Urban Change In Dublin

Susan Butterly – Senior Sophister

Susan Butterly examines some of the significant changes in the composition of the core and peripheries of Dublin in the 20th century, and the policies that led to the current economic and demographic makeup of these areas. She then looks at some of the problems this poses for urban planners and at the success of the solutions implemented in response.


The emphasis placed on urban renewal in Dublin's inner city in the 1990s has resulted in many significant and obvious economic, demographic and social changes in the areas targeted. Indeed, Dublin City has seen many significant periods of change and development throughout this century. The pattern of this change has been characterized by a decline in its "core", paralleled by a massive and rapid growth in its peripheries and then more recently a revival of its core. Thus, this essay will primarily describe and explain this pattern of change, while attempting to highlight certain problems arising from these changes, and will finally assess policy initiatives taken to deal with the problems which have arisen. For the purposes of this analysis, I am taking the "core" to be the historic area within the canal ring. With regard to the "peripheries", I will be largely concentrating on the ‘New Town' areas to the west of the city with specific examples being drawn form the Tallaght experience.

In 1926, the historic area within the canal ring contained 268,851 people, which equated to 84.9% of the total population of the city or 50% of the total urban population of Dublin. After this date, the population began to decline, marginally at first but at a successively faster pace in succeeding decades with the electoral register of 1979 indicating the population had fallen as low as 70,000. During this period the population of Dublin as a whole had increased steadily, from 419,000 to 983,000, indicating that population increases occurred outside the core area. Concentrating solely on population movements belies, however, the true depth of the myriad changes that occurred during this period. These included such factors as shifts in industry, employment opportunities the demographic structure and, less tangibly, changes in peoples' perceptions, especially in relation to the core area within Dublin. Nevertheless, figures for population change do provide a most striking and telling proxy by which to measure the decline or growth of various areas within the city, though other factors will of course be incorporated into this measure. Unsurprisingly, explanations for the decline in the core areas and the parallel and dramatic increase in the periphery areas can be broadly categorised into two sections, market induced, and policy induced which I will deal with first.

Government policy aimed towards dealing with the rehousing needs of Dublin's core is not a new idea. Indeed some of Dublin's older local authority areas date from the 1920s and were constructed with the aim of rehousing families from poor conditions in the older tenemented parts of the city. The alleviation of the historically crowded conditions required a massive housing drive and inevitably led to the suburbanisation of much of the former tenement population. However, it is policy of the last few decades which has been of most significance with regard to the economic and demographic implications for the areas involved, and in particular policies initiated during the 60s which arguably had the greatest impact on shaping the modern peripheries of Dublin.

The framework for the long term expansion of Dublin was derived broadly from Myles Wright's 1967 report on The Dublin Region which was implemented through the Dublin County Development Plan, 1971. The aim here was to build four ‘New Towns' to the west of Dublin - Tallaght, Lucan, Clondalkin, and Blanchardstown - as well as facilitating further expansion in the northern and southern suburbs. As had been the case with similar policies previously implemented with varying success in Britain, France and the US, the logic of building these ‘New Towns' was based upon Ebenezer Howard's original theory proffered in 1898, and adopted by Patrick Abercrombie in The Greater London Plan of 1945. In keeping with the original idea of Howard, these new towns were to follow a cellular structure of about 5,000 persons within easy reach of amenities such as schools, shops and churches. Attention was to be paid to both through traffic so as to ensure safety, and also to the nearby provision of work opportunities. The areas were to cater for the continued rehousing of core area as well as for second generation families from older local authority suburban estates.

The most immediate result of the new town policies was a ‘mushrooming' of these areas to the west of the city, being transformed from greenfield sites in 1970 to large urban estates in 1979. If we take the example of Tallaght, it can be seen that it grew from being a small village in 1966 to having a population of 32,000 in 1976. It currently stands at close to 90,000. During this period, the core declined further, falling from 85,638 in 1971 to 70,000 in 1979. Other policies contributed to the shift in population towards the periphery: for example the implementation of rates remission on new houses up until 1977, and also the stamp duty remission on new houses, both of which encouraged the building of new houses in the periphery areas. It is more difficult to assess the degree to which the latter policies affected the growth of the periphery regions, but the notable increase in building subsequent to their implementation seem to suggest they were of significance. Some decline in the core is also attributable to compulsory purchase orders.

