The Irish Town Ã‚â€“ Dying At The Crossroads?
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June 22, 2009 at 5:30 pm #710604Paul ClerkinKeymaster
The Irish Town â€“ Dying At The Crossroads?
Paul Keogh, 10 February 2008
Higher density residential development in the right locations, well serviced with public transport and community facilities, and built to the best possible standards â€“ thatâ€™s what lies at the core of Government policy to encourage more sustainable urban development, according to the Department of the Environmentâ€™s recent guidelines for planning authorities â€“ Sustainable Residential Development in Urban Areas.
The guidelines are the latest in a decade of policy documents in which Government has sought to encourage more sustainable urban development. The Residential Density Guidelines (1999), the National Spatial Strategy (2002), the NESC housing report (2004), the Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines (2005) and Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities (2007) all expressed commitments to promote the development, renewal and improvement of towns and villages.
June 22, 2009 at 8:31 pm #807898AnonymousInactive
Thanks for linking that document. Some much needed commentary on what happened during the building roll out that was the Celtic Tiger. I know I will enjoy sitting down later, to read what Paul Keogh has to say. Paul has spent a good deal of time studying this kind of issue. But let us leave architecture and urban slightly to one side. What is a really puzzling question, that everyone is asking about places such as County Laois, County Leitrim, County what ever you like, is what is the best way to approach economic strategies for these places? Shouldn’t that be a part of the discussion? What kind of urban settlement form and what kind of economic potential these places may have in the future, are conversations that could happen in parallel.
The trouble as I see it, not nearly enough sponsorship has been given to people such as Paul Keogh to pull a team of designers together, to try and integrate their own views on potential settlement patterns with the broader economic policies. What sponsorship is available is very hard to drag out of the system, and only comes in dribs and drags. You expend as much resources trying to extract it, as you will ultimately make at the end of the day.
If one looks at a program on the TV such as Grand Designs, I noticed one home owner, who used to work in the music business in the city of London, took on board a life style change. They renovated an old cottage somewhere in the countryside, and finished by making a statement, one cannot do very good work, unless one is happy with where they live. It definitely seems to me that many of the Irish towns around Ireland could be made into fabulous places to live. However, we need our urban designers to become more involved in the nuts and bolts of how local councils and local government are operated. It is not enough for architects to sit down in their private practices and try to ‘sketch’ or describe the future as they see it.
Architects require more visibility in the entire process from end to end. That will not be easy, a lot of folks will not appreciate the involvement of architects in the initial stages. The vast majority of people in Ireland, never have a cause to consult with an architect. In the same way they might have to consult with solicitors, priests, doctors and car sales persons. The towns and smaller cities around Ireland could be good places to live. But there are very few planners on board the process who could assist in the way that architects could, if organised in the right manner. Typically, by the time an architect is brought on board, most of the crucial decisions have already been made. The business model of architecture doesn’t enable a long involvement. In the same way it does allow county engineers for example, a longer phase of engagement with critical infrastructural works.
Paul Keoghs practice, Sean O’Laoire’s practice and a number of others have led the way in Ireland. But what we do require is a much broader base for architecture. I would like to see a time in Ireland when architects don’t ‘move about’ and globe trot so much. That seems to be the basic solution, to globe trot. The young planning profession seems to do the same unless I am mistaken. When that is the case, it can appear as though planning professionals or architectural professions are zooming into a place from nowhere to tell the dumb locals what to do.
Architects will have to work on their personalities a bit better. Some of them try this ‘imposing’ and intimidating approach, which isn’t helpful. They borrow it from the great and successful competition winning architects whom they adore. This approach is not successful if you are dealing with a group of local town representatives. The local town representative, even when not involved in a financial capacity, is still engaging in something risky. If that town representative doesn’t deliver something meaningful, he or she may be the subject of disapproval in their own town. The architect can ride along to the next town, so the risk he/she runs isn’t nearly as bad.
There is something not quite working yet, in the model of the Irish urban-design focussed practices. Their solutions on paper appear to be okay, but acceptance at a local level does not follow. What architects are better at doing more than anything else, is making their solutions appear acceptable on paper. Some of the most successful young architects suffer badly from an need to see their world, in a more perfect way than most. Their brush strokes on the page are a reflection of this desire to see perfection in their environment. Their skill in this regard, at presentation overshadows the architect’s shortcoming in other respects. Their ability to go out and confront potential partners, make the right connections or have the right conversations with movers and shakers at a local level. In short, to deal with other non-architects at a personal level.
I think that developers (even the bad ones) are much better at this. They seem to be a part of the place, the locality in which they build. That is one of the main reasons they continue to be successful, despite having to roll out the same bad designs again and again. It is amazing what a locality will put up with in terms of bad design, if the developer in question is someone they know and can identify with. Who can identify with a skinny youngster, wearing a polo neck who has seen ‘Blade Runner’ too many times? For all the talk about globalisation and how small the world has become. I think that a lot of idea generation and a lot of the financial clout behind projects starts with a select few at local levels.
Architects believe that someone is simply going to come along and to offer them the commission to develop ambitious projects. I don’t know if that is the best model for today’s world. Architects hope to have the least risk, involvement and trouble dealing with projects at local level. But expect to receive the most authority and design freedom in return. That is unlikely to happen. Some new kind of relationship will need to be found. No amount of articles in the Irish Times by Frank McDonald or books claiming to be concerned for the landscape is going to change things. Architects should give up hoping for that.
Martin Biewenga’s lecture at the CHQ this year was interesting. Martin’s approach was to do less flambouyant stand alone buildings and much more landscape architecture. The genius of Biewenga’s approach was to be able to do projects all over the globe. But at the same time, have such a positive working relationship with the local communities at each location. The development of urban room and corridors, with buildings that address the spaces created are things that all towns and cities need. Biewenga was merely showing them potential they already had, and suggesting projects which might help them to maximize on it better. There is a strategy that everyone at a local level can get in behind.
Every substantial Irish town I know, has a cattle mart that used to be the focus of the town. Or some similar feature, which sits there now and wonders what to do about itself. I think this is the component that Martin Biewenga knows how to tap into. But typically in the Irish context, someone gets his hands on ‘The Old Mart Site’ and executes a un-imaginative design of two storey semi-detached dwelling forms. The same as you would see one mile out the road, at the edge of town. I think that Frank McDonald has given a way too much attention to Liam Carroll’s not-so-bad Georgian pastiche at Portobello, and not enough to old mart or old GAA field sites. I think that people at local level are looking for a slightly grander vision than that. Something to drive for.
It can start with an image, something on paper. If it hits the right chords, you never know, it might start off something. Even in the current climate. I am sure there are still opportunities out there. What Martin Biewenga presented in his lecture was an option for architects to become involved at local town or urban level, without adopting the approach of Bilbao, where you sweep in and try to put the city on the map, with some feature project. What Martin seemed to describe was something a lot more integrated.
It occurs to me, that many Irish towns have churches etc, which try to be very dominant over the town and it doesn’t always present the best urban solution. Sometimes the buildings that try to dominate Irish towns are industrial, commercial or government administrative buildings. A lot of them appear to be fenced in, and dis-connected from their own towns. As if fighting a battle against them. Some of the dominant buildings in Irish towns have no night life beyond 5 or 6 pm. This in turn fosters the culture we see in towns. A culture of anti-social behaviour and streets that are unsafe for inhabitants at nightime. Yet, it may be those same sites in Irish towns which seem the most unsuccessful are the ones with the most potential in the future.
Why would anyone want to be in the town, the way towns are having to cope at present? Of course, the worse the anti-social issue becomes, the less the town is viewed locally as a ‘investment opportunity’ and more as a problem area. Engineers working at local level on town councils or what not, love framing things as ‘problems’. It fits into their neat little view of the world, where mathematics and off-the-shelf nut and bolt solutions can be found. I know quite a few very respectable people, who have an attitude, they almost wish for towns to fail. To prove some deeply held belief they have.
Architects have found it difficulty if not impossible to address that. When the Architect arrives into a town then try to tell everyone how wonderful towns can be. That is what the urban-design centric offices in Ireland always try to do. But they mis-interpret their audience. People want to hear about the problems, and what someone will do about the problems. I don’t claim to understand the local town public opinion fully myself. But I know it is there, and the question is why can’t Irish people view towns as great opportunities? Why have we been conditioned to act only when we identify problems?
