Heavy weight articles by Conor Skehan and Lorcan Sirr in the Irish times on Monday and Tuesday last, setting out a scary planning vision for the island.
As I understand it, this is a vision of the future that sees Dublin at the epicentre of an Irish, 21st century, Ruhr district, stretching from Belfast in the north, through Waterford, to Cork in the south. This sweeping conurbation of the east coast would be balanced by a west coast transformed into a protected environment freed from the effects of forced economic growth, it will be a recreational theme park based, possibly, on John Hinde photographs, with boutique farmers, presumably in period costume, keeping the grass cut and posing for tourists.
With Wicklow under concrete, the new west coast 'garden of Ireland' will be powered by wind turbines and the failed urban centres of the region, Galway, Sligo and Derry, will vie for the status of 'potting shed', 'green house' and 'compost heap' in the new coastal garden. Limerick will be the outdoor jacks and, best of all, the midlands region, which never had a proper vision of itself, will be the back door mat, the place where you wipe your feets when coming in from the garden.
This is a vision that is not delivered with any real hope, or any up-lifting promise, it is a vision of the future based on a grim realisation that nobody in any position of power in this country has shown the will, or the imagination, to deliver any real alternative. When the creation of the National Spacial Strategy
(that could have charted a course out of development chaos) called for hard choices, the political will wasn't there.
Predictably, from the spineless political leaders who got us into this mess, there has already been a ritualistic condemnation of the Skehan/Sirr plan. From others, in time, there may be a fatalistic acceptance of this vision.
What the Skehan/Sirr plan does is it sets out, in stark terms, exactly what's going to happen over the next 20 years and how it might be possible to make the best of it. What is needed now is a full back to basics
analysis of where we've gone wrong and how we might fix it, so that we don't end up living the Skehan/Sirr plan in twenty years time.
Since the concept of the city began, and for the next 7,000 years, cities were defined by physical boundaries, boundaries that the city, or it's ruler/patron, designed, built, maintained and constantly expanded and re-built when necessary. It has only been in the last 3-4 hundred years that cities have dispensed with physical boundaries, with most European cities only demolishing their defensive walls in the 19th century, less than 200 years ago.
The encircling walls were much more than a defensive system, the gave a defined image to the city and they set the boundaries of the city in stone, literally. Back then there was no confusion about whether you were inside the city or outside it. The city invested a huge proportion of it's energy and it's resources in building and maintaining it's walls and, in turn, it was repaid by security, prestige and, usually, a good measure of civic order. The city, civic expression, the city's image and the city walls were totally inter-connected concepts.
Concurrently with the abandonment of city walls came the industrial revolution, which introduced two new elements into the urban mix, large scale industrial manufacturing and the concept of social housing. Both of these concepts have now, largely, run their course. Social housing, as a distinct urban category, and smoke belching factories have largely vanished as quickly as they came and the opportunity to re-evaluate the urban form, without these distorting factors, is again possible.
What seems clear is that the city of today is no longer a physical entity with physical edges, it is an abstract concept, an admininstrative area within another administrative area with only notional, not real, boundaries. If you live in Churchtown, for example, you can tell whether you're in Dublin City, or not, by whether your bins are collected by Dublin City Council, or South Dublin County Council, or by DunLaoghaire-Rathdown County Council, but would you know any other way?
The city, and to an extent, citizenship, is an eroded concept. The physical boundaries to cities have been replaced by zoning maps, and the zoning maps are as haphazard and illogical as any set of plans are likely to be that are drawn up by politicians eager to hold onto their seats, or (in the past?) feather their own nests.
To stop the sprawl, to stop the drift to conurbation, the city needs to re-establish the physical concept of the city boundary. The new physical boundary, the edge of the city, doesn't have to be a wall, nor should it be a wall, but it should be a defined, legible, necklace of physical structures designed to be read as the edge of the city and invested with as much civic status and urban prestige as contemporary architecture will permit. Above all, a new physical city boundary should be intended to stand for a number of generations, not just for five years, or until the next election sweeps it away.
Is it completely unthinkable that the one constant in the urban record, from it's inception in neolithic times, through the classical period and up to the familiar medieval model, the template of the city defined by it's walls and it's 'built to impress' inter-mural towers, re-imagined as civic scale, mixed use, spine blocks and glittering apartment towers, could become the potent new symbol of the compact, well defined, self aware city of the future?
Architects have always known the value of constraints. Often, it is the site with the greatest constraints that produces the best architecture. This concept can apply to the city also. A city defined by rigid boundaries will have crystal clear transportation needs and obvious density targets. Defined boundaries will force development into responding to limited, not limitless, space. We know that Dublin has a density deficit, we can see that in every comparative study ever done, yet we keep expanding outwards regardless. It will only be when we impose a conscious discipline, a defined edge that we can't expand beyond, that we will eventually turn to address the density deficit in a planned and a controlled way, and not in the unplanned and opportunistic way that we see developers in Ballsbridge and elsewhere attempt.
The Skehan/Sirr plan has set out, in black and white, what the future holds. With Bremore port. the 'outer orbital route' and the never-ending re-zonings, the conurbation bandwagon is already rolling. I've banged out a knee jerk reaction, if someone has a better plan that doesn't involve nonsense 'gateways', 'nodes' and 'hubcaps', now would be a good time to post it up.