Re: Re: The Irish Town – Dying At The Crossroads?

Home Forums Ireland The Irish Town – Dying At The Crossroads? Re: Re: The Irish Town – Dying At The Crossroads?


Think of most towns with wide main streets/ market squares e.g. Templemore, Abbeyleix, Kenmare, where buildings with 2 and a half or even 3 stories were “high”.

I will divide my response into two parts.

Building Heights

I remember towns I passed through a lot as a kid, on holidays and so on. Caherciveen has buildings which are 3,4 or 5 storeys height. Listowel has the same. Tralee has some quite good streets. Ennis I know is tall enough in places. But it is the smaller villages in particular, which sometimes are interesting. They managed to get quite a lot of height into them in places. Caherciveen main street as I say, had that. I wish I had some photographs to demonstrate my point. I was in Ballinrobe in county Mayo last summer. It is hardly what one could call a major urban centre, but it does have height in parts of it. We don’t seem to be creating the right mixture of heights anymore, in order to define public places in an interesting way. I have to agree very much with Gunter’s post above.

For instance, the quadrant or square in Newcastle west has some pretty imposing buildings, the standard of which have not been undertaken by modern builders in a long, long time. I am unsure about Castleisland, what the scale of its buildings are like. But I can recall, I think the odd high structure. Places such as Abbeyfeale definitely conformed to the 2/3 storey rule for the most part. But even it manages to break that rule to create the odd prominent building. Which is important I think. I must try and get together some photographs of these places. A picture would say it much better than my own words.

Places like Newbridge are interesting to look at too. I was up on the terrace of one of the rooftop apartments in the new shopping centre at Newbridge. That was the project where Sean Dunne had to go to court, in order to claim his fair share of the proceeds when getting out of that partnership . . . fair play to him, he went to court, demanded his fair due and got it eventually. But it will go to show the risks involved in building projects, even if the main project is built on budget and goes on to be a success.

From the top of Newbridge shopping centre I gazed out at the surrounding town area, you could get a good view from the roof of the new shopping centre. I couldn’t help but thinking that Newbridge as a place might benefit from design consideration in this way. At least the new shopping centre at Newbridge was a comprehensive urban statement and positive addition to the existing town plan. But all around, in a 360 degree panorama, there was nothing even remotely ‘comprehensive’ and of a dense/tall enough scale going on. As a consequence the town of Newbridge appeared to ramble out into the countryside, in a way that wasn’t too well defined, by urban planning statements. Even if it had some follies or something to crop up over the tree line.

On the other hand, I was at a lecture on sustainable building earlier in the springtime. The conversation drifted onto high rise timber frame construction. People debated over whether a timber structure was economical to build over 9 storeys or not. Then it occured to me, the same argument that Dick Gleeson and Conor Skehan, James Pike and others had made. People seem to mix up the concept of density with high rise. When in fact they are different. The point is, we don’t need timber frame buildings that are nine stories high. If we could cheaply build good five/six storey height timber buildings we would be doing fine.

Of course, what really took away the opportunity for scale of buildings in Irish towns, was the move towards larger plots with sweeping horizontal sheds. Into which fitted the more modern industrial machinery and processes. I assume in Britain etc this was even more so. Industrialists eventually realized that building tall buildings did not have an advantage. Horizontal was the way to go. How much of the density of old vertical industrial buildings besides ports etc in Dublin, Limerick and so on . . . was down to the ‘transport’ systems of the day. The canal, the barge, the horse drawing the barge. The men lifting barrells and sacks onto barges and so forth.

Obviously given that context of muscle power, it made sense to keep everything tight together. The sprawling edge-of-town industrial estate clearly didn’t make sense in a time of limited energy resources. The poor old horse or man pushing a wheel barrow would simply not be able to negotiate the long winding herring bone layouts of modern industrial estates. The economy in the old days depended upon muscle power tremendously. There were only so many able bodied individuals around. Modern medicine was under development, hunger was common and probably social diseases like alcoholism. Health and safety, or fire safety wasn’t such a big issue when balanced against the other dangers society faced.

I go back to that statement about World War I and Churchill. I am not sure exactly of the history, but I know he switched fuel sources during that war, away from Welsh coalmines and onto oil importation by ship from the Middle East. The expression was, the allies won the war on a wave of oil. We have to put the development of our cities and towns in that context.

Pedestrian Realm

Of course, a subject which would be much more crucial to look at these days – and believe it or not, even more important than building height – is the pedestrian realm. How to give back more of the town to the pedestrians. It reminds me of what Paul Clerkin said above, about city centres in the United States. The retail space is there, but the business has moved out of the centre. In the same way, the main streets of Irish towns became so dangerous as places, especially for young and old, that it is easier to drive to the nearest edge-of-town big box shopping centre and enjoy a safer stroll around the shops available there. This is to expand a little on my earlier point about anti-social behaviour in Irish towns. A lot of towns do struggle to find an evening activity to keep them vibrant. But even moreso, they now struggle to find a day time activity aswell to keep them alive.

I guess the store-keeper instincts of many towns and villages worked against them. On the one hand, they were willing to tolerate a major deterioration in the urban spatial quality. They were willing to allow cars, lorries and vans to fill up the narrow streets. Because it seemed as if business was coming into the town. As long as one had ‘X’ amount of traffic and bodies arriving into the town each day, life seemed to be good. But what the Irish town and village only discovered too late, was that people want quality of spatial environment too. The attempts to ‘band-aid’ the situation in Irish towns and villages now, to encourage the public realm to re-develop is happening out of sequence and too late. Because all the best stores are to be found in the nearby big box retail development, not in the towns any more. Also, you can get a safer and more satisfying spatial environment in many of the new centres, in which to spend your shopping and leisure hours.

I spoke before here at Archiseek, about the contrast in spatial environmental quality management – between the retailers in the Grafton Street area and those in the pheripheral shopping centres such as Dundrum. What Dundrum has effectively done, is to replace the local city council in terms of who manages the public realm. Or what will, or will not be acceptable. Grafton Street simply allowed the quality of its spatial environment to deteriorate worse and worse over time. Eventually people gave up and didn’t want to go there anymore. Grafton Street is a really profound lesson, for anyone who wishes to benchmark retail potential along the scale of traffic footfall alone. Henry Street is heading in that direction also. There is a point of diminishing returns, at which packing in a lot more people into the one space cannot pay back dividends.

This brings me back to a point I keep making again and again. We need better mental models to work with, to better understand situations and circumstances. There is something that reminds me of Peter M. Senge’s book, The Fifth Disipline, in the way that Irish towns suddenly collapsed. There was a lack of systems thinking and understanding. To really see the situation they were stuck within, and see the future problems they were creating. (A lot of the resource conservation ideas behind sustainability thinking, hinge on this exact same systems thinking principle) The chamber of commerce in the town would have welcomed a deterioration in the quality of urban space, if it was necessary to bring in crowds and traffic for business to function. To keep the town vibrant so to speak. But in the end, peoples’ time became more valuable. They couldn’t afford to spend half a day wasting time trying to negotiate the local small towns traffic conjestion. It reminds me of Garrett Hardin’s essay on the commons. The tragedy of the commons is a system dynamics architype, which can be identified occuring again and again in many different situations.

Brian O’ Hanlon

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