Dublin: Design and Decline

Alan Mee  |  Alan Mee is an architect working in urbanism, architecture, research and education at University College Dublin

It would not be Dublin if the foreground were not composed of crumbling ruins, hoardings, concrete revetments and great baulks of timber, with ghostly chimney-breasts on the neighbouring gables, high in the open air. (Craig, 1952.)

It would be quite an achievement for a ‘great’ contemporary city to have begun its urban decline before most of the others even got going, in historical terms. Yet that is just the case of Dublin, when seen in this light. Many urban historians agree that the most glorious years of this historic city on the river Liffey ended in 1800, the year of the passing of the Act of Union. This transferred government powers to London, in fact from the first purpose-built bicameral parlimentary house in Europe, (completed only years before, opposite Trinity College). The long form narrative of urban decline is compelling, especially at a time when social and economic shocks seem to arrive in increasingly regular waves, originating somewhere else, caused by larger forces, and beyond local control. Could it be that they fit within a larger pattern that might help to explain our present-day condition?

As recounted in much detail elsewhere, the major design characteristics of the city of Dublin we know today were primarily set out in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, whether in public squares, infrastructure, parks, great streets, grand public buildings, or churches. All combine to set the topographical scene for later additions. As the first ‘real town’ on the island of Ireland, and since the tenth century the biggest urban unit, the city has in some ways come to represent urban identity for the island, while at the same time remaining a small European capital city, the size of a ‘substantial provincial city in Britian or Europe’ according to art historian Christine Casey (Casey, 2005). Significant events in urban history and design terms included the setting up of the Wide Streets Commission in Dublin in 1757, as ‘Europe’s first official urban planning body’, coinciding almost exactly with John Rocque’s map of 1756, the first map of the city to accurately show property boundaries. So while this jurisdiction has suffered under history, it has also benefited from the early adaptation of certain technological and planning instruments.

Some of the major design characteristics of Dublin over time were primarily the outcome of private initiatives, by significant landowners laying out sections or ‘estates’ of the city in accordance with ‘light touch’ but quite spatially or ‘design’ specific regulation. These regulations contributed to the overall quality and urban coherence of the Georgian cityscape, with which Dublin is associated today. However, the much discussed decline of grand housing into world famous tenements of the nineteenth and early twentieth century was a spatial as well as a social tragedy, and contributed to losses of whole streets, building collapses, demolitions and widespread dereliction, as associations of poverty and decline imprinted themselves on the urban built environment.

On achieving independance in 1922, it could be argued that Dublin sought to house its urban citizens partly in proto-urban housing types, of low density, minimal design complexity, and inward looking courtyards facing away from streets. Meanwhile, large tracts of farmland were being colonised by a peculiar combination of church and state, as new family oriented suburban housing estates were planned around parishes and new catholic churches. So when, by the mid-1980’s, Dublin’s first significant urban regeneration area in the Docklands came to be managed, it was possibly not surprising to the historian that a new development ‘authority’ should be created. This political move managed to spatially create pockets of priviledge, edges and outsides of ‘good’ zones to invest in, thus chopping and dicing the spatial and social fabric of the city centre.

Another key decision for Dublin, in political and urban design terms, was the separation of city authorities from the planning and implementation (but not blame) of  Temple Bar, a revitalised urban quarter beside the Liffey river in the city centre. This is now one of the better known examples of urban regeneration in Europe, while also being a spatially isolated case, still critically under-analysed nationally. The examples of social housing provision, or planning and construction of infrastructure, could illustrate a longer account of the design dystopia of the city over time, but the most recent boom and bust years will also do nicely.

While generally agreed to have started around 1988, the last Irish economic boom had clearly ended by 2006, and the spatial residue remaining when the tide went out is still being picked over. In terms of ‘spatial’ here, we can consider parts of the built environment, distinguished from building or architectural scale, by being of larger size, so for example, new urban blocks, collections of (or individual) new streets, bridges, public spaces, or parks. In broad terms, we can say that the city centre benefited from some significant additions spatially, as well as renewal of urban populations, though the resulting quality of life, especially in public terms, is debated. It has been argued for example by geographer Peter Lawton, that the general provision of a compact urban form, and public spaces in Ireland has become ‘a sort of side-show, or gloss, with property and profit dictating the nature of urban development’. In relation to the prevailing ‘European city model’ of the time, Lawton observes that ‘the model that predominated in Ireland focused on exclusive upmarket living, primarily orientated towards the attraction of young middle class workers’ (Lawton, 2013). Thus, many were left behind, or more accurately outside, where a large, expanding suburban sub-city was feeding the historic city body, while simultaneously decaying from within.

