Richard Conway is a journalist covering culture, design and politics. He lives in New York.
The economic crisis decimated the Irish capital. But two years after a massive bailout, a new kind of city is emerging.
Not so long ago, Dublin was the poster child of Europe, a fringe city that underwent a spectacular transformation from the capital of a country The Economist once dubbed "the poorest of the rich," to the center of Ireland’s booming Celtic Tiger economy.
The city's success was often attributed to a swelling property bubble, a low corporate tax rate, inward tech investment, and a highly educated population. But if this was Dublin at the top of its game, it didn’t last long. In 2008, not without warning, a global and national financial crisis hit hard. It was back to square one.
This week marks two years since Ireland received an €85 billion IMF and EU bailout. And right now, its capital is at a crisis point: Young people are leaving, with emigration hitting its highest level since the great famine. On the streets, there are frequent protests as locals let the government know how they feel about austerity measures and the 14.8 percent national unemployment rate. Meanwhile, stores are closing and so-called ghost estates – unfinished boom-era residential developments – exist as reminders of a still stagnant property market.
Despite this uncertainty, Dublin has become the center of a new kind of rebirth, with determined residents transforming it into a model of creativity and livability. Art collectives – which sprung up during and after the crash – have blossomed, joined by independent galleries, stores and movie theaters. Likewise, local designers are coming up with bold ideas. Earlier this year, Mahoney Architects proposed a plan for a vertical park in the half-built headquarters of the bust-contributing Anglo Irish Bank. There have been calls for measures like more downtown playgrounds and the banning of cars. So popular is this urban navel-gazing that The Irish Times recently ran a series called re-inventing Dublin, where experts, journalists and the public all weighed in.
One such interested Dubliner has come up with the most ambitious plan to date. Patrick McCabe of landscape practice REDscape has proposed Greenport, a plan that would see the city’s harbor transformed into part giant urban parkway, part sustainable energy hub, part cultural destination. Here, linear parks would line swathes of now industrial downtown as ferries link both sides of town. Nearby, the unused Poolbeg Power Station would be transformed into a cultural space, much like London’s Bankside Power Station became the Tate Modern, as a tidal energy dam and wind turbines provide power to both the area and the city at large.
While massive in scale, McCabe is pitching the plan as "bottom up," stemming from Dublin's needs and not those of developers. It's a marked contrast, perhaps, to the now-defunct right-of-center Progressive Democrats' plan, which was slammed as equal parts unimaginative and unsustainable in 2006.
Proposals that aim to change the way public space is used in Dublin are undoubtedly exciting, but they may amount to nothing without leadership to truly get them off the ground, or sustain them when they do.
"There is lack of will and lack of vision on the part of people in authority," says Frank McDonald, environment editor with The Irish Times. "A fundamental change needs to happen." McDonald – known nationally as an expert on Dublin, and who has his own ideas for the city – adds that the capital needs an equivalent of Michael Bloomberg or Boris Johnson, pretty quickly.
At the moment, Dublin's Lord Mayor is merely the internally-elected chair of Dublin City Council, a largely symbolic post. "There needs to be a directly elected mayor with executive power. The problem is that the government seems very unwilling to concede that."
It's an idea that many national politicians regard with a sense of "horror," McDonald says. Indeed, at a national level there seems to be no plan to get the city – the principal driver of Ireland's economy and home to around 40 percent of its population – back on its feet. On a local level, despite some definite success stories, such as the Dublinbike scheme, there is still no cohesive strategy. The government has flexed its creative muscle in the past, however: The 1991 commissioning of Group 91 architects to help design parts of the Temple Bar area, the city's central nightlife district, is often said to have at least partly contributed to the city’s last cultural and economic renaissance.
That seems like a long time ago to today’s Dubliners, though. James McCormack, a former resident now working as an architect in London, says he felt he needed to leave in order to thrive.
"I probably would have emigrated even if Ireland was still booming," he says. For him, Dublin has always been exciting but it just can’t offer the opportunities it used to, particularly for architects seeking well-paid work.
Not everyone feels that way. For some, the collapse has provided a sort of creative jolt. Aine Macken, who heads up the creative tutoring collective Art Clash, says the city’s stagnation – coupled with its relatively small scale – is opening the door for creativity in practically every discipline. And right now, she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
"Dublin is exciting," she says. "There is no money, but there is potential. It’s invigorating."