Brian O’ Hanlon
June 22, 2009 at 10:04 pm #807899AnonymousInactive
A famous paper written about decision making and the framing of the options was published:
The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice.
Amos Tversky; Daniel Kahneman.
Science, New Series, Vol. 211, No. 4481. (Jan. 30, 1981),
It is available to download if you search. Or check out the wikipedia pages available on the subject.
I feel certain, the research ideas of Tversky and Kahneman have some relevance to how things are approached at local level in our town planning. This brings me back again to the issue of high level research, or the lack of it done by architects. Even if they could be incentivised in some way to study research, the profession would be much better off. I know the research is very dull, but given time it might spark something.
Going on what Prof. Clayton Christensen at Harvard said, architects might be a lot better off ‘framing’ some problems as a threat, in the initial stages of the resource allocation process. Once you have got some allocation of resources, then you can slowly begin to involve people and hopefully they will see more of the opportunity side. But I do see something fundamentally flawed in the way architects constantly frame their ideas as opportunities.
The locals go along to an exhibition and think, this is all very nice, but what are the really urgent problems that need to be addressed? Shouldn’t we allocate our limited resources more in that direction? It seems that engineers and politicians who frame things as a threat have a much easier task of getting funding. If you don’t upgrade the road to this town, then it cannot survive. Etc, etc. When people see a big new road project, they feel as if they are getting something tangible and that the place is engaged in some kind of progress.
The ‘low carbon city’ phenomenon is an example of the Tversky and Kahneman approach. Where something is framed initially as a threat. What is our town going to do to prevent global warming? Most of the large Irish towns are now doing something in this regard. They got geared up very quickly too. In fact, whole regions are becoming organised towards a green-er future. In the process of becoming organised to do something about the perceived threat, along the way, the opportunity to do other things is seized. But we can extract this methodology from the ‘low carbon society’ phenomenon. It can be used by Architects in all kinds of ways to boot strap themselves into a closer involvement and working relationship at local levels.
Brian O’ Hanlon
June 23, 2009 at 8:13 pm #807900AnonymousInactive
Someone sent me this link today: US cities may have to be bulldozed in order to survive
I guess Robocop didn’t work out. Some parts of the American cities as I understand it, have been lying very derelict for a couple of decades now. What is being proposed, is almost like modern day slum clearance.
Brian O’ Hanlon
June 23, 2009 at 8:31 pm #807901Paul ClerkinKeymaster
A good solution – the fragmentation of US cities into many smaller cities doesn’t help from a taxbase pofv. You can have all these people working in the downtown core, but living in the satellite cities where they pay their property and school taxes. Making the cities smaller by demolition seems sensible – saves money on extensive and expensive infrastructure.
Most US cities have attractive downtown areas but no use for them – retail has left and there isnt enough of a creative class to want to live in the old warehouses etc, so they sit empty. That picture of Detroit is a good example of that. Some Canadian cities are heading the same way….
June 23, 2009 at 9:59 pm #807902AnonymousInactive
It is difficult at times to get out of ones own little 4.5 million small island and ascertain what is happening beyond. When I listened to Martin Biewenga speak at the DDDA event this year, I was astounded by the scale of interventions being attempted to ‘turn cities around’ in some parts of the world. His project for Majorca in particular was trying to deal with decay of the urban experience around the waterfront blocks.
Again, this subject arose at the Open House public debate late last year. The dutch architect on the panel that evening spoke a lot about ‘large visions’. He spoke in quite an interesting way about Dublin and its relationship with the airport. That involves a time-space connection of roughly 30 minutes. I don’t know if that many people in Ireland are thinking in terms of spatial connections that cover that time/distance.
Heck, I often think that in Dublin, getting out as far as the Ballsbridge site that Sean Dunne purchased seems like a bit of a journey. But places such as Tallaght and Dundrum ‘seem’ quite accessible to me today, owing to LUAS connectivity. People have sold real estate in Dundrum and Tallaght on the basis of this LUAS inter-connectivity. The direction of travel which interests me the most, is the city centre to Dundrum journey. Not the other way around. Traditionally I think centre bound traffic has been the focus of transport in Dublin.
Imagine if Dublin Airport was accessible in the way that Dundrum and Tallaght are accessible now. Then in turn the airport itself is connected to other parts of the world. There must be an opportunity here to benefit from that level of inter-connectedness. It is a real pity that our airport was not in Dundrum or in Tallaght. To what extent these days is a city defined by its airport? I am un-qualified to answer this question, as I am not a seasoned enough traveller. But I have heard comments from other folk. I know that Dublin Airport Authority have some plan for an ‘Airport City’ out there way. But getting there is the that worries me.
I know from reading some of the Feasta published material, that land taxation next to public transport corridors is a key part of it. If one considers the benefits that many properties have derived from being close to a system like LUAS, then one asks oneself, why should LUAS be solely funded out of ticket fares? Why shouldn’t some funding for major public transport infrastructure come from land taxation? This is one of those stinging nettles in Ireland I suppose, that nobody wants to grasp.
Brian O’ Hanlon
June 23, 2009 at 10:49 pm #807903AnonymousInactive
It is difficult not to agree with much of what Paul Keogh has to say in the cited article. Where Ireland has really fallen down is transport â€“ we have a crap offer â€“ and economic development, i.e. employment creation, a reasonable prospect of which should be in place before new planning is granted in a rural area. For example, Kenmare has several hundred houses for sale and no recent industrial development; nearby, Sneem, a village of about 600 people, has more than one hundred new houses unoccupied/unsold and no industries. Neither has a public transport system, Sneem has no wired broadband and the contention rate in Kenmare is so high it often is little better than GPRS..
Until the recent puncture of our economic property bubble, property prices increased in Ireland for 50-odd consecutive quarters, which is the longest property boom recorded by the OECD. Most of that growth supported a huge increase in service industries, which, outside of the Public Sector, mostly was construction related, building houses for workers to live in while building more houses. â€œRealâ€ employment creation was almost nonexistent. We can have all the planning and design feature aspirations we like (and most Irish town or rural dwellers would not recognise good design if it hit them in the face!) but we need job creation, Broadband roll-out and transport availability first.
Proper control of planning is now more critical than ever. It is saddening to see the five-year extension now being granted to developers on what is in the â€œapprovedâ€ pipeline. Though I suppose the government wants to prolong the evil day of crystallizing pie-in-the-sky projects.
I contend that it is not appropriate to make comparisons between the US property market and that in Ireland. While some of the US cities have vast swathes of empty properties, most of those once were occupied, unlike the never-occupied new-builds we have here. In the US empty properties are a result of a combination of rising unemployment, defaulted loans (most of which never should have been granted to no-hopers), subsequent repossessions and an ability to easily file for various levels of personal bankruptcy.
While we now have increasing unemployment and some defaults at consumer level, personal bankruptcy is almost unknown in Ireland. (We equally are quite different to the UK, where, in 2005, they had more than 47,000 bankruptcies. That year the Republic of Ireland had 9.) Nor do we have the IVA (Individual Voluntary Arrangement), a formal agreement with creditors that can allow for debt write-off by an individual and repayment of only a percentage of the debt by way of monthly payments. This year, there will be considerably more than 100,000 of those in the UK.
Planners acquiesced to political pressure and either did not do their job or protest loudly enough,. Shopkeepers in small towns and villages in the last few decades built up land banks as a result of taking a field here or there in lieu of payment for debts run up in the shop. Some locals, more interested in drink than farming, would sell a field or two for drink money. Shopkeepers and publicans, incentivised by tax credits, became property developers and built â€œholiday villagesâ€ to conform to local planning guidelines. Bogs â€“ and I mean bogs â€“ had villages of houses built on them and marketed as tax incentivised â€œholiday home investment properties.â€ Most prospective buyers i.e. those with borrowing ability, worked in cities and fancied the idea of a place in the country. Almost nobody stopped to ask if the product matched the purchaser, whose idea was a â€œhouse in the countryâ€ and not a poxy Lego-like box crammed into a holiday home ghetto built in a bog on the fringe of town/village in the middle of no-where.