Poor quality public space, lack of housing, non-functional infrastructure, rocketing property prices, poor provision of schools, playgrounds, public facilities, the list goes on, and little public debate has focused on this post-boom, given that other fundamentals, like lack of cash, jobs and shelter, have resurrected themselves as constant worries for many Dubliners. However, some of the few commentaries on the spatial legacies of the boom are very revealing. ‘Spacing Ireland’, a collection of writings from 2013 mainly featuring geographers, (and where Lawton appears) at least reflects the tensions emerging in contemporary Irish urban society. The book covers ‘place, culture and society’, and interprets each in wide, expansive and exciting ways, including for example motorways and spaces of food-growing.    Similarly, Michelle Norris writes from a social sciences perspective, relating livability to public housing developments in Dublin and beyond (Norris, 2014). In relation to spatial justice, Kearns introduces four aspects of the Irish crisis, which in fairness, affected much of the island similarly (though the micro-spatial inequalities are also set out) (Kearns, 2014). These are finance, planning, equality of opportunity and identity. Each is covered in morbid but gripping detail.

However, it is possible that a similarly well-organised critical mass of researchers is missing, or at least not evident, in the spatial sciences, whereby the spatial aspects of the changes are critically reviewed. Although macro-spatial issues like lack of public housing provision and neo-liberal planning policy are covered, city or urban design scale spatial assessments are rare, and therefore we may be missing important evidence on the causes, evaluation and lessons of the recent boom in ‘development’ for Dublin.

No competent appraisal of the design changes in Dublin could overlook the dynamic social, political or even economic aspects of contemporary Irish spatial culture, and the task of bringing together all of these strands has rarely been attempted, such is the challenge. While socio-spatial enquiries related to the contemporary suburbs and life in unfinished housing estates have been tackled, commentaries on issues with more urban and spatial emphasis, like quality of inner-city urban blocks or provision of public space, have largely remained unwritten.

Exceptions include a review of ‘experiments in urban commoning’, defined as ‘people collectively finding ways to open up space to do what they want’ by Bresnihan and Byrne (Bresnihan and Byrne, 2015). Here, Dublin examples have been theorised and explored, and the temporary (or precarious) urbanism involved has been critiqued, with arguably scant local attention from the dominant power elites of the city. Other commentary on urban design related initiatives includes critiques and awards of the related professional associations, and their journals. These have the disadvantage of sometimes appearing biased and short sighted, limited as they are to surveying the work of members, and with a dual mandate to promote as well as critique them, and sometimes even in competition between the disciplines of planning and architecture.

In broad design terms, relating to neighbourhoods, design, or quality of urban life, the current emphasis locally tends towards projects like Dublin Docklands, the home of the Silicon Docks, a much lauded micro-cluster of digital enterprise and urban life. However, the fact that its original development and delivery was effectively taken out of the hands of the City Council, (as happened with Temple Bar, many years before) seems to suggest that special mechanisms over and above the ‘ordinary’ devices are needed, essential even, as a means of procuring high quality public spaces, housing and indeed everyday public life.

In broader terms, and to conclude on an optimistic note, biological, ecological or natural analogies and metaphors recur in the categorisation and analysis of cities over time, with varying currency. In this sense, decline, neglect, dying even, are seen as the essential elements in forming the rich humus of future life, which could erupt in unexpected forms and locations, as yet unimaginable. Could this be a saving grace for Dublin ?

Alan Mee is an architect working in urbanism, architecture, research and education, lecturing at University College Dublin


Bresnihan P and Byrne M. (2015) Escape into the City: Everyday Practices of Commoning and the Production of Urban Space in Dublin. Antipode 47: 36-54.

Casey C. (2005) The Buildings of Ireland : Dublin, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Craig M. (1952) Dublin 1660-1860’, Dublin: Figgis.

Kearns G, Meredith, David, Morrissey, John  (Eds). (2014) Spatial Justice and the Irish Crisis, Dublin, Ireland: Royal Irish Academy.

Lawton P. (2013) Rethinking the liveable city in a post boom-time Ireland. In: Crowley C (ed) Spacing Ireland: place, culture and society. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 147-166.

Norris M. (2014) Social Housing, Disadvantage and Neighbourhood Liveability Ten years of change in social housing neighbourhoods: Routledge.