Delivering an extra 20 homes an acre in Dublin

Ireland’s housing challenge over coming decades is substantial. Within that, though, the need for new housing supply is not spread evenly. As things stand currently, Dublin will be, regardless of how tough the politicians talk, the centre of Irish economic and population growth in the 21st century.

Let’s put some numbers on it. Over the coming half-century, the country will need almost two million new apartments. This is needed to accommodate changing demographics and increasing urbanization, as well as regular population growth.

Dublin will need about 600,000 of those apartments. For apartments, think everything from purpose-built student accommodation and urban medium- to high-rise right the way through to suburban low-rise for downsizers, as well as independent and assisted living complexes. The number includes both market and social housing need – ideally integrated in the same developments.

Over half a million new apartments – principally to accommodate households of one or two persons – is a housing challenge unlike anything the city has faced before. It is effectively an apartment block of 200 homes every week in the city for the next 3,000 plus weeks… in other words, every week until after most of Ireland’s adults currently are long dead.

An obvious concern you might have, upon hearing these numbers, is where these apartments are going to go. The contiguous city of Dublin houses 1.2 million people currently in its 11,500 hectares, or a little under 30,000 acres in ‘old money’.

Adding an extra 600,000 homes to the city’s 30,000 acres means an average of 20 new homes per acre. But this kind of abstract maths hides the rather important detail that many of these acres already have homes on them, and policymakers can’t simply kick out existing residents and bring the builders in.

This means that the ‘Parisian dream’ of high density without tall buildings – espoused by, for example, the Green Party – is simply not possible. In this dream, Dublin can accommodate all its new residents by simply building to a height of six storeys.

This might work – but only if you could CPO existing homes and demolish them. I don’t see that happening.

What the city needs to do instead is start a detailed plan of where the 600,000 new apartments will go over the coming decades. To do this, the four local authorities will need to work together and identify sites where 10 or 12 storeys – and higher closer to the centre – can work.

There are lots of options, not least Dublin Port, which is over 600 acres of prime land that could house as many as 60,000 of the homes needed. But that is just 10% of the total needed – and it would come with a fight, as Dublin Port has longed resisted any attempts to move again.

The green fields around Dunsink are an extraordinary opportunity for the city to grow inside the M50. Given it’s not in a central location, though, densities would be lower. The 1,000 acres or so there could add another 60,000 homes.

But that’s still only 20% of the city’s growth need.  A further 20%-30% is likely to come from density near the urban rail infrastructure outside the core city.

But that leaves city planners trying to find space for hundreds of thousands of apartments on brownfield sites all around the city. We need to think creatively, as a city, about re-using space. This means army barracks set up by the British two hundred years ago – and golf clubs established a hundred years ago – may not be the best use of space today.

In addition to thinking creatively, Dublin needs to grab opportunities when they present themselves. DIT’s move to Grangegorman frees up a bundles of city-centre sites for redevelopment. The college on Cathal Brugha Street is very likely to become part of a renovated Gresham hotel and add much needed hotel space in the city.

But other sites could help address the city’s chronic shortage of apartments. Take the Kevin Street campus. The block bounded by Bride Street, Camden Row, Liberty Lane and Kevin Street is roughly six acres and is located in one of the most fashionable parts of the city, just west of Camden Street and just north of Portobello.

Granted, one acre of the six is St Kevin’s Park, a hidden gem of the city. But five acres becomes seven, as there are also two acres just across Camden Row, currently split between a cash-and-carry and another DIT building.

So the Council should consider zoning the lands for high density mixed use, including residential, and imposing a land tax instead of development levies and commercial stamp duties. This way, those seven acres could easily act as a test case for integrated social and market housing, at relatively high densities, and using a cost-rental model.

“If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here” runs the joke about the Irishman’s reply to a tourist asking for directions. If we could start all over again, the high-density low-height model in Paris and Barcelona could work for Dublin too. But that option is not open to us – so we will need to rethink and reuse land, and build up.

The need for Dublin is an extra 20 dwellings on every acre of the city. What is the plan?

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An edited version of this post was originally published in my column in the Sunday Independent.

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