The present catastrophe of ghost ghetto villages will be much more difficult from which to extricate ourselves. Nobody will buy these houses for a variety of reasons, and design is far down that list. The one that is never talked about is that there is a fear that the local builder/developer will, under pressure from the local bank manager, ask the local councillor to buy a few houses in a development for social housing for itinerantsor unmarried mothers. Mr & Mrs aspiring holiday home owner most certainly do not want to have their holiday retreat next door to a local no-good or a series of unmarried mothers or resettled latchicos & go-boys. If some of these houses are bought for Local Authority use, they will be condemned to remain so as there is neither employment nor the prospect of employment in the type of village where they are built. Nor will anyone buy the remaining houses, so the LA will again step in and ghetto creation will be complete.
So, no sales, bankrupt builders, unfinished estates, growing dereliction and if a cash-strapped government of any hue re-introduces domestic rates, we will see what happened to the old houses in post war Ireland â€“ we may see them bulldozed.
June 23, 2009 at 11:25 pm #807904AnonymousInactive
I think Kerry Bog has managed to paint the picture much better than I ever could. Thanks for that contribution, it is quite valuable to the debate. Having grown up in the countryside myself and left it over a decade ago, I am simply out of touch. When I visit the countryside now, I feel always like one of those visitors you describe. I get these fanciful notions always popping into my head . . . Ah, wouldn’t it be nice . . . And I have to admit, the design standards of the dwelling and how it fits into the context would not be high on my checklist. For that I am trully ashamed of myself, for neglecting the point of view of good sustainable urban design. I have no excuse whatsoever, having been trained as an architect. The only excuse I can offer, is a trip away to the countryside for me, is like a blur. It happens some sunny week, once a year maybe. I wouldn’t be the keenest of observers, in what should or should not happen to Irish towns and villages.
Brian O’ Hanlon
June 23, 2009 at 11:28 pm #807905AnonymousInactive
…ask the local councillor to buy a few houses in a development for social housing for itinerantsor unmarried mothers. Mr & Mrs aspiring holiday home owner most certainly do not want to have their holiday retreat next door to a local no-good or a series of unmarried mothers or resettled latchicos & go-boys.
In our darkest moments, some of us might think it, but few would write it. Think of Roma and Belfast and you’ll know the reason why. Middle-class susceptibilities are the last refuge of …what?
June 24, 2009 at 12:03 am #807906AnonymousInactive
I know you’re all talking sense here, but I just glaze over when people start talking economics and social order.
What infuriates me most about the state of Irish towns is the wishy washy planning approach to ‘Main Street’. They’ll cheerfully grant planning permission for three & four storey apartment blocks in hybrid modern/vernacular housing estates on the outskirts of town, but when it comes to the decimated original Main Street, ”conservation” considerations dictate you have to match the nearest gutter line!
a 19th century painting of High Street, Kilmallock showing the ruins of mostly 16th century structures.
Four hundred years ago the ‘Main Street’ of an Irish town had scale and status. Imposing stone town houses juxtaposed with vernacular cottages, urbanism in the making, now they’re lucky to have a plastic Londis and a set-back ‘Community Hall’.
The failure of planning in Irish towns is not just about the suburban type sprawl and the stupid zonings, it about allowing weakness to creep into the centre and a lack of belief in urbanism.
June 24, 2009 at 10:48 am #807907AnonymousInactive
……….. when it comes to the decimated original Main Street, ”conservation” considerations dictate you have to match the nearest gutter line!
I sympathise. On each of the three occasions I encountered the planning process I left bemused and with no conception of what governs it. I suspect that most planners would be more in favour of granting PP for an extra storey on a pastiche building rather than a contemporary one.
Four hundred years ago the ‘Main Street’ of an Irish town had scale and status. Imposing stone town houses juxtaposed with vernacular cottages, urbanism in the making
I wonder if that argument is a bit specious, as not all towns had buildings of that height? Are not many of today’s towns the result of an improving landlord? 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 agree that in most of the “old” towns, such as Kilmallock, Youghal, Bandon, etc., tall buildings were mandatory; the need to go “up” was no doubt a result of the stricture imposed by a town’s defensive walls.
It would be very interesting to map the development of housing in Ireland (based say on the Hearth Tax Rolls, etc. against wars, the economic environment and population statistics.
In our darkest moments, some of us might think it, but few would write it. Think of Roma and Belfast and you’ll know the reason why. Middle-class susceptibilities are the last refuge of …what?
Of the aspirant bourgeoisie. In most countries the biggest racists always are the penultimate immigrants.
Everyone needs someone to look down on, particularly when economic times are tough. Racism cannot be overcome unless it is recognized. That is why it should be said, and not swept under society’s carpet. A caring outlook sits poorly with capitalism: economic circumstances regulate much more than we often admit. Most people have an inbuilt wish to succeed, to achieve the best for themselves. After working hard to gain something, they find it unpleasant to see that something being devalued because similar has been given on a plate to a neighbour.
June 24, 2009 at 12:28 pm #807908AnonymousInactive
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.
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.
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
June 24, 2009 at 1:05 pm #807909AnonymousInactive
Maybe it was the scale of the church as Caherciveen that coloured my memory a little of the scale of the ordinary buildings along its main street. But notice the miserable allocation given to the pedestrian realm in this photo. It is almost as if they didn’t want people to come to the town at all. It is the a result of the out-of-date psychology, that making enough space for vehicles is going to encourage people to come and do business in a town. That way of thinking is out of date today, given that towns have to compete head-to-head with sophisticated, well designed and well managed retail space in the nearest big box centre. This is why I think that architects need to move towards the ‘bigger’ end of the scale. To come up with and propose big visions for these locals to work towards achieving. What you are seeing in the photos more than anything else, is the last 50 years worth of ‘no vision’.
June 24, 2009 at 1:10 pm #807910AnonymousInactive
I suppose this photo taken further up the street shows an urban space which isn’t being used to the best advantage at all. There is hardly anything at all in the photo that would encourage one to spend an hour or two in the town. One would gladly drive a longer distance to the nearest big shining glass box shopping centre plaza, than hang around that main street. There is a signf or a bus stop pointing down the side street somewhere. But why isn’t the bus stop the main focus of the main street? So that people might use the shops or restaurants in the retail space, while they wait for a bus?
June 24, 2009 at 1:23 pm #807911AnonymousInactive
There is so much asphalt shown in this photograph I think, that there is never any hope that the pedestrian might triumph over the car. The pedestrian who makes it onto that little calm oasis of trees and nicely placed rubbish bins, and phoneboxes . . . is effectively stuck there. Trying to get off that island, in any direction involves going through asphalt and possibly traffic moving at speed. This is what makes this islands in Irish towns places where undesireable elements hang out. Giving bother and banter to the usual people who are trying to go about their business. Indeed, if you hang around those islands too long yourself, you are in danger of being seen like some form of loiterer.
This kind of design is so inferior to what purpose built retail centres now have to offer. Especially for the youngest and the oldest members in comunities. The ‘big vision’ would insist that a pedestrian can navigate from one extreme of the town to the other, without having to struggle with traffic too much, at any point on the journey. Much in the same way as you can in any shopping centre. You have that piece of mind to go about your business. I am not saying that keeping out the car is the answer. Full pedestrianisation of urban streets, such as Grafton Street has led to a complete deterioration of them as urban places. And a subsequent over-rise to dominance of the retail user requirements on Grafton Street. In fact, what happens on places such as Grafton Street is the buildings are bought wholesale by absentee landlords, who may live abroad, and never have to worry again about how the street is doing.
June 24, 2009 at 3:11 pm #807912AnonymousInactive
There is so much asphalt shown in this photograph I think, that there is never any hope that the pedestrian might triumph over the car.
That public realm debate requires a level of consciousness that we just don’t seem to have in Ireland.
This is a small town called Breuberg in the Odenwald region of Germany where I had the pleasure of living for a few months as a student in the early ’80s.
This is a recent photograph, . . . back when I lived in Breuberg, this tiny main street was lethal with through-traffic in both directions. Then around 1982 they completed a local parallel by-pass through the valley about 100m away. While it is true that most of the shopping facilities did migrate to the by-pass (where there’s now a new Aldi and a Lidl), the improvement in the public realm along the old Main Street is dramatic and the guest houses and restaurants are regaining their former prominance.
The shared surface with unobtrusive bollards providing pedestrian protection, where needed, works fine.
OK, maybe the cute church and half timbered houses help, but there’s still lessons any Irish town could learn from places like this.