Market and other non-specific factors also contributed to the decline of the core and the rise of the periphery areas in recent decades. With respect to land, the prices of land within the inner city were simply too high to sustain housing development. As the NESC have noted, "high land values tend to require high values and leave little room for less efficient...uses of land". Thus the large-scale developments of local authority houses required were simply not economically viable within the core area. There were also continued losses in industry to the core area during this time - the traditional industries of the core had been brewing and distilling, food production and some textile manufacturing. Many sought new sites around the peripheries, raising large sums of capital for the sale of their land. New technologies were also rendering obsolete the usefulness of the indigenous population within manufacturing industry who were largely unskilled and often viewed merely as ‘hands,' as their tasks could increasingly be more efficiently carried out by new technologies. Also, despite attempts to redress the situation in the 70s, the docks were no longer a large employer within the core.

A noteworthy development during this period was the growth in office building in the city centre within areas that had previously been residential, such as Fitzwilliam Square and Merrion Square. These were now taken over by commercial and professional proprietors with, for example, a large number of professional services such as solicitors and doctors being located within the Fitzwilliam Square area. According to the NESC, the decline of traditional industry and the growth of commercial and professional services led to a "contracting job market for the less skilled", a term which fairly accurately describes the work force of the indigenous core population. This could be viewed as part of the overall trend towards service employment within the Dublin region, mirrored of course both nationally and internationally. Other factors have contributed to the decline of the core during this period: for example the increased mobility brought about through widespread car ownership allowing people to live on the peripheries and even beyond, and still feasibly commute to work in the city centre. People's perceptions of the lack of desirability of living in the inner city due to problems of crime, poor physical surroundings, poor housing, and low expectations of life chances also contributed to the area's demise.

Such rapid urban change inevitably led to the rise of various complex problems. The reality of the situation as far as the core was concerned was that the decline of the area simply did not bring about improvements for those left behind. As far as development within the periphery was concerned, the manner in which it was implemented seems to have caused an abundance of its own problems. Therefore I would like to deal briefly with a number of problems which have arisen particularly within the periphery region, using the area of Tallaght as a specific example.

It has been said of the new suburbs that "these areas seem to have a prevalence of social and economic conditions reminiscent of those constituting the inner city problem". This is hardly surprising considering a large proportion of the population of these new areas had either been previously resident in the inner city themselves, or were the sons or daughters of people who had moved from the inner city to older local authority areas. Unfortunately certain problems such as high levels of unemployment, poor educational attainment, poor life expectations and innumerable other socioeconomic factors seemed to have moved with the populous. Drudy and Punch attribute this largely to "insufficient attention to detailed land use, transport, economic and social planning'. There was also some confusion over who was to take responsibility for which aspect of the development within these new areas, which arguably influenced the manner in which problems were perceived and dealt with by policy makers for many years. For example, Dublin Corporation had built 4,500 new houses in Tallaght by 1986, but responsibility for the provision of services fell to the County Council. Due to under-funding within the County Council, development of the necessary amenities was unable to proceed at the pace required to keep up with housing developments.

Shortsightedness led to the inadequate provision of public transport facilities. It had been deemed likely that the private car would soon take over, but the reality was a large number of the population remained car-less. This led to a situation whereby many residents were left with difficulties in trying to carry out simple tasks like doing the shopping, and visiting relatives and friends they had left behind. It also put the possibility of commuting to work beyond the grasp of many of the inhabitants. Although industrial estates were built by the Irish Development Authority (IDA), for example in Kilnamanagh, Belgard and Greenhills, the employment opportunities provided were not sufficient to meet the requirement s of the rapidly expanding population. Also service-type firms offering greater employment opportunities were given insufficient attention at the time. Little attention was given to the provision of cultural or recreational facilities contributing the overall bleakness of the areas which was compounded by their own physical appearance - the oft cited ‘prairies' of Tallaght highlighting the haphazard nature of the planning. Thus in short, although these new periphery areas grew at a phenomenal pace in terms of population, lack of coherence in their planning brought about a huge number of social and economic problems.

