The decline of the Dublin dock’s was a major blow to the city, leaving a legacy of unemployment and poverty, issues which fomented the addiction crisis of the ‘80s and 90s and continue to wreak havoc on inner-city communities. This context is all-too-often forgotten by those interested in urban design, who have sometimes been guilty of limiting their focus to ‘quality of life’ issues. Nevertheless, from an urban planning perspective the decline of the docks did present an opportunity to ‘reconnect the city with its maritime heritage’ (to use Dublin City Council’s terminology). The city centre could have extended east to bring the sea back into the everyday life of Dubliners.
The city has developed, instead, into a ‘retail core’ separated from the sea by several kilometres of soulless office construction and empty developments (such as the inaptly named PointVillage). The Dockland’s area and IFSC are classic ‘mono-use office environments’, characterised by extremely limited social and public spaces, devoid of diversity and suffering from a lack of what planners call ‘animation’ (i.e. life) after office hours and during the weekend. The appearance of the Tall Ships once a year, as much as Dublin City council likes to champion these ‘sticking plaster’ initiatives, is not going to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. From the point of view of the majority of people who live in Dublin, the dockland’s development is a case of failed, profit-driven, short-term urban planning and development. (We could also address here the enormous quantities of debt generated in the process, much of which we have ended up paying for via the bank bailout).
As the saying goes, ‘fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me’. The latest plans for what NAMA calls ‘Ireland’s most important internationally marketable land bank’ are an attempt to fool us twice. A section of the Docklands has been designated a Strategic Development Zone. The area encompasses the North Lotts and Grand Canal Dock (maps can be seen here). A Strategic Development Zone is a provision in Irish planning law to designate a specific area for ‘fast-track planning’. The idea is simple: get rid of the planning appeals process. NAMA has said that ‘fast track planning’ is vital to attract international “investors” to reboot office construction. The boundaries of the Strategic Development Zone, moreover, have been drawn to exclude the traditional inner-city working class communities and the planning scheme does not include any strategy around social or affordable housing.
The draft planning scheme sets out the planning framework and overall vision for the area. The idea is that once the draft scheme is signed off on (it is currently undergoing an oral hearing appeals process under An Bord Pleanala), Dublin City Council (the appointed development agency for the SDZ) can approve any planning application which it deems consistent with the planning scheme and this approval will not be subject to an appeals process. Planning appeals area a vital aspect of urban development, allowing an element of democratic participation in how our city grows. They provide us, the people who live in the city, with an opportunity to stop and delay some of the worst proposals dreamt up by developers. If it wasn’t for the appeals process the disaster that was urban development during the boom and, crucially, the levels of debt it generated would have been considerably greater.
So why get rid of the appeals process? What’s so great about ‘fast-track planning’? The crucial thing to understand here is that NAMA and other property players are increasingly focused on globalizing the real estate game. The Irish banks are basically not lending for commercial real estate development, so NAMA thinks it’s time to go global and attract the big predators that stalk the international markets. This is no secret, NAMA has consistently argued that new “investment” is likely to come from international sources and it has recently done deals with giants such as Lone Star Capital, Oaktree Capital and Blackstone, as argued by researcher Aubrey Robinson in a recent issue of the Irish Left Review. NAMA has also emphasized that what firms of this nature want is ‘certainty’ and ‘reduced risk’. Large firms don’t want clumsy planning approval process and pesky citizens delaying or even stopping developments.
The SDZ is essentially designed to eliminate the local complications that can arise for property developers to make a smoother route between global capital and local real estate.
The draft planning scheme prepared by Dublin City Council of course includes plenty of references to connecting Dublin with its maritime heritage, harnessing creative potentials and developing innovation hubs. Anyone who researches urban development will tell you that these buzzwords are regurgitated by every city council from Boston to Berlin. They will also point out that the planning scheme may include a ‘vision’ around fuzzy concepts like ‘inclusivity’ and the ‘public realm’, but the bottom line is that development is going to be determined by whoever holds the purse strings, and in the SDZ this is going to mean NAMA and other players whose sole concern is maximizing profits (or ‘yield’ as they call it in financial circles). A recent example offers an indication of what the future of the Docklands may hold. Mabos, a social and cultural space situated within the SDZ, recently found the building they are located in sold to Oaktree Capital (a “global investment management firm focused on alternative markets” – according to NAMA it has $78.8 billion in assets under management). Now the building will become commercial office space, and the Mabos project, which has been thriving for some years and has created a unique space for civic and cultural participation, faces closure.
Let’s put this in context. There are 100,000 mortgage holders in serious arrears, the number of people on the social housing waiting lists has doubled since 2008, rents in Dublin’s private sector are rocketing and the number of families becoming homeless each month has also doubled. On top of that, there is widespread vacancy (around 20% office vacancy) and attempts to generate creative, inclusive and non-commercial uses of space seem to only be possible if they are temporary (Granby Park, the Art Tunnel) or else find it very hard to stay open (witness the closure of Exchange Dublin, Supafast, the Chocolate Factory urban garden, Dubzland Audio Visual Gallery, and in the near future MABOS).
This is the context in which Dublin City Council, the Department of the Environment (responsible for planning) and NAMA (the government’s single largest intervention in the real estate sector) have decided to prioritize more office construction. In terms of planning, governance and finance (NAMA will provide investment in the area of up to several billion euro), all the strings are being pulled to get speculative office construction and sales back in gear.
For anyone who cares about the city and its future it is vital that we challenge this logic, this set of priorities and, concretely, the SDZ. If we don’t, there will be no point complaining fifteen years from now about developers and bankers screwing up the city, burdening us with unpayable debts and generally making a mess of the economy.
This is perhaps not the place to propose concrete responses and strategies, but we would like to draw the reader’s attention to one aspect of the kind of urban development we’re talking about here and its potential implications in terms of how it might be democratically challenged. One of the absolutely crucial things about the SDZ is that it will make possible fast, certain and risk-free development. At the heart of it is the real estate sector’s need for speed. Turnover times for property development are vital, anything that holds it up (planning appeals, workers going on strike, unearthing archaeological ruins etc.) can cost millions. This is where our strength lies: if we can slow down developments in the SDZ we can undermine a core aspect of the whole process thus preventing wasteful, unsustainable developments that blight the city. As has been shown by the Shell to Sea campaign, direct action to slow down construction can make profit-driven multinationals think twice about trampling over opposition from citizens and local communities. Moreover, it is not particularly difficult to halt construction works given the fairly stringent safety regulations. Of course direct action of this nature cannot be used in a gratuitous fashion, it must be accompanied by strong legitimacy and widespread support. Dublin City Council have explicitly stated in the draft Planning Scheme that widespread civic support is an essential part of the SDZ process. As things stand, most Dubliners don’t even know it’s happening. If this civic support doesn’t materialize and if there are widespread concerns among the local community and wider city, then peaceful, creative actions to slow construction could provide a very useful tool to challenge the SDZ process and ignite public debate around the future of our city by the sea.