June 24, 2009 at 4:36 pm #807913AnonymousInactive
The major thing that strikes from the photo you have posted above, is that it could be a photograph any of us might take on a holiday, or en route to someplace in Europe. There is nothing outstanding about it, by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t try very hard like some of the modern stuff has to do. What is shown in the photo above, is light years better than the average Irish town or village. I have often heard from colleagues of mine, that Sean O’ Laoire has a long time hatred for the automobile and its impact on urban living. But I have to remember that guys like Sean and others have travelled the world so much more than I have. I often get quips from colleagues of mine, prompting me to go here, persuading me to go somewhere else. Its fabulous, its awesome . . . a wonderful place to learn about urban design.
I would like to add some words of caution about urban regeneration . . .
I haven’t read David McWilliams or George Lee so much, but I am getting to that stage now. It is like talking about the eighty pound guerilla in the corner of the room. The bad relationship that formed in Ireland during the Celtic tiger years between the Irish property developer and the idea of urban regeneration. This is why I liked to read and listen to what Feasta had to say about things. Since my knowledge of how development finance works in the real world, was very patchy to say the least.
When I do go someplace I tend to look at building technology, building materials and methods of construction. In later times, I have also began to study how A/E’s have approach energy conservation in other parts of the world. Some time last year I started to read about supply chain management. If I wasn’t so focussed on business administration and techniques of managing construction I might have a good eye, as an urban designer. I am interested in construction management because I believe the customer deserves better – always, no matter how hard you try, there is a better way. Hence, why I am so attracted to the Japanese car industry and its philosophy. I think that we can drive costs down and quality up at the same time in Ireland. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could start with the big vision and follow through the execution. That problem interests me a lot.
Adamstown strategic development zone tried to use the right approach towards execution. That is, to get the sequence correct on what was a new site. I haven’t fully figured out what happened down in Dublin Docklands. What I do know, is that many of Ireland’s developers went down there to make a fortune. But many of them ended up losing a fortune instead. Is there something we could have done to prevent this? One has to remember, when the property developer loses out, the whole economy seems to cave in on itself too. This is a bad side affect, that not many urban planners or architects will claim credit for. But they are ultimately involved in the process too. Nobody has a squeaky clean image after the last decade here in Ireland.
That is why I pointed to the example of Sean Dunne and the Newbridge shopping centre. People talk now about the fact he lost his shirt in Ballsbridge. But what people don’t want to remember, is the fact that he almost lost his shirt in the small town of Newbridge aswell. You need to form partnerships in order to do the ‘big vision’ and it doesn’t always work out. The end result in Newbridge is wonderful today. But it was purchased at too high a risk, not only to an individual developer, but to our fragile economy in Ireland. It was the multiplication of so much risk across so many projects here in Ireland at the same time, which drove us under in the end.
There is nothing mind blowing and extraordinary about the high density Spencer Dock scheme. But it benefitted from having the vision set out early on. That would improve the risk ratio, if I can make up such a phrase. I don’t even know who was responsible for the original vision. Somehow it managed to carry itself forward on its own momentum. On other sites though, where the vision was still under development, or being made up as things went along, that is where the pockets of a lot of wealthy people were broke. Indecision seems to be a huge enemy where these large scale things are concerned. That is why developers often choose a scheme that appears to be within the capabilities of the construction firms they are tendering to. It is not that developers do not have aesthetic ambitions as such. It is the fact that the technical capabilities, and often the ability to manage finances of the Irish building contractor is limited.
I know that many architects in Ireland have already prepared comprehensive visionary plans for towns in Ireland. But we have to be more sensible in the future in how we finance and manage the construction roll out. The episode at North Wall Quay certainly convinced me of this. We are now stuck in a situation, where if the scheme at North Wall Quay isn’t built a major player in the property market will go under. Carrying a big chunk of the productive Irish economy with him in the process. But there doesn’t appear to be anyone sitting in our parliment in Kildare Street who is able to deal with these individuals. Maybe DeValera would have rounded them all up and locked them in boot camp in Kildare. I don’t know, but he certainly had more steel about him than Bertie.
I mean, the Dublin Docklands should be more developed, and more comprehensively developed by now in my opinion. Given the fact that so much credit was available to fund the works. Given the vast amount of effort that went into it over a decade or more. Given the vast amount of private developer debt that has been created, that is crippling the economy now, in order to roll out the docklands building works program. I wonder why it doesn’t seem more finished. There was no requisite public investment in a works program to complete streets and public squares to function along with the new building projects. I think the DDDA saw that quite early, but the capital hasn’t moved fast enough and construction has not finished quickly enough on the infrastructure to tie it all together.
There is a strong argument to be made, that the debt created to enable property developers to function, was bought at too expensive a price on the open money markets. This above all, is what has brought extreme dis-favour on urban regeneration as a concept. The idea of urban regeneration should have a good image. But in Ireland, the image has suffered massive damage. It might take a decade for us to be re-build that image now. Even then, I am not so certain. In the meantime architects will sit around holding their pencils and hoping.
The fact the Dublin Docklands seems unfinished and so un-resolved, is one of the things holding it back as a place. It sickens my rear end to sit around and watch as ‘high net worth’ individuals fiddle around and try to get their P’s and Q’s in order. So that we can all resume some sort of economic normality. In the UK a land area the size of Dublin Docklands would have been distributed out amongst a much larger group of developers. You can easily see why. At least then, somethings might have gotten finished properly.
If we had taken a smaller portion of available land in the Docklands and finished it to a much higher standard, would we be better off now? This is basically the point that Paul Keogh was making about certain Irish towns. Towns which had a population of only 3,000 people. But which had enough land zoned for a population of 60,000 using current EU recommended densities of 60 people per hectare at sustainable densities. One developer I know who has his finger on the pulse, commented a while back: A lot of Irish towns and villages around the country have doubled in size in terms of building stock, but their population has remained the same!
Frank McDonald made a useful observation in one RTE interview about Poolbeg. It makes no sense to go tearing off down to Poolbeg penninsula, when so much of the remaining docklands area remains under-developed. The major commercial tenants already have cold feet about moving their operations to the docklands. They are turning their focus back to look at traditional areas of the city instead. The window of opportunity to turn the docklands into something worthwhile has been missed now. Folks go down to the docklands area and still think to themselves, this place is a mess. No amount of photo montage or cheap publicity stunts can hide that fact.
As someone mentioned above, the importance of transportation. One wonders if much of the development in the Docklands should have gone ahead, before the transportation issues were fully sorted out. As much and all of the effort that went into building Mayor Square, I am still not convinced that it works. I have no idea what way Spencer Dock can connect to its surroundings if at all. That project to provide a walk along the old canal side, is badly in need of completion. But then, there are so many streets, new squares, plazas and spaces in the docklands area that have been problematic to deliver. Lack of resources I should imagine. This is why land taxation could be so useful where the docklands are concerned.
Brian O’ Hanlon
June 24, 2009 at 9:39 pm #807914AnonymousInactive
I finished reading Paul Keogh’s document this evening.
What I like about his document is that he uses a composite approach, blending the tools of observation borrowed from urban land economics with his instinctive observations as an Architect. In fact, the best architects out there, Jim Pike included can combine both these tools as if they were one. An architect who wants to call themself a sustainable architect, should have a really good grasp of land economics as well as a good grasp of spatial design. It is nice that an architect has taken the time to produce such an excellent and thoughtful document really. It may not have the same writer’s style that Frank McDonalds literature can have. But it is nice to see quality documents coming from directions other than the Irish Times.
It is hard to do. But if I was to devise some critical observation of Paul Keogh’s document, it would sound like this. While it feels nice to criticise semi-detached housing development so much, because they score so poorly from a design point of view. I wonder if the urban design perspective is the best way to critcise things, if one wants to promote more action from the public, the government, the professions etc. I would favour using the sustainability argument more, but wrapping it in a costume specific to our purpose. I will attempt to define sustainability along the lines of finance. How we endeavour to finance building projects in Ireland. This will carry more weight with a wide audience and enable us all to put manners on Irish property developers for once and for all.
I wonder if the semi-detached development has managed to create the same levels of economic disruption and damage as the more ambitious development has done. I guess Paul Keogh’s argument is a good one – two much of the wrong kind of development, in the wrong place. For sure, in the later years of the building boom, the sheer volume of semi-detached developments in obscure places made it a problem in the system of things. What to do with all of that toxic debt that is suddenly associated with housing projects at the edge of Dublin’s commuter belt. By that, I mean Leitrim, Carlow and wherever else. Paul Keogh’s document did cover this aspect fairly well.
