Recap: ULI Ireland Conference

Are we there yet? The Future of Ireland’s Cities

Conference recap by Gerard Bissett and Bevan Rooke, students at Dublin Institute of Technology

ULI Ireland’s inaugural conference was held in the iconic Convention Centre Dublin on 19 October 2017. From the beginning of the event, the energy in the room was palpable as attendees waited to hear from a fantastic line-up of speakers on topics including smart city infrastructure, residential density, and the future of city governance.

Insights came early on from ULI Ireland Chair John Bruder, who referred to cities being the “engine room” of our economy in his opening remarks. Bruder highlighted that ULI is an organisation of knowledge sharing and that the aim of the conference was to spark conversation of best practices in real estate. Bruder was followed by ULI Europe CEO Lisette van Doorn, who elaborated on the role of ULI in tackling land use challenges across Europe, including the private rental sector – which is currently experiencing massive growth.

The conference’s keynote speaker was Governor Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland, former mayor of Baltimore, and 2016 U.S. Democratic presidential candidate.  O’Malley made the point that – with the help of new technologies – cities are leading the way in developing new ways of governing: “Cities are at the forefront of a really big evolution in self-governance,” he said. “[They have] the ability—in real time—to manage things and monitor the environment, actions, and interactions for greater health, well-being, and prosperity for all.”

O’Malley spoke of his time as mayor of Baltimore and how he used analytics to reduce crime and locate vacant homes in the city. He referred to the Internet of things and how sensors are being used in urban areas to detect gun fire and alert emergency services. He also praised Dublin on the introduction of solar-powered smart rubbish bins, and discussed the benefits a “smart Dublin” could offer, such as improving the quality of life of its citizens while maintaining a sustainable outlook.

Continuing on the theme of smart cities, Léan Doody of ARUP discussed the complex and evolving relationship between online and physical space. She examined how e-commerce is impacting retail, logistics, and traffic in cities.  She also highlighted shifts in the labour market caused by flexible working practices.  She noted, however, that while companies like Uber and Airbnb have digital platforms, we still need to be prepared for their physical presence.

Next to take the stage was architect Prof. Edward Jones, who shared his thoughts on the redevelopment of College Green in Dublin and how people can embrace urban living with green spaces. Jones also discussed the use of technology in developing public spaces, including the fountains at Somerset House in London, which can be switched off for public events while still providing a focal point when no events are in place.

The next topic up for discussion was residential density and the need to create a vital city. John Prevc of Make Architects noted that Ireland needs to densify its cities and protect its green belt by focusing on both maximum and minimum densities. According to Prevc, Ireland’s cities need to be more about great design and adaptable buildings, and not necessarily high rises: “Developers needs to build communities, not just houses,” said Prevc.

The conversation continued as chief economist from Cushman & Wakefield Marian Finnegan stressed the need for accommodation in the Irish housing market, as rent is 11-15% higher than it was at the height of the “Celtic Tiger”.  She also discussed the pressing need in Ireland to develop student accommodation and stock for the private rental sector.

The final topic of the day was the future of city governance. The panel and the audience alike voiced their concerns about the high number of mayors in Dublin. The topic of transportation (including the stalled DART underground) was also raised. Thomas Sevcik of Arthesia suggested that Dublin could learn from Zurich, a city of similar size but with a much more advanced transportation network. Craig Hughes of PwC stressed the importance of mayors and individual leaders in allowing cities to reach their full potential.

Near the close of the conference, Mary Rose Burke of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce gave an important reminder that despite current challenges, Dublin has made enormous progress in recent years. “In a short space of time, we have transformed from being a backwater to being an intermediate-sized city,” she said. “The challenges we’re facing are challenges of success.”

For a full list of speakers and more details about the conference, please click here to view the conference programme.