Problems attributable specifically to the decline in the core over the past few decades are more difficult to decipher as many apparent problems were previously evident within this area: for example declining employment opportunities, low educational attainment and so on. However the alluded to decline can undoubtedly be seen as accountable for a certain number of problems. For example it was largely the younger portion of the population who moved away from these areas therefore leaving behind a proportionately older population less capable of fending for itself. As would be required to fulfill the aims of the new town scheme, the depopulation of the core area was not coupled with an improvement in the conditions for those who were left behind, in fact it has been seen to have contributed to its decline. The move of industry to the peripheries coupled with the growth of office space and information based services has given rise to the curious situation in which the inner city residents fail to find work or may even commute outwards while thousands of incoming commuters clog the city streets. Thus while the population and old industrial and social structures within the area declined, there was a failure to redress the problems of the core which led to the existing poor social and economic conditions to be maintained.

However, more recently there has been a growth in the core area almost as dramatic in nature as that witnessed in the west of the city over the past few decades. Again there are various forces which have contributed to this growth, but the initial impetus was certainly policy-driven. As the success of certain policies has become apparent, the forces of the market have in themselves become driving forces in its development. I would therefore like to briefly explain the origins of this recent revitalization of the inner city, or specific areas of it, after which I will highlight some of the problems pertaining to this rapid growth.

The first Urban Renewal schemes were introduced in Dublin in October 1985. They were initiated in response to the increasing problem of dereliction and dilapidation, not only in Dublin, but in other major urban centres. They covered five areas of inner city Dublin amounting to 77 hectares (later extended), with the Temple Bar area being added in 1991. Between the period 1986 to 1995, an estimated £306.2m was invested in areas designated for urban renewal, with further considerable investment planned for the future. Although initially the focus of these schemes was on business/commercial development, much recent development has been orientated towards residential schemes. The primary incentives introduced have been tax-based.

In many senses these initially policy-driven schemes have induced overwhelming success. In the business sphere, there are two contrasting stories which are testament to this success, that of Temple Bar and that of the Customs House Docks Area (CHDA). As aforementioned, the Temple Bar area was drafted into the scheme in 1991. Since then it has become an important cultural and tourist centre, housing for example the Irish Film Centre and the Temple Bar Arts Centre as well as many colourful pubs, clubs and restaurants, while maintaining its old fashioned cobbled streets and old buildings. Investment in Temple Bar has come from direct public sector funding and co-funding under European Union projects. 72% of the investment generated has been in refurbishment of existing premises, and development has been remarkably coherent due to the Temple Bar Framework Plan and Temple Bar Renewal Ltd.

In contrast development within the CHDA was largely geared towards the building of the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC). According to studies undertaken, this could be seen as a prime example of initial investment in infrastructure by authorities inspiring confidence and leading to further market driven investments. The result has been the development of large-scale, high-grade offices, facilitating an unprecedented growth in the financial services sector in Dublin, and attracting such large financial institutions as CITIBANK. Employment within the CHDA stands at roughly 3,000. Services within the IFSC also benefit from the 10% rate on corporation tax.

Residential development has also been significant within the inner city. Between 1986 and 1995, 5,350 new residential units were constructed in Dublin. The result has been to attract significant numbers of people to live in the city, frequently in areas that previously had no residential population. Market forces, available incentives and the design of residential units were the considerations in determining the population of the new developments, the majority of which have been one- or two-bedroom apartments. The typical profile of a new occupant is a young person aged 26-44 in full time employment. People termed ‘professionals' comprise the largest proportion of the cohort as far as occupation is concerned, while an estimated 76.7% have a degree or professional qualification.

Thus, overall these schemes would seem on the surface to be monumental successes, and indeed in many respects they are. However they have raised a number of important issues which I will briefly mention, and though not the primary causes of existing problems, certainly have not aided their abatement. It is evident that these schemes have occurred in the midst of the indigenous, underprivileged population aforementioned. However, it would seem that the redevelopment of these areas has not addressed issues central to them, such as lack of suitable employment opportunities, lack of public amenities, education, training and youth development. The indigenous population have notably been largely excluded from participating in the main tax incentive schemes simply because their existing tax liability is too low.

New employment opportunities available either exclude this population on the basis of lack of necessary skills, or else are of a low skill or temporary nature provided by shopping centre developments such as the Jervis Street Shopping Centre. Such employment will not help to break the poverty cycle. Education facilities have not been improved. The new population, although of the socioeconomic position likely to be able to influence educational reforms, are not family-orientated and are therefore unlikely to seek them. The development primarily of one- and two-bedroom apartments, and the lack of open space or recreational facilities have meant that these are developments unsuitable for raising a family. Thus the population is transient, with roughly 82% of tenants in 1995 estimating they would leave within 12 months. There is also the very important consideration that practically all of the residential development has been orientated towards the affluent group previously described. It is consequently unaffordable to the poorer indigenous population, which means as families mature, young people will almost certainly have to move away from their home areas which certainly does not seem to conform to any idea of equity. These are just a few of the many problems, which must be considered within these new growth areas in Dublin's core. Overall it would seem that the main benefactors from the developments have been property developers, business owners and those qualified for employment within the IFSC, and similar developments.