(The Urban Land Economics primer written by Bull, Balchin and Kieve makes a similar argument for retail space in the UK. Even though the UK has an over-supply of retail space, it is of the wrong type and in the wrong place)
I suppose, in a nutshell, the question that Frank McDonald, James Nix, Paul Keogh and many others are asking: Does building too many semi-detached developments willy nilly, all over the country represent the best possible value for money deal that Ireland as a country can get?
Some additional words about the Docklands.
Usually, I am the first to speak up in favour of the Irish property developer. I am a lot more interested in the nuts and bolts of construction and management, than I will ever be in urban design. The Dublin Docklands was a great place for me to put into action some of my skills in dealing with the construction side of the challenge. But the more I think about my experience in the Dublin Docklands adventure the more I do wonder. I wonder if value for money was achieved at any real level.
I am quite familiar with the work by Dublin Airport Authority in doing their projects. I am also familiar to some degree with the efforts at Adamstown to develop land in a sustainable manner. Both of those sites required high degrees of skill in terms of overall programming and organisation. I don’t see the same sophistication in the way projects were rolled out in the docklands. It was more like a free for all, because it was all privately owned. There was a lot of work done by DDDA to encourage green planting etc. But we have to examine our definition of ‘green’ or sustainable on many different levels – efficiency and sustainability of financing being one of the most important.
I mean, if a better program management approach had been taken with the investment in the Docklands, could it have happened in a more sustainable way? I believe it could. We might have a lot more to show for a lot less money borrowed. Money that was borrowed from the worse possible source, a banking system that had no sense of discrimination left. Dublin Airport Authority was in charge of a huge sum of state capital investment, on a public project. It is interesting to see how they approached their task. See attached PDF file. There was very good and transparent reporting done at all stages. To me, that is how you approach the timely and sustainable delivery of large scale projects – with proper organisation.
If you consider the fact, that DAA was generating its own revenue for its project in a sustainable manner * – unlike the private developers in the Dublin Docklands – you will appreciate even more, the sophistication of the DAA project. If you consider the fact, the private developers in the Dublin docklands were trying to roll out projects, having to borrow capital from volatile money markets . . . and then proceeding to try and build projects without any real program management techniques set up . . . . then it really makes one wonder, how you should define ‘sustainable’ development. Certainly, the financing and programming components of the building roll out, should be part of the sustainable definition.
That is, when a developer goes under, as many have done in the Dublin Docklands adventure . . . leaving a hole now in the Irish economy . . . that should be called un-sustainable development by definition. Then you bolt onto the problem, another problem even further down the line, which I tried my best to articulate in this blog post:
Namely, the management model employed for many of the completed facilities is never going to help to boot strap Ireland into a vibrant, modern knowledge economy . . . Then we do get a real impression of how un-sustainable, on so many levels, the Docklands adventure really was. None of us observers or commentators really have the sophistication to understand it unfortunately. But Paul Keogh’s document is certainly a step in the right direction. It leads us to question our own definition of sustainability, and to expand the definition in the appropriate ways.
The one thing I will say in favour of some of the docklands developers from a sustainability point of view. Many did try to build a group of people to assist with the construction process. I certainly learned a lot in that context. The large multi-disiplinary group was motivated by a goal to get building costs down. But you can also measure that action favourably in some definition of sustainability. The other thing I noticed, in my experience was a contempt for knocking anything down after it was built. You aimed to get it right the first time. This was motivated from a desire to capture as much economy as possible in the building process. But the net result is a move towards a sustainable building practice also.
Brian O’ Hanlon
* Okay, so I stretched a point there. DAA generates its own revenues from airport charges and retail rents. Passengers who trot around the globe burning airplane fuel etc.
June 24, 2009 at 11:45 pm #807915AnonymousInactive
You have some interesting stuff there, much of which I agree with, but, and without meaning to sound rude, I just do not have time to study it all before responding in point by point detail. There are too many to tackle singly! In the blog you talk about how the property developers got it wrong in looking for single large tenants. Then you talk about services provided by Regus and Siemens. An interesting follow-on. Regus actually filed for Chapter11 protection in the early 2000s (02/03?) as a result of their mismanagement of the dot com bubble. They suffered at that time from what Irish developers have now repeated over the last couple of years. Irish developers were arrogant and deserved what they got, sadly that has too big an impact on the average Joe.
Reverting to the topic at hand, firstly, it is not appropriate to use Catholic churches as a scale of anything in Irish towns. Most were built, like the one in Cahirciveen, from money sent back by Famine descendants in America. (Catholic Emancipation in 1829, soon followed by the Famine, mass emigration and it was the late 1800s before there was any money to build these. ) What seems to me is that you are using Dublin standards to judge a country town. Most country towns were built around a market space, used for cattle trading on fair days. Long before the traffic of cars, lorries or tour busses. The fair day is gone, so is the mart. The space remains. Excluding a few weeks in summer, when about 30 coaches stop there daily, you could hold a football match in Main Street Cahirciveen. The best restaurant (QCs) closes outside of two months of main season plus a few days at Christmas and Easter. Cahirciveen once had a railway and even a superb viaduct to carry it. Closed, due to transport policy. The same could be said for most towns on the Ring.
It is the result of the out-of-date psychology, that making enough space for vehicles is going to encourage people to come and do business in a town.
Thankfully, of course they will be encouraged to come to town. How else can they come? By ass & cart? Bicycle? There is no public transport; why should they not expect parking? If they have no parking in local towns they will go to the shopping centres you are decrying.
Example 1. Tralee fought with M&S over a site for a shop. M&S wanted a suitable location, the town council â€“ controlled mainly by local traders â€“ did not want that type of competition in the location proposed. Result? M&S gave the two fingers to Tralee and opened in Killarney, in an area with parking.
Example 2: some years ago Tesco opened in Killarney, it has huge space, enough to open with a petrol station. Most people in a big radius now can â€“ and do – drive there, park, do the shopping and fill with petrol. The saving on petrol alone (sold at cost as a loss leader) pays for the shopping trip plus it is a day out for herself plus the groceries are way cheaper than the local village shop. Now, for e.g., I want to get a tank of petrol for my outboard/lawnmower/chainsaw/whatever. We need that type of stuff down here. The local garage/petrol station has almost closed because it lost business to Tesco and has not enough turnover to make it worthwhile to stay open. A guy who can sell me a can of petrol at 8 in the evening or who would come to my home with a toolbox, or jump leads is not on hand at Tesco. When my local garage closes I will have to drive 30 odd miles to the nearest garage for petrol;Iâ€™ve no idea of what to do when I need a mechanic, and most cars now need a computer diagnostician. (Which is why old carburettor/distributor engines are so popular in Africa â€“ maybe that day will come here?)
As for public services, we have no rubbish collection and I do a fortnightly 30+ mile roundtrip to the dump with what cannot be recycled. I also take the rubbish for some elderly neighbours, who have no other means of disposing it, even burning is outlawed. Country people need vehicles.
In fact, what happens on places such as Grafton Street is the buildings are bought wholesale by absentee landlords, who may live abroad, and never have to worry again about how the street is doing.
No. Much of Grafton Street is owned by Irish pension funds and the banks. McNamara owns several premises, which he has tried to sell for yonks. Even if the premises were owned by foreigners, you can be sure that they want their cash; footfall, sales per sqm and yield rates are uppermost in their minds.
I will comment later on the remarks on developers. I have no sympathy for them â€“ none.
June 25, 2009 at 11:21 am #807916AnonymousInactive
K.b2: interesting and illuminating reply, but there is a real issue about both how to treat ‘redundant’ spaces (e.g. market places or wide main streets) and where to locate both large supermarkets and adequate carparking. Good street furniture (which does not have to be elaborate or trendy), designated parking (non-dominant), supermarkets with real street frontage (i.e. not fronted by parking), an anti-dereliction policy and the concentration of essential services in town and village centres are some of the ingredients. And get rid of the wires and tone down the colour schemes; it’s not rocket science, nor expensive. Every settlemnt of any size shopuld have an agreed design guideline to which people can readily buy in.
(And note to Gareth,etc. – not only are the posts far too long, but the medium of the computer screen is totally different to that of the printed page; after about half-a-dozen lines, the eyes – and the mind – glaze over. The computer equivalent of a page-and-a-half is about a dozen lines maximum. I’m sure the arguments are fascinating, but they are too long to ingest.)
