Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Ireland’s capital is in the midst of a height debate.
Dublin is many things, but tall isn’t one of them. Ireland’s capital could be the lowest-slung in all of Europe—and right now, it’s having a debate over whether it should ease building height restrictions to allow developers to propose extra floors on new construction.
Building height debates of this nature are common across Europe, but Dublin’s current quandary is a little different. The city is not discussing whether or not it should allow more towers. Instead it is trying to decide if current height restrictions for residential buildings should be made more generous, a move that could arguably change the cityscape more than a few skyscrapers.
If new rules proposed by Dublin Council go through, the city core won’t become a pincushion-like bristle, but the average height of streets could be steadily pushed up, year-on-year. In a few decades time, inner Dublin would probably look notably taller and denser than it does today.
At present, Dublin is built low even compared to the rest of the British Isles, an archipelago where cities (excluding those of Scotland, where they have always built slightly higher and denser) typically cleave quite close to the ground. A modestly sized city of just over a million, Dublin possesses some local quirks rarely found elsewhere, such as the single-floor row house. Tall buildings are permitted in only a few areas, notably the Docklands that lie to the west of Dublin’s true center. Even here, the highest building at present (occupied by Google) is a mere 220 feet high. The inner city is of course higher than the suburbs, but height controls are especially tight around key historic areas such as Merrion Square, the Liffey Quays and College Green. There are advantages to this policy, such as that Inner Dublin’s remaining Georgian streets (average height: 45 feet) don’t have taller buildings around them to steal their light and thunder.
Dublin, however, is desperate for housing. Ireland may have experienced a building boom before the 2008 financial crisis, but many new homes were not built in areas where people now want to live. With the average monthly rent for an apartment now €1,260 ($1,404), many ordinary Dubliners are struggling. Meanwhile, current height rules have proved tougher on residential developers than on the commercial side of the business.
Which brings us to the specific height rule changes proposed by Dublin Council. Current regulations fix a maximum number of floors at which a building can still be considered low-rise—a category for which it is much easier to get planning permission. Around railway stations, both offices and homes are allowed a maximum of seven floors, while in the city center low-rise residential buildings can have seven floors and offices eight. Elsewhere in Dublin, the maximum low-rise height is capped at five floors. All low-rise buildings, residential or not, have a maximum height of 28 meters (92 feet).
The regulations may seem straightforward, but they have had the effect of making residential buildings much lower than their office counterparts. Irish homes have lower ceilings than Irish offices, meaning that in practice the realistic maximum low-rise height for a seven floor residential building is actually 19 meters (62 feet). The regulations in the newest Dublin City Development Plan would scrap the rules pertaining to the number of floors and simply maintain a height cap of 28 meters for all types of central Dublin building.
This simple change could push officially low-rise apartment building heights up to ten floors, likely making that the default height that any developer wanting to maximize profit would adopt. And in a city where even city center buildings typically hover around the four to five floor mark, that’s quite a jump. It’s a change that’s being fought by a group of Dublin politicians gathered from all parties except Sinn Féin. The opposition want office building height allowances to be lowered, not residential ones raised, and insist that densities can be increased without taller buildings. They and their supporters point out that in a city where historic streets are typically 14 meters high, it is nonsense to suggest that something double that height is really low-rise.
It’s also unlikely that taller residential buildings in Dublin’s heart would directly ease housing shortages for the average person, at least not in the shorter term. Such developments’ location would make them expensive affairs for a niche market rather than an instant salve to the city’s affordability problems. Meanwhile, Dublin Council has been singularly weak on a key issue that could greatly increase homebuilding: forcing un-built city land into development. The city has admittedly created a vacant land tax, but it then delayed its introduction and diluted it, which leaves them open to accusations that the new height proposals are primarily tailored to help developers rather than citizens.
Despite that, Dublin will likely have to do much more than develop unused sites if it’s going to meet current housing needs and avoid further sprawl. Infill development could help, but the city can’t defer indefinitely the decision to build further up or even, potentially, to demolish and rebuild.