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

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Anonymous
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Lots of good arguments spinning about here. On the out of town vs in-town retail issue, both of the above arguments have some validity. I think johnglas does have a point though jimg that Irish and UK towns – especially Irish – are inherently different to their continental equivalents. This is for the very simple reason that nobody lives in them.

Relatively speaking, Irish town centres have a much smaller population than urban-living focused towns and villages of France or Germany or wherever. Similarly, many of these settlements have clearly defined boundaries where you can observe where you enter and observe where you leave, i.e. there is little or no sprawl. Therefore, the resident population that traditional indigenous retail and services cater for is relatively densely located within a distinct core. This is ‘The Destination’. There is, by design, no other option. The critical mass exists to sustain these businesses.

In Ireland there are two factors which mitigate against this logical arrangement. The first is self-explanatory: the immediate local population often isn’t there – living above shops, in townhouses, in side streets, in small enclaves of dense backland housing – to sustain this type of local life and commerce. Secondly, where the almost-there-but-not-quite ‘local’ population does exist in sprawling estates on the edge of towns and villages, it is often just as easy, or at worst vaguely more challenging, to visit an out-of-town supermarket for a much broader range of products. Either way, you’re hopping in your car for a retail experience of some description. Sadly, therefore, Irish towns’ main streets are increasingly catering for the lowest common denominator compromise of budget or reduced-down versions of what you can get on a larger scale elsewhere. Nobody wins.

Nonetheless, I broadly support jimg’s argument that supermarket trips are inherently car-based, and that locating supermarkets in town centres is generally not the way to go unless the topography/access may be unique enough to permit it. Across the board in Ireland, you see the scenario as painted earlier unfold, where reams of snail-paced traffic creeps its way through main and side streets trying to get into the local supermarket-cum-shopping centre. I think any of us born inside the past 30 years have tortuous memories of sitting in the back seat on a murky winter’s evening in a sea of drizzle, as mammy inches the car along to the local supermarket tucked in on the shoddy backland plots of a main street so characteristic of Irish towns. Usually there’s a miserable trickle of an ill-tended river, canal or abandoned railway embankment in addition to the grim rendered back arses of classical buildings for that much-needed injection of scenic quality. Nonetheless, if a town is lucky enough to have a by-pass or efficient route running parallel to a main street or equivalent, I think a case can be made for an in-town supermarket, provided it is thoroughly integrated with and complementary to the existing urban form, and that the facility is restricted solely to that of supermarket. Often the threat of the in-town supermarket stems from the ancillary hanger-on retail units which come with it, forming all but a competing centre to the existing heart.

Above all else however, as long as high density, attractive residential in town and village centres is not enforced to the exclusion of all future fringe development, then I do not see a sustainable future for many Irish towns. This is the critical problem: an insufficient local population to generate life, community and business, and a fleeting blood-sucking fringe population that both generates the worst kind of airport-style retail and services in town centres while in the process destroying any chance of creating an attractive liveable urban environment through their car dependant culture, their supermarket dependant culture, and their fundamental lack of connection to and ownership of place.

I have just spent the day travelling through the midlands to assess a number of development proposals. Aside from reeling from the entire experience and the indescribable desecration of so many Irish towns, one of the schemes typified for me what is the cause of so much of this carnage – namely planners. One case involves a tiny one-street village or sráidbaile, where every single retail unit (about five or so) has shut down over the past number of years. This in spite of an explosion in population in surrounding housing estates, and party because one land owner bought up a number of units to effectively ‘shut down’ the village so an out-of-village (now there’s a new term for ya) scheme could be developed on the fringe for his benefit. In competition, another developer now wants to punch a hole in the main street (an ACA) to provide an access road to the rear of the plot, which can only be described as being of medieval burgage proportions, miniaturised, to create a cluster of retail units, with no street frontage, on a tiny constrained site, where all open space is to be comprised of car parking. I won’t even describe the residential element for fear of identifying the case, but needless to say it is truly the icing on the cake. The scheme is so barmy it defies belief. It of course has full support of the local authority. It does not have the support of ABP. Therefore ABP = the baddies up in Dublin and “the whole system needs reform”. This type of mind-numbing stuff happens in nearly every town and village in the country, As far as I’m concerned, Irish town council planning authorities – if not always individual planners – are their own worst enemies. They haven’t a notion of the value of what they have, let alone how to deal with it, and not an iota of the concept of urbanism.

Truly, so very sadly, I saw nothing whatever of recent character – planning or architecture related – that even remotely inspired me in any Irish town or village today. And I’m the type to take pleasure out of a decent traffic signal, fascia lettering or downpipe. But all you encounter over and over and over again is a sea of mock traditional crap, with mauled historic buildings floating amongst the heaving morass of plastic, hanging baskets and parked cars. While all around, middle Ireland escapes to their fringe estates. Frankly I don’t blame them. Especially when Sarah Beeny is in the living room showing you somewhere ever so much nicer.

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