June 25, 2009 at 12:49 pm #807917AnonymousInactive
Apologises about the lenght of the above. I had to re-read it over quite a few hours last night to see if I could un-cover the meaning in what I had typed myself. Late last night I was thinking about it. It occured to me what I have been trying to do all along in recent time at Archiseek. I have been struggling to find some broader definition of what is a sustainable neighbourhood or community. So I wrote down briefly my thinking on that here:
Yeah, I can appreciate reading KB’s response above what the problems faced by towns on the ring of Kerry are. I am judging Kerry towns by Dublin standards for sure. I still believe though, that more life might grow within these towns if the pedestrian realm wasn’t such an afterthought. There are two approaches towards development. On one end of the spectrum where you dicate something to happen. This was the approach taken during much of the Celtic tiger by developers like Dunne, Carroll, Treasury and so on. The other approach is to create conditions, in which something can grow and develop. That is the approach I am suggesting here.
In one of the photos shown above, the parking on either side and thoroughfare of ‘traffic’ through the centre of the street is given way too much priority. (If Caherciveen is so deserted a place for much of the year, then why does it need so much space for automobiles) In Caherciveen (note picking on it specifically) and in the majority of Irish towns, the pedestrian is confined to being a second class citizen who has to navigate along a miserable one meter width strip, shoved tight into the buildings.
The pedestrian never enjoys the street for what it really could be. Most of the time, the pedestrian hates using that narrow strip of walking pavement, because it ensures you are within other pedestrians ‘personal space’ all of the time. You are bumping into the kinds of people all the time, you don’t want to meet. That becomes a major problem in a small place such as Caherciveen I am sure. In order to walk down the narrow pedestrian realm, you almost have to plan your journey so as not to bump into certain people.
There is a safe sort of distance that pedestrians can maintain between each other, if the space is provided. I noticed this very much on O’Connell Street in Dublin, where in the past it was a very exhausting experience to navigate from the bottom to the top of O’Connell Street with all the ‘hassle’ you got from people along the way. If the pedestrian realm is provided for, that leads to a much more relaxed and healthier co-existence of different age groups and different cultures. If one wants to build a multi-cultural urban environment, the first place I would start is with the pavements.
I know from observation of the town of Abbeyfeale for instance, that is spread out across its hinterland. I wonder would people prefer to make their working places, the streets and buildings that are in the town? If the central and more compact areas of the town could be organised better, with less dominance given to the cars. An awful lot of people in Irish towns spend a lot of their time avoiding one another. It is part of human behaviour. But the squashed together pedestrian experience on pavements does not facilitate this behaviour very well.
I seriously believe if the urban space in towns was better organised they might begin to look more like places, that people would want to live and work in. Even to live and work beside un-married mothers and whatever else, if I am not stretching the realms of possibility too far. If we want to fight against urban sprawl and bad pheripheral development, then we have to start with how we manage and design our pedestrian realm in the centre.
I watched a documentary on BCC4 television about airports in Britain. There was one example from the 1960s, where Heathrow airport had not introduced ‘international’ pictogram signs to help airport users to navigate their way around. Not everyone using an airport could read the English signs. The spokesperson for Heathrow airport (bear in mind, this was the 1960s) said, it would be too risky to put a pictogram sign of a female with a dress to indicate a ladies toilet. The gentlemen from the middle east might get the wrong ideas! We will probably look back on this chapter of decayed urban values and bad pedestrian realm, like we look back on those comments about ladies toilet signs now.
The main streets of towns like Abbeyfeale have next to no pedestrian realm worth mentioning. The only function the main street seems to have in the Irish town is some baudy, dis-reputable and boozy thoroughfare for people to stagger around in the later hours. (Nothing wrong with that some times) It occurs to me that many of the late night town visitors live beyond in the suburban land and merely use the village or town centre as their nightime amusement centre. That seems to be a very poor functionality for towns and villages with good potential to be restricted to.
I also included a post about architectural heritage here:
Brian O’ Hanlon
June 25, 2009 at 1:07 pm #807918AnonymousInactive
Are you for real?
June 25, 2009 at 1:08 pm #807919AnonymousInactive
I hear the comments above about the computer screen. I am finding the same problem myself. However, if you want to print out the above and read it, sometime, it might be worth the effort. I tidied up my main points into a short blog post here today:
I think that blog post represents some conclusion I have reached, after all of my Archiseek attempts to date. It is something I can work forward with. And hopefully not bother you all with the huge long scripts. Apologises for the lenght of above.
Brian O’ Hanlon
June 25, 2009 at 4:19 pm #807920AnonymousInactive
While it is true that most of the shopping facilities did migrate to the by-pass (where there’s now a new Aldi and a Lidl), the improvement in the public realm along the old Main Street is dramatic and the guest houses and restaurants are regaining their former prominance.
I’m not in the least surprised. I’ve seen this effect in Italy, France and Germany. I tried to argue this point in this thread (i.e. that large retail should be sited in car accessible OUT OF town centres and that this is entirely compatible with urban development) but it seems this challenges the UK/Ireland planning orthodoxy that it is the existance of large out-of-town retail centres that is killing our towns and cities.
To be honest, I also agree with your opening comment on the lack of sophistication in planning discussion in Ireland. However (to generalize horribly), coming from a scientific/engineering background what disturbs me most is the lack of an evidence based approach to most debates on architecture and planning. Instead, idiology and Aristolian deduction seem to hold much more power; challenges to such orthodoxies even if backed by empirical evidence are often scoffed at. For a somewhat silly example, I’ve often asked aquaintances with a professional or amateur interest in this subject why New Urbanism seems to be constantly criticised and have rarely gotten a straight answer – usually there’ll be some snorting reference to Prince Charles. What I’ve never heard is a answer along the lines of “such and such a peer-reviewed study has shown that people are much happier, healthier, etc. living in La Corbusier inspired towers surrounded by motorways and open green fields than in twee pastiche planned towns” (surprisingly); yet La Corbusier is still held up as a genius while New Urbanism is generally scoffed at.
June 25, 2009 at 5:14 pm #807921AnonymousInactive
I tried to argue this point (i.e. that large retail should be sited in car accessible OUT OF town centres and that this is entirely compatible with urban development) but it seems this challenges the UK/Ireland planning orthodoxy that it is the existance of large out-of-town retail centres that is killing our towns and cities.
OK, towns and cities; two different things.
Maybe part of the problem is that we’re seeing these two challenges in the same light, when they are probably radically different, and not just in scale.
A by-pass in a small town is effectively another street, you can walk between the two, and you can design the new one to take the traffic that the old one was never designed to handle. I don’t know if I’d equate that with the ‘Out of Town’ concept.
Although, maybe you’re right, maybe there is a place for the truely ‘Out of Town’ shopping centre. I’d like to see that one argued through a little more.
June 25, 2009 at 5:40 pm #807922AnonymousInactive
It’s impossible to illustrate here, but I’m simply not convinced by the argument about ‘out of town’ centres (almost an oxymoron); in this area, there was a major oot development at Renfrew (the Braehead centre – it may have a website) – paradoxically near an historic but declining town, Renfrew, but not in the area’s main shopping centre, Paisley (I know). The local council opposed it but the government (Tory) granted permission. In the 10 years or so since it opened, there has been a second phase focused on ‘leisure’ (with the council now wetting itself to get the additional revenue), and the centre of Paisley has gone into near-terminal decline in spite of much civic improvement.
OK, it’s a complex phenomenon and the seeds of Paisley’s decline preceded Braehead, but the strong impression now given is (a) that developers dictate planning policy, (b) that civic improvement will not ‘attract’ shopping or other uses in isolation and (c) that without a large shopping input town centres largely have no ‘function’. Is this progress?
June 25, 2009 at 9:44 pm #807923AnonymousInactive
……. but there is a real issue about both how to treat ‘redundant’ spaces (e.g. market places or wide main streets) and where to locate both large supermarkets and adequate carparking. Good street furniture (which does not have to be elaborate or trendy), designated parking (non-dominant), supermarkets with real street frontage (i.e. not fronted by parking), an anti-dereliction policy and the concentration of essential services in town and village centres are some of the ingredients. And get rid of the wires and tone down the colour schemes; it’s not rocket science, nor expensive. Every settlemnt of any size shopuld have an agreed design guideline to which people can readily buy in.
