On a recent Monday lunchtime, I went for a jog through Dublin’s city centre. The wide streets of the south Georgian core make for a decent running route, and with the fresh eyes of the recently returned emigrant, I’ve been curious to learn how the city looks these days. But the area was quiet. The handsome Georgian streets between Fitzwilliam Square and Merrion Square have none of the energy that you might expect from such a central urban neighbourhood. From what I could see, the area is mostly occupied by commercial tenants, with many signs advertising vacant office space.
While the returning emigrant would be well advised to keep her list of what she misses most about her old life to herself, I’ll put my head above the parapet. What I loved about life in London is the role of the city itself. I loved that I could live in the city, not the suburbs – if not in its very centre, then in built-up, mixed-use communities where my neighbours were shopkeepers and cafe owners, as well as remote workers or commuters. It gave my days a texture and a richness that made me feel at home, even in a city of eight million.
Now, living in Dublin I’ve been looking for ways to find that for myself here. But what has come as a surprise is how much we seem to value the “doughnut” of the city – the neighbourhoods that encircle the city centre, and not the centre itself. Since beginning the very slow process of trying to buy a house this year, I’ve been met with the consensus that life is better outside the city centre. From mortgage brokers to family and friends, the dominant belief seems to be that first-time buyers in their 30s should want to live in a terraced house with a garden and a space for a car. In the midst of a housing crisis, with chronic lack of supply at its core, we’re excluding another kind of urban happiness.
There’s nothing wrong with desiring the house with parking and a garden, and I’m confident that it is perfectly suited to a large chunk of the populace. But I personally have neither car nor child at the moment and I worry that by focusing so much on one version of city life, we’re ignoring so much of what else Dublin has to offer. During the decade I spent in London I lived at six different addresses, ranging from handsome and functional postwar apartment blocks to the sunny top floor of a converted Edwardian villa. I had friends who bought flats over shops or funny-looking tiny houses built on infill land between two terraces. While it could be tough sometimes to find an affordable home in London, there was such a huge range in the kinds of housing on offer. Here, I’m told that even considering buying an apartment is a risk I might not want to take, and I’d be better off waiting until the right (and affordable) house comes along.
What if things were different? I find myself mulling this on my lunchtime runs. I moved back to Dublin because I love this place. I love its history and its people and I really just love its streets, with their old and sometimes unloved buildings. I believe Dublin can offer the same textured urban life that London provided for me – smaller, yes, but still dense, colourful and vibrant in a way entirely its own.
For people like me, who don’t prioritise parking or a private garden, a flat in an area like this could offer the ideal method of urban living
As I run along the Grand Canal, I pass development after development of new commercial property. Some are still under construction but many others are either finished and ready for tenants, or occupied by a multinational company and appearing to be drastically underused. Meanwhile, back on Fitzwilliam Square, it’s plain to see that the area is under-occupied by its own commercial tenants. Some local workers report that their own offices are at about 50 per cent capacity. After dark, the place becomes a graveyard. It seems crazy to me that this beautiful, historic neighbourhood – built as homes for wealthy Dubliners in the 1700s – would be left almost entirely to small businesses like accountants and solicitors who probably now work from home half the week. When you add in the dearth of housing in this city, as well as the amount of vacant brand-new commercial developments, the Georgian core as we know it begins to feel like an outdated relic of a different kind of Dublin. Why, I wondered as I finished my run, have we ceded this beautiful and historic neighbourhood to commercial landlords?
At home, I look online for answers as to why this is. I find a 2013 report by Dublin City Council titled The Future of the South Georgian Core. It proposed restoring residential status as a possible pathway to bring life back to the area. The report by planner Paul Kearns took lessons from Edinburgh’s Georgian Quarter as well as the attractive brownstone terraces of New York – desirable residential neighbourhoods with a rich sense of history. For people like me, who don’t prioritise parking or a private garden, a flat in an area like this could offer the ideal method of urban living, akin to what I might find in the centre of Paris, Barcelona or Berlin.
What if there was a scheme that incentivised small businesses to move out of the Georgian core, and encouraged commercial landlords to parcel the buildings floor by floor for residential conversion? Coupled with something like the Vacant Property Refurbishment Grant, which provides up to €30,000 for renovation of vacant homes on the proviso that the owner lives there for 10 years afterwards, buyers could be encouraged to purchase floors of a Georgian townhouse to live in, rather than to flip or to rent out. After all, this is how people live in urban neighbourhoods all over Europe. And it’s not like it hasn’t occurred to Dublin City Council, either: “encouraging appropriate residential development” in this area is an aim of the Development Plan 2022-2028 for the city, with the overall goal of “maintain[ing] and enhance[ing] these areas as active residential streets and squares during the day and at night-time”.
A 2019 DCC report, with guidance from Shaffrey Architects, even laid out comprehensively how these townhouses could be converted to flats and houses, so there’s a literal blueprint for how this could be done. The Living City Initiative, which provides a tax incentive for the regeneration of certain historic quarters of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Kilkenny, Limerick and Waterford, doesn’t cover the Georgian core. But the initiative is backed with a dedicated unit to deal with issues around regeneration, and this unit is able to offer guidance on conservation here too.
While repurposing the Georgian core won’t be a panacea for the current housing crisis, it would be emblematic of a more proactive, hopeful step forward
I’m aware many will say this can’t be done, and that Dubliners won’t want to live in flats like this. But in response I suggest we should change our core ideas of what housing is for. Are these flats meant to be a canny investment that pays the buyer dividends down the line? Or are they meant to be a good place to live for the long term? It’s a way to make the most of Dublin’s architectural heritage and bring energy to what are some of the finest-looking streets in the city. The Georgians were keenly aware of the importance of city life in the domestic sphere. They built their homes with tall windows that opened out on to the pavement, allowing each resident a bird’s-eye view of what was going on in the theatre of the street outside.
Of course I’m not naive enough to think that converting 100 or so offices in a very wealthy part of the city is going to solve Dublin’s housing crisis. Even if this scheme could theoretically be aimed at the average first-time buyer, it would still most likely be too expensive in practice for many would-be homeowners. But short of radical, systemic change, I’m not sure what would solve our current crisis. In the meantime, a more creative approach might help us find micro-solutions that can widen the market in smaller ways.
I try to remind myself what it is I love about Dublin. The city, at its heart, belongs to its people, not its property developers. While repurposing the Georgian core won’t be a panacea for the current housing crisis, it would be emblematic of a more proactive, hopeful step forward: it would be proof that Dublin can change and evolve to meet its citizens’ needs, and that there is more to these streets than the growth and transfer of money between one business and the next.