand the real problem perhaps we should look to finance (the clouds of the 2008 economic crash still shadow us) and an over-reliance on private initiative to deliver what is essentially a social good.

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David O'Connor: David O’Connor lectures at DIT and co-runs the MSc in Transport and Mobility, a new multi-disciplinary programme in transport planning. Follow him on: www.twitter.com/doccer

Reader responses

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Tony
at 2 November 2016 at 22:22

Interesting article, but surely the banner photograph tells us all we need to know about Dublin’s skyline. Is this the vista we are trying to protect. With Hawkins house and the Portals of Doom defining our city.

Isn’t it time we recognised that you cannot plan a city without having the powers to make interventions in the building fabric. We are overly precious about the Georgian squares on the south side and Dublin City politics is driven by the conservative, left leaning and low skilled city centre inhabitants rather than the city users.

If Dublin aspires to more than a mediocre provincial British isles city, then it needs a sophisticated planning system with executive powers and a willingness to make bold interventions. It is also high time we addressed the inappropriateness of large scale mono-demographic social housing between the canals.

Rand McNally
at 8 November 2016 at 12:05

Much of this is entirely misleading. It’s this attitude that dooms us.

“In fact, allowing taller buildings will not help at all” – I struggle to fathom how this could be honestly written. It’s a basic matter of physics, of geography, of space allocation. We need taller and denser building in appropriate areas, far in excess of what is being allowed. More people can live in a taller building than a shorter one on the same space allocated. But this won’t help? Right.

“For starters, they usually take too long to deliver.” – Right so we just build one story buildings because that’ll be quicker? We need to tackle the long term issues of housing shortage, office shortage, recreational land shortage. That’ll all be done by using space more efficiently.

“The new development plan is quite balanced and nuanced on the matter of heights. It envisages clusters of tall buildings at strategic nodes around the city, particularly the docklands and around major transport hubs such as Heuston Station.” – The fact that a select few buildings are being allowed in some sites does not make the plan balanced. We’re getting decent height on the Boland’s Quay site so everything else in the docks needs to be 6-8 stories despite the fact that barely anyone who works there is capable of finding a house there? Despite the fact that it’s not infringing on any historical core of the city of Dublin, and we’re in the middle of a housing crisis? A few isolated tall builds won’t solve a problem, there needs to be a change in trend – in appropriate areas (we agree on that point). Yes, planning needs to be careful but the protectionism is excessive to the degree that it is ludicrous. No one wants to build towers on Grafton Street. Or alongside the GPO. Or in a Georgian square. Or anywhere in the old heart of the city for that matter. But by treating new parts of the city in the same way, we’re guaranteeing that this housing and office shortage will continue indefinitely.

“There is much poorly informed media commentary blaming the lack of housing supply on overly restrictive planning regulations. Let’s be clear. Our planning regulations are the lightest in Europe, and yet we have this problem of lack of supply.” – This is poppycock, I’ve never been to a city of Dublin’s size with such inefficient use of space, with such restrictive height allowances in its CBD. We have the potential to increase density in the city and we have awful suburban transport links compared to most cities of our size. Yet the answer to our shortage is not in the city but in more low build urban sprawl? Outrageous.

Diarmuid
at 17 November 2016 at 10:40

Hard to know where to start with this. Higher densities doesn’t require taller buildings? Sure, but all else being equal taller buildings leave a lot more room at ground level for those lovely parks and streets. Why are you so against building up, but sprawling out apparently has no drawbacks in your analysis?

As for having the lightest planning restrictions – I’d point you ing the direction of literally dozens of European cities that have allowed far taller average heights than we have.

And those who say that tall buildings indicate overheating aren’t talking about 20-30 story towers (as I assume you well know) – they’re talking about the likes of the Burj Khalifa. Which nobody is suggesting we plonk down in the Liberties.

Andrew McNulty
at 6 February 2017 at 22:16

The Docklands has become sandyford upon sea. 7-9 story buildings when 12 -22 is more appropriate. Such a waste. We need taller buildings in new areas. And underground intercinnector alongside airport train connection. Dublin is a sprawl from Balbriggan to Bray. Time to build up and build transport infrastructure.

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