On a trip to Ireland last month I was amazed to see all of the scaffolding hanging from half completed projects, and the plethora of brutalist architecture. I was visiting Dublin to do mini-internship with the Urban Institute; a research organization at University College Dublin, aimed in part at grappling with the newly sprawling pattern of the city, and aiming to inform policy to create a more sustainable Ireland. While there, I spent a lot of time in awe of the devastating crash of the Irish economy.
Dublin is a small city-walkable from the north end to the south end in about ten minutes, which is perhaps why the rampant modernist buildings were all the more noticeable and troubling. During the recent hay day of the Celtic Tiger boom, far too many Georgian buildings were leveled to make way for structures resembling Albany’s Empire State Plaza, or Boston’s City Hall. The economic boom ushered in an era of wasteful spending and dubious banking practices. During the boom, Ireland sent representatives around the globe to teach struggling nations how they too could prosper. Lithuania, Latvia, Uruguay, and Trinidad all become convinced that the Irish Model could work for them. What exactly constituted the ‘Irish Model’ is nebulous, but included low regulation, a ‘business friendly’ attitude, and creative banking-all ingredients with which Americans have recently grown familiar. Also, as noted by Fintan O’Toole in ‘Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger,’ “Ireland became far more dependent on foreign investment for its manufacturing base than almost any other society. By 1999, half the manufacturing jobs were in foreign-based companies compared to 20 percent for the EU as a whole. But it seemed to work. At the end of the 1990s, Ireland had become the largest exporter of computer software in the work. The overall value of exports more than doubled between 1995 and 2000” (p.13). Housing prices escalated, and many bought homes that they could not afford. Development was in full swing and the old style architecture and way of life was being demolished to make way for a new, modern era, replete with a sprawling development pattern. Other factors of course contributed to the fast increase in wealth, a case is often made that Ireland was merely catching up to the rest of Europe. Since 1922, growth in Ireland lagged significantly behind Europe. Another factor was the successful global economy at the time of the boom. In the late 1990’s, nations the world over were enjoying financial success, and thus investing more heavily abroad.
Ireland is now faced with recovering their image, their economy, and their built environment from the devastation of a hard fall commensurate with a sharp rise. And as Dublin does have much to offer in the way of inviting European streetscapes, the city will likely be frozen in this place for a while-scaffolding and half finished projects sitting side by side brick Georgian buildings as a symbol for what became of this nation for a brief time. While it is enticing to be caught up in the good times of economic success, hopefully we all, Irish and American alike will insist upon economic development strategies rooted in sustainability and endurance going forward.