Finally I would like to make a brief review of policies undertaken to deal with the problems arising from, firstly, the huge growth of periphery areas and, secondly, those pertaining to the new growth within the core area. With respect to the former, a range of initiatives has emerged over time that attempts to deal with problems which have arisen. Part of Tallaght, for example, was in 1988 placed under the Designated Area Scheme. This has had the impact of significantly improving specific areas in physical terms. Under this scheme the Square or New Tallaght Town Centre was constructed bringing many jobs to the area. In 1994 the newly established South Dublin County Council located its new premises in the centre of Tallaght, thus giving the area the administrative base necessary if it is to be deemed a town. With the aid of European Structural Funds, various partnerships have been set up with the view to including local communities in development strategies, with a central aim of eliminating social exclusion. The Tallaght Partnership was established in 1991 and the Clondalkin Partnership in 1996. Other initiatives include the NEST (New Enterprise Support Thrust) Programme which helps with the creation of small businesses, and PLATO which helps address the problems of SMEs (Small and Medium Sized Enterprises) within these areas. The South Dublin Enterprise Board was established in 1993 with the aim of developing a strong local economy that is sufficiently wealthy to support its own needs. Other socially linked initiatives include the Social Economy Unit in Tallaght, which forms a co-operative link between private and public sectors.

However despite the physical improvement of the central Tallaght area following the building of The Square, the new RTC, the Tallaght Regional Hospital and many new private business developments, the "overall scale of intervention and the resources devoted to it have been modest" according to Drudy and Punch. Thus the central problems of high unemployment, poor educational attainment, poor life chances etc. remain prevalent. Obviously large-scale private investment is needed to generate wealth within Tallaght and other areas - and this must necessarily come from outside the area. Indeed investment in Tallaght is very much evident at present, however guidelines must be imposed to ensure that such investment will not generate wealth which is outside the reach of the local population as has happened in the inner city. Fundamental to this is the need to increase the levels of educational attainment so that the local population can take advantage of any investment benefits. This would also generate a feeling of self-confidence in the people of these areas which is surely a vital prerequisite for the achievement of indigenous development.

Unfortunately the problems arising from the new growth within the inner cities are too new for policies to be yet developed to redress them. The fundamental problem raised by the new growth of these areas seems to me to be that the new wealth has been concentrated within these areas and the benefits of which accrue to a very small number of wealthy people. This leaves little or no benefits accruing to the original or indigenous inhabitants, which has increased the disparity between the two groups and is to an extent forcing younger members of the indigenous population out of the area. The key element therefore in attempting to address this problem is to look at why the benefits of this new wealth are not being shared by this population. Again it would seem education is a crucial factor as it determines whether people participate in market activities such as certain professions and therefore can attain a level of income or status from which the benefits of a wealthy economy can be reaped. However, the magic wand of education is too often bandied as a ‘simple' solution to what is a most complex problem, and is seemingly not integrated with other pertinent factors. Consequently I think that in both the inner city areas and the newly developed peripheries, a comprehensive look must be taken at all elements which affect life chances, education, crime and housing situations from which a possible solution may one day be drawn. Perhaps the benefactors of the Tiger Economy might see fit, in the spirit of equality, to make a contribution both in terms of funding and expertise towards what must necessarily be a genuinely integrated, socially-inclusive and well funded scheme.


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Drudy, P. J. and M. Punch (1996) Towards a Development Strategy for South Dublin. Trinity College: Dublin.

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National Economic and Social Council (1981) Urbanisation: Problems of Growth and decay in Dublin. The Stationary Office: Dublin.

Mahlon, Apgar (1976) New Perspectives on Community Development. McGraw-Hill: Maidenhead.

Rubenstein, James M. (1978) The French New Towns. The John Hopkins University Press: London.

Wright, M. (1967) The Dublin Region: Advisory Regional Plan and Final Report. (2 vols.) Stationary Office: Dublin.