Orla Hennessy examines the so-described ‘hugely successful regeneration of Dublin Docklands’ and asks: Regeneration for whom?

In November last year, architecture firm Urban Agency announced an ambitious plan to build one of Europe’s tallest timber structures in the heart of Dublin’s Docklands. The project, Dock Mill, aims to transform a historical industrial mill through a soaring vertical timber extension, repurposing the building to create office and residential space. It’s yet another ambitious commercial development in what has been called ‘the hugely successful regeneration of Dublin Docklands’, which began over three decades ago. But these luxury developments – which include cafés, bars, a theatre and a convention centre, along with technology and financial business centres – have radically changed the fabric of the area, once traditionally industrial and working class. So, the question remains – as with many urban regeneration projects – regeneration for whom?

To understand the scale of the transformation requires us to understand the history of the area. The Docklands comprises 520 hectares of land spread across the north and south banks of the River Liffey, which cuts through the heart of Dublin. Since the 18th century, the area was home to industrial workers, but with many of these industries modernizing and moving towards the suburbs, by the mid-1980s the area was in severe decline. Although there was a strong sense of community, it was underpinned by many derelict buildings and acute social and economic problems.

In November last year, Urban Agency announced a plan to build Dock Mill, one of Europe’s tallest timber structures in the heart of Dublin’s Docklands. Images: Courtesy of Urban Agency

In 1986 the government introduced the Urban Renewal Act, followed by the Finance Act a year later. The main objective of these acts was to promote urban redevelopment in areas of disrepair or experiencing urban decline. For Dublin Docklands, two authorities were established to redevelop the area: the first from 1987 to 1997 and the second from 1997 to 2016. Both authorities had full planning jurisdiction (which would usually be retained by the council). This mechanism expedited the process and progress of the regeneration. Dublin City Council then took over the mandate in 2016, but expanded and designated the Docklands as a Strategic Development Zone to continue the pace of construction.

The first phase of the redevelopment saw the establishment of the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC) on the north bank of the river – a sprawling business centre that had little to offer indigenous residents’ needs. The second phase of development, beginning in 1997, vastly expanded the designated redevelopment zone and oversaw the acceleration of the many medium-rise commercial and residential properties there today. This phase of development is often lauded for its community involvement and consultation with local residents, but the fact remains that many of the indigenous residents have been priced out of the area.

Those employed and frequenting the Docklands are arguably not its local residents

The south bank, or Grand Canal Dock, is home to some of the world’s largest tech firms, with Google and Facebook having campuses on site. As you can imagine, this area is filled with thriving barista cafés, sushi and cocktail bars (or at least these amenities were thriving pre-COVID 19, and many will likely return to full operation post-pandemic). In fact, just across the canal from Facebook’s European HQ is where Urban Agency’s Dock Mill is proposed.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with these developments, and the overall regeneration of the Docklands has been successful from the city council’s point of view: It has boosted amenities, tourism, transport, business and retail activity, and employment, not to mention Dublin’s economy as a whole.

Dock Mill aims to transform a historical industrial mill through a soaring vertical timber extension, repurposing the building to create office and residential space. Images: Courtesy of Urban Agency

However, those employed and frequenting the Docklands are arguably not its local residents. Those working in the Docklands are skilled high-income residents, who can likely afford the high rates of rent and even higher-priced luxury houses and apartments. The area is further bolstered by the streams of commuters who throng to the Docklands daily. Criticism levelled at the area has noted its nine-to-five lifestyle with an emptiness and seeming lack of community after working hours. A presentation at Maynooth University went further still, stating that it was clear that the major thrust of the regeneration was to ‘transform the social composition as part of a wider policy of inner-city gentrification and revalorisation of the land’.

Often, the stated goals of regeneration projects are to reduce disadvantages in the poorest areas by focusing on issues such as unemployment, poor health, crime and education. In Dublin’s Docklands, these issues have been quelled but it seems to have come at the expense of local residents – who have largely been pushed out of the area.

In an era of widening levels of inequality, it’s the responsibility of those who govern – and the urban planners carrying out these proposals – to ensure fair and equitable treatment

In an era of widening levels of inequality, it’s the responsibility of those who govern – and the urban planners carrying out these proposals – to ensure fair and equitable treatment, to maintain conversations with local residents about their wants and needs to ensure successful redevelopment for all, and not just the gentrified few. Ambitious architectural projects are all well and good, but it is unlikely that any of the Docklands indigenous residents will be working or living in Dock Mill, once it is realized.

Hennessy is the Impact Manager at What Design Can Do, a design-based NGO in Amsterdam that believes in the power of design and creativity to transform society. Originally from Dublin, she has previously written articles for The Irish Times and academic publications. Her column will feature in our Mar/Apr 2021 issue, Frame 139.