Agreed. I suggest we should use this recession as an opportunity to introduce some positive aspects into current planning weaknesses. Now that the tent is gone and the builders broke, changes should have a better chance of success. 🙂
We need a holistic approach that is flexible. The requirements of a tourist town (e.g. one visited daily by dozens of coaches) are quite different to those for a town with little tourist interest or one that is centred on industry. For example, use of a by-pass road, with adjoining car parks and where necessary a shuttle bus service in high summer. Locals could have vehicle access permits. That would provide locals limited parking, encourage local business and allow for decent street landscaping. (Similar restrictions in place in France/Italy/US resorts come to mind.)
Not so sure about design guidelines, they could cramp progress, but agree on use of colour. You forgot to mention a ban on plastic Georgian windows.
Re your point on open spaces – Sneem, a village rather than a town, has a figure 8 layout, the middle joined by a bridge. The open spaces have been converted to greens and various pieces of artwork have been installed. The late Michael Scott was instrumental in implementing c.1970 a colour plan for the houses around the squares â€“ not sure that i agree with some of his choices, thoâ€™.
June 25, 2009 at 10:24 pm #807924AnonymousInactive
For a somewhat silly example, I’ve often asked aquaintances with a professional or amateur interest in this subject why New Urbanism seems to be constantly criticised and have rarely gotten a straight answer – usually there’ll be some snorting reference to Prince Charles.
What I’ve never heard is a answer along the lines of “such and such a peer-reviewed study has shown that people are much happier, healthier, etc. living in La Corbusier inspired towers surrounded by motorways and open green fields than in twee pastiche planned towns” (surprisingly); yet La Corbusier is still held up as a genius while New Urbanism is generally scoffed at.
That is what is so clever I think about Paul Keogh’s essay linked at the start of the thread. I finished reading it yesterday and I could see that Paul has gone off and done his homework in reading about Urban Land Economics. Land Economics is a subject with relevance to valueers and to quantity surveyors. To planners and politicians too obviously. But architects rarely study it in their lifes beyond a few hours lectures they manage attend while in college.
The great thing about urban land economics as a subject, is that it isn’t like architecture, it has a long tradition of academic publication and peer review. I read a paper a few months ago published in one of the American urban planning journals (very good stuff in those) about MacMansions. The paper said it was the first real proper academic study done of the ‘huge house’ phenomenon. I guess, what it is, is what you saw on MTV cribs. The kinds of houses owned by pop idols, with six car garage etc.
Paul Keogh’s essay about sustainable development in Ireland is of value because it is written in a language that is understandable to a wide group of people outside of architecture itself. Paul is actually quite unique in doing this – not many of the architects who receive the awards for their glass/timber boxes can speak common english at all. It reminds me of that program on TV, Top Gear, where the give the new cars to their tame racing driver, the Stig-meister. He doesn’t say anything at all. Architects are similar from the point of view of the mass academic audience. Brilliant, but inarticulate. Not ideal Wogan material, if you know what I mean.
A by-pass in a small town is effectively another street, you can walk between the two, and you can design the new one to take the traffic that the old one was never designed to handle. I don’t know if I’d equate that with the ‘Out of Town’ concept.
This is my point about Caherciveen, and another four thousand odd Irish towns like it. We have spent absolute fortunes under Tom Parlon’s guidance building asphalt from one end of the country to the other. But we seem unable to do something good for the urban design of Irish towns, by relieving the pressure of their main streets, by providing another service road suitable for vehicles.
Swords village is another one of those places that springs to my mind, in this way. Treble parking in the main Street. We managed to spend a fortune on the iconic Swords civic offices, but the pedestrian life in Swords is awful. There was some attempt made to create a kind of pedestrian retail street at swords. I think it leads to the rear out to a field or a car park or something pretty grim.
Brian O’ Hanlon
June 25, 2009 at 10:36 pm #807925AnonymousInactive
OK, it’s a complex phenomenon and the seeds of Paisley’s decline preceded Braehead, but the strong impression now given is (a) that developers dictate planning policy, (b) that civic improvement will not ‘attract’ shopping or other uses in isolation and (c) that without a large shopping input town centres largely have no ‘function’. Is this progress?
I think the only hope for towns is to morph into some kind of knowledge economy hub or something. Where modern workspace units, restaurants, meeting and conference space, open public space and transport can co-exist. Maybe the Irish town can develop a critical mass in some way, that allows people to work in closer proximity to one another.
I think what was attempted in Thomas Street in Dublin for the digital hub, would have ideal application if transported into the Irish town as a concept. Rather than Irish towns being tattered things, falling to bits and jealously guarded and watched by the few local auctioneers . . . maybe there could be some comprehensive vision for them?
At the moment, a lot of people working in Irish towns possibly work at the edge of town in some fire-safe modern tin shed, like in an industrial estate or something. But of course, calling them industrial estates is a bit of a stretch. They are basically utilitarian looking office parks these days, or distribution hubs. Most of the works on these edge-of-town estates or office parks, tear all the ways into town at lunchtime in their cars to eat in the pubs and restaurants anyhow.
So why not save a journey and design towns so that people can work in the centre of Irish towns to begin with? We could do a lot with underground or multi-storey parking if the vision was right. The fact that Irish towns are trying to cling on to some retail foot hold is holding them back in my view. They would be far better off giving up the attempt to compete with modern big box retail and look at re-inventing themselves as vibrant knowledge communities.
(There, I have used one of Sean O’Laoire’s old buzz words, despite my best efforts)
Brian O’ Hanlon
June 25, 2009 at 11:00 pm #807926AnonymousInactive
Agreed. I suggest we should use this recession as an opportunity to introduce some positive aspects into current planning weaknesses. Now that the tent is gone and the builders broke, changes should have a better chance of success.
The implication in that statement is that we can all be relieved and happy that the builders are gone away. To try and address that commonly held mis-perception in Ireland, I started a new thread here:
In which I try to argue, that all we are doing in Ireland now is taking part in the same kind of process that has happened so many times before. If you read the other thread, you will understand my concern. I find the attitude contained in Kerry Bog’s quote, representative of a large feeling out there amongst the public in Ireland. But from an overall systemic stability point of view, I would feel much more assured if some of the ‘builders’ were still operating. The chances are they would grow old, and improve somewhat in their ways. Improve somewhat in their sophistication. I honestly believe that was happening at the end of the boom.
But we will never know now, because they were wiped out. The next time, an even worse crop will grow up . . . assisted and encouraged by the Irish banks no doubt . . . and become worse than the old crop ever was. We see this kind of cycle happening in the crime world a lot. The police have learned that it is better not to wipe out the existing gangs if possible. The weeds grow up even stronger if you do. I am afraid we are stuck in a cycle in Ireland, where the weeds are wiped out and the new ones keep on getting much worse.
That is why I went to work for Irish property developers and enjoyed my work. I felt I could do more good standing inside the tent pissing out, than I could outside the tent pissing in. (Which is where the civil servant planners and city councils take up position) I began to learn this way of thinking, when I started to read books such as Peter M. Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, which is all about the field of System Dynamics. System Dynamics was developed by someone called Jay W. Forrester, who knew a great deal and wrote about how cities work.
Brian O’ Hanlon
June 25, 2009 at 11:49 pm #807927AnonymousInactive
The fact that Irish towns are trying to cling on to some retail foot hold is holding them back in my view.
I think this is an absolutely critical point in that shopping is not the only benchmark or critical element in the definition of ‘town’. Towns exhibit a range of functions (and this has been used to ‘classify’ them, although I’m not quite sure what the point of that is outside of the academy), but it is extremely difficult to plan for these, or to restrict development on the basis that a town does not come into a particular category. (Although the one area where this is necessary is shopping; retail has no civic conscience and one developer will happily destroy the viability of another’s development in another town in the interest of short-term profit.)
The development of towns is organic; even so-called commuter towns have arisen in response to a perceived need, or policy, or pressure (e.g. high house prices, shortage of sites). We are currently seeing many of these towns in their raw state; some will thrive and develop, some will languish. What is needed is a policy of guidance and management, not coercion, and a strong sense of civic engagement. Nobody will get it ‘right’, but we all need to try.
June 26, 2009 at 11:57 am #807928AnonymousInactive
? ? ? Architecture and Show Bands ? ? ?
