Does Dublin really need a metro network?

Concept art for the mid-2000s version of the Dublin Metro. Image: National Transport Authority, Ireland.

Dubliners have always looked to other European capitals with envy. For decades, the city’s commuters have made do with with limited bus routes, a badly connected airport and traffic congestion that all seemed hardly befitting for an up-and-coming global city.  

Today, the city has changed. A sparkling new cross-city tram has proved popular, while the government says a systematic reform of bus routes will address long-standing complaints – even if it’s been controversial so far.

Ireland has changed, too, and is now more likely to be found preening itself and strutting on the international stage. Facebook, Google and Twitter have all come to roost in Dublin; and the capital has positioned itself as the technology hub of Europe after Brexit.

Yet beneath this confidence lies an abiding insecurity. It was visible in the hand-wringing over the Apple tax decision in the European Court of Justice and was clear too from the national soul-searching when the conference once known as the Dublin Web Summit decamped to Lisbon, blaming Dublin’s sub-par infrastructure.

The proposed system. Image: National Transport Authority, Ireland.

But most of all, it’s obvious in the city’s love–hate affair with its proposed metro system. Plans were first afoot in the early 2000s for a metro to connect the airport to the city centre – until the 2008 financial crisis got in the way and put a halt to the scheme.

Yet the metro dream is still alive, raising the question: why does the government want another decade of construction and a €3.5bn bill?

The driving motivation, of course, is to connect Dublin Airport – which welcomes 80 perc cent of Ireland’s incoming flights – to the city. There are other considerations too, such as plans to encourage the growth of Fingal, the municipality to Dublin’s north, as a repository of the city’s growing population. Estimates suggest that by 2040 nearly 1.4m people will live in the wider Dublin area.

Dublin isn’t alone when it comes to an obsession with metros: for decades, they’ve been the go-to infrastructure project for aspirational cities. The EU has funded a number of metro developments in Europe and beyond as part of the promotion of sustainable urban development, while in China metros are being built with reckless abandon in cities that arguably don’t need them. In Brisbane a new metro project is just beginning in earnest after years of wrangling.


Even two decades ago, research from the Centre for Transport Studies in University College London was questioning the rationale behind the metro becoming the de facto upgrade of choice for enthusiastic city planners. One article cited a city council leader in an unnamed British city who saw the metro system in Lille and “decided that his city had to have one”.

Yet despite this growing scepticism, city planners are still making the case for metro systems using decades’ old rationales, whether by arguing that metros boost development in peripheral areas, or that they’re better for the environment.

This same logic, often taken at face value, is fuelling the debate in Dublin today. But the city’s population density seems scarcely large enough to economically sustain a metro system, while little time has been spent considering how an upgraded bus network could solve some of the problems at a fraction of the cost. If construction begins as proposed in 2021, it would also immediately follow two significant and disruptive projects – the just completed extension of the tram network and the mooted pedestrianisation of Dublin’s College Green area.

This isn’t to deny that parts of North Dublin, namely the rapidly growing Fingal area, would benefit from a metro, or that the airport requires transport links that don’t grind to a halt in heavy traffic.

But €3.5 billion and several years of disruption seems a high price to pay for a lack of imagination in urban planning. For a country that has learnt the hard way to be wary of infrastructural chimeras, the government still seems to have a one-track mind when it comes to a Dublin metro.

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.