Dublin is growing. Many in Ireland might think it’s already too big. But, in reality, it’s small compared to many cities around the world.
And the news is that, despite the restrictions considered in the National Planning Framework and what some civil servants and politicians say, it’s only going to get bigger.
In 1800, the biggest city in the world was Beijing, with 1.1 million people, according to a 2016 paper in the journal Environment and Urbanization.
By 2010, a city wouldn’t have even broken into the top 100 with a population that size, and the largest city in the world was Tokyo, with 36 million. By 2100, it’ll likely be Lagos, with nearly 90 million.
All interesting but what, you say, has this got to do with Dublin? Well, we have to learn from what is happening elsewhere. The world is urbanising. So too is Ireland.
Ireland’s policy for growth is teetering on being anti-Dublin, a policy for constricting growth by saying it should be elsewhere and that rural Ireland should grow again.
King Canute believed his power emanated from God and he tried to control the tide. He failed.
So why do some people believe it is possible to hinder the the growth of a capital city, the only one of credible size in the country?
Why do they think people are choosing to leave rural Ireland, having been educated for jobs that just do not exist there? Why should Ireland be so out of step with world trends?
Does any of this matter? Well actually it does. It matters profoundly.
The economy has seen significant increases in traffic, difficulties in getting access to tickets for concerts, extortionate prices for many things, difficulty in accessing medical care and a shortage of accommodation. The supply of water is so limited that it is close to being a national crisis.
Have you walked on the pavements in the city centre? You can be forced out onto the road. And shopping malls, ugly as they are, are overcrowded at weekends.
For many this is a sign that the city is just too big. For the rest of us, it says we just have not invested enough in the city. Our priorities are wrong.
If we cannot address the water issue with due speed, we will face a social and economic catastrophe. If we cannot accelerate our renewable-energy production, we will pay multiple millions in fines – money that should be invested now in resolving this issue.
We continue to prioritise cars in available public space. Everyone, including Dublin Bus, wants to go straight through the core of the city. Yet the number of people in vehicles on the road is minuscule compared to those walking on the streets. The space apportioned to penned-in pedestrians belies this.
We say we want people to walk and cycle. But there is little or no allocation of safe space for cycling.
Pedestrians struggle to overcome obstacle after obstacle. Commercial signage, bollards, street barriers, poor footpaths and, oh yes, ongoing road works litter the public domain.
We have few open spaces and the one we want to develop, College Green, is facing undue delay after delay going through an Bord Pleanála.
Dublin City Council has an excellent public-realm strategy for its city-centre area. It just does not have the money to deliver it. When some aspects of it are being brought forward by the City Council, there is a level of opposition that is negative and self-centred.
There is a strong greenway strategy that is in the National Transport Authority’s (NTA’s) programme of works. Yet none of these have been fully funded.
We see a range of important rural greenways progressing, and there can be no argument against this. But why are the urban ones in Dublin being ignored?
In the Irish Times recently, a study from Peter Hamilton showed how the state is in control of 334 sites or buildings lying idle. A lot of these will be in Dublin. Other sites will be underused.
We have an accommodation crisis, which is a mix of lack of supply and outrageous level of cost for both purchasing and renting. Remember it’s Dublin, not London, Paris, or New York.
Joining the dots might not be too difficult. That is of course if you believe there is a role for the state to intervene. I do, and so do so many others.
We have a civil service and local authorities that are understaffed, but full of talented people. But they are hampered by a structure that is so out of date and that hampers innovation and entrepreneurial approaches. We look at the wrong countries to model our public sector on.
I am writing this from Beijing, where I am lecturing. It’s an impressive capital in an impressive country. There are lessons we can learn from here and elsewhere.
Some of these lessons are negative. A city that was known for cycling is now car-dominated. There are many highways, all addressing a population that is coming to love the car.
The centre of Beijing has footpaths littered with bikes that are not being used. Cars and motorbikes are parked on the footpaths, many of which are in poor repair. Bollards appear regularly in the most inappropriate places, and of inappropriate size.
Looking at Beijing, I could only think how important it is that we get Dublin correct as we grow. We need to prioritise, invest, and activate our plans.
Cities are for people. We need to attract in people with high levels of skills (Irish returners and non-Irish skilled workers). This city has to be liveable, attractive, and so much less expensive to live in.
Passive approaches will not get us there. Good strategies and policies are helpful, but only if you can implement them. The government has to invest strongly in our capital city over a prolonged period of time.
When can we expect change to happen? I have been waiting a long time now.