Not too late for Ireland to take a lead in planning and design

The Irish Republic has the fastest growing population in Europe, rising at a rate of 2.5% per annum. It is estimated that the figure will reach 5 million before 2020, especially with between 70,000 to 100,000 immigrants arriving every year. This burgeoning population growth has led to an unrelenting boom in housing output with almost half of all dwellings in Ireland now having been planned and delivered by the private sector since 1990. Unfortunately a lack of planning has led to a situation where Dublin will soon occupy the same surface area as Los Angeles, but with less than a quarter of its population.

A report published by the Urban Forum – comprising architects, chartered surveyors, engineers, landscape architects and planners – has called for all-party agreement to chart a more sustainable pattern of development.

At the moment despite the population growth, the Republic’s town and city centre populations are declining as the suburbs continue to sprawl and grow. Cork and Limerick cities declined by 3.2% and 2.7% respectively, while their county areas grew by 11.4% and 8.3% respectively.

One suggestion put forward is for the creation of a new urban centre in the west to counterbalance the spread of Dublin:

Another dimension of Ireland’s new urbanisation is the extent to which this growth in population and development is being dominated by Dublin, with the province of Leinster now accounting for 54% of our population.
While decentralisation has been proposed as one means of addressing the Dublinisation of Ireland, the creation of so many new locations for these public service offices only tends to dilute the impact of this measure.

The reality is that the creation of a new major urban centre – with a similar pulling power to Dublin – is needed on the country’s west coast. The Government’s Atlantic Gateway project should become a priority to achieve this objective.

The report also points out that one-off houses in rural Ireland now account for up to 40% of the Republic’s new housing stock, a situation which could have severe consequences for infrastructure planning.

One of them is that schools and other facilities in our cities and inner suburbs are struggling to remain open while the demand for school places in outlying areas is booming. This pressure on infrastructure in the outer suburbs is reflected in increasing pressure on our water and sewerage systems and a distinct lack of social facilities.

There is also increased pressure on urban landscapes. Insecure public ownership, reduction in park lands and sporting facilities for new development and infrastructure as well as underdeveloped park resources contribute to a poorer urban quality of life.

The spread of housing also means that the average car in Ireland travels, on an annual basis, 24,400km per year – 70% more than France or Germany, 50% more than Britain – and even 30% more than the USA.

The price of this rapid economic success and our fast increasing use of cars is that Ireland has become the fifth most oil-dependent country in the EU and the ninth in the world. This is taking place at a time when oil is becoming an ever-scarcer resource.

The report also says there is substantial evidence to suggest that urban sprawl could contribute to social isolation as well as an increase in obesity levels due to increased car dependency, longer commuting times and fewer opportunities for physical exercise.

Not surprisingly, the Urban Forum, while admitting the National Development Plan (NDP) will help to address some of the issues such as the proposed Atlantic Corridor and provisions for social housing and schools, it says the National Spatial Strategy needs to be reviewed and updated.

The most recent Census shows that our population is growing at a much higher rate than was projected at the time when the NSS was prepared, so a new Spatial Strategy is required in order to create a more sustainable urban structure within a generation.

This updated NSS should have as a central objective support for the growth of a second major conurbation of international significance centred on Cork, Limerick and Galway as a counter balance to the growth of Dublin. The Atlantic Gateway Initiative is welcomed in this regard. There is an urgent need to update population and housing projections in the Regional Planning Guidelines in the light of the 2006 census.

As much of the building stock built in the coming years will be around for the next century, the decisions and actions we take at this moment will have a massive impact on the country’s landscape and cityscapes as well as on the lives of at least the next five or six generations.

On a related front, the National Sculpture Factory in Cork will be hosting a two-day conference on design and housing in May where participants will look to challenge the state of the housing industry and explore the responsibilities and opportunities for architects, designers, artists, developers, planners, educators and government to make it better.