What do we hope to do I wonder? Provide a travelling workshop/lecture series about towns, to go around the country of Ireland? Where town dwellers and business people (including publicans, store merchants, etc) can go and view an exhibition, about other successful projects? Maybe there is a bottom-up kind of awareness building that should be done. I think if such an exhibition or road-show was to be organised, it is essential it is not a load of exhibition boards folded up, travelling around in a lorry with no human companionship. It is crucial that real professional architects, planners and possibly even developers are on the tour, and give people some human interaction with ideas of urbanism.
The exhibition or road show, should be small and neat enough to travel right into the smaller towns and villages, such as Caherciveen, Listowel, NewCastle West and so on. You might only target a few towns in one summer. But that would be an improvement on nothing. You could target some more towns the following year. The whole thing could be funded in a self-sustaining manner I am sure. By selling ‘tickets’ to the local hob-nobs for an opening night – an intellectuals night with featured speakers. It could incorporate a brainstorming session and possibly, the publication of feedback from the various towns in some central place such as a website. We have enough agencies and civic bodies to make something like this happen over the summer months. It would get the ‘design’ message out amongst ordinary punters in a way that TV programs couldn’t do.
It occurs to me that What Now? out at UCD Architecture School is a very fine idea. But it caters a bit too much for the artistic impulse to lock one’s self away with one’s buddies in some sheebeen, talking intellectual nonsense. When they really aught to balance that impulse for intellectual self-searching, with a much wider, interactive action . . . something like the simple road tour that I suggest. I mean, if we are going to provide funding for anything, wouldn’t this be a good place to put it? It would probably pay for itself in the long run, by architects getting some work, owing to increased public enthusiasm for design. A bunch of students and tutors locking themselves away in UCD, is not going to achieve the needed end result. Even what we are doing here on Archiseek, is a little bit too private and self-aware. The message has to be taken to the people.
I keep getting back to the point, that not many people in their life times will have oppotunity to even meet, never mind hire the services of an architect.* Most people are familiar with priests, solicitors, doctors, auctioneers and so forth. But architects are something out there, that the general populus doesn’t understand about. I mean, every other business manages to organise promotional stunts – why not architecture? Or is the stiff upper lip professional thing too much of a problem? A lot of the time too, these travelling exhitions are high-brow academic things, aimed at other academics and usually sponsored by the Arts Council. I think Paul Keogh in his essay mentioned the tidy towns scheme. The great thing about the tidy towns, is that it involved so many people. But it didn’t achieve the goal, of giving the general public access to so good workshops or lectures on the subject of design.
Brian O’ Hanlon
* Part of the gimmick could be to raffle off the services of an architect in every town visited. This might be self-sustaining in some way too, if one could sell enough tickets. Plus, that person who received the services of an architect, would be an excellent form of viral marketing at a local level. He or she would tell everybody at local level, how wonderful an experience it was to have an architect. I wish the RIAI would provide scholarships for architects to attend the Smurfit School of Business or do marketing studies . . . this is the kind of area of ‘business ideas’ that architecture needs to advance in. It is time to use that lateral thinking.
I guess what I am thinking about, is something similar to what Tim Robbins did for Archaeology, with the Time Team concept. Top Gear does it to a degree also for automobile travel.
June 30, 2009 at 3:54 pm #807929AnonymousInactive
johnglas, I’m not sure whether you are deliberately misrepresenting my argument. Your “counter-example” has little or nothing to do with what I’ve described that I’ve observed first hand in France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. I’ve already spent too much time expanding on it in the other thread to try to reiterate it here. Coincidentally, the delay in responding on this thread is due to the fact that I was away on holiday to Aveyron in France – an area I’ve visited most years for the last 5 or 6. Practically every village, town and city has some degree of warehouse type retail (typically supermarkets, home supplies/DIY, fuel, sporting goods, etc.) on the outskirts. Nearly all have bustling, attractive, successful retail and leisure cores which have a real urban feel or a real community feel (depending on the size of the town).
In contrast, I’ve witnessed first hand the decline of the small Irish town and village over my lifetime (I am under 40). For example, I spent many of my childhood summers on my grandparents’ farm which touched a small village in county Kerry. The population of the village is now perhaps three times what it was then but yet the last vestiges of communal urbanity (the post-office, the two shops and the pub) are all closed. There’s an expensive restaurant mostly patronized by people from the nearest big town (which coincidentally has also seen commercial decline despite the excited announcement of a new Dunnes, Tescos or whatever which occurs every couple of years – each of which promises “rejuvinate” the town but each of which seemed to have had the opposite affect on the areas of town where they are sited) so there is zero social or community interaction except for GAA. The church is barely attended either. This decline corresponds with increasing powers of planning authorities in Ireland.
Like I said I’ve a scientific background, so empiricism is the driver for me not deductive reasoning or critical theory. However, I hardly think such an academic background is necessary; the simple exercise of observing the world, without prejudice, is enough to dismiss this particular aspect of Irish/UK planning orthodoxy. Out of town warehouse retail happily co-exists with the sort of villages and towns that I think we all admire if you are prepared to open your eyes to continental Europe.
I’d go as far as saying that listening to Irish, UK or American planners discuss how to preserve our villages, towns and cities and promote urbanism makes about as much sense to me as listing to Josef Fritzl discuss how to promote child welfare. I realise I’ve probably made enemies of half the members here with that comment but that’s what I’ve observed.
June 30, 2009 at 7:27 pm #807930AnonymousInactive
jimg: You need to take my word for it that I was not misrepresenting anything, but mere ’empiricism’ will not fit the bill. If, on the one hand, you have flourishing town centres and an oot supermarket, while on the other hand you have an oot centre and a dead historic centre, you are clearly talking about two quite different animals. If oot centres are not the cause of decline, then perhaps it is not planning policies either; there may be far deeper structural reasons in the UK and Ireland. Numbers are not facts, and perhaps you do need a more philosophical/sociological analysis.
I very much want lively centres (and I think local shopping is a big component of that), but maybe we need to take Brian’s point about a fundamental rethink of the range of functions and uses we look for in a town. I have noticed in my continental travels that many towns have small (c.3-5000 sq.ft?) ‘supermarkets’ in the centre, as well as the range of expected local shops. I have also noticed in the US the pre-dominance of oot centers (sic), randomly located (often with the most bizarre range of products), alongside not merely dead, but semi-derelict, traditional centres. So, I’m afraid the empirics tell us relatively little and we do need a qualitiative ananlysis.
July 13, 2009 at 10:08 pm #807931AnonymousInactive
john, your logic is flawed. You can either argue that the evidence (of towns in Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland) is false or accept that OOT development simply is not a factor when it comes to the decline of towns, villages and cities.
The few planners (in Ireland) who I’ve discussed this with are still insistent that OOT development is one of the greatest threats to the traditional village or town core. You have also expressed on numerous occasions similar (if not quite as extreme) opinions.
This is simply false if you are prepared to open your eyes to the evidence provided by the wider world.
It also distracts planners from what they should be doing. In a neighbouring French village to the one I visit they”ve reduced the speed limit to 30km/hour, widened the footpaths, installed zebra crossings every 10 metres, planted carefully and installed attractive street furniture, etc. This is a simple idea – ensure an attractive environment for pedestrians and your villages and towns will prosper – but one which is well supported by the evidence.
In Ireland, instead of considering what it is that makes villages and towns attractive to pedestrians and planning appropriately, it’s seen as a “planning win” to get large supermarkets to locate in the centres of towns and the result has almost invariably miserable with one or two exceptions.
July 14, 2009 at 12:04 am #807932AnonymousInactive
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 srÃ¡idbaile, 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.
July 15, 2009 at 7:58 pm #807933AnonymousInactive
You paint a depressing picture Graham and it’s hard to argue against it. However, I always hate to surrender to my natural gloominess and pessimism so I will try.
There is a topological problem with many Irish villages (and towns to a lesser extent). Most small Irish villages seem to have sprung up along the sides of roads (the original ribbon development, I guess) and so are very long and narrow. Most of the villages I like have a more clustered shape. Even on the continent I’ve noticed this; the “ribbon” villages are rarely as vibrant as the ones which are more efficient in terms of area versus perimeter length.
I would say Italy is at one extreme where nearly all the villages were fortified at one stage and simple economics means if you are building a wall, you want to get the most area inside it as possible; the most efficient shape in this regard is the perfect circle. Ireland is at the other extreme where the vast majority of villages and even towns seem largely to have sprung up along the side of the old highways. Most of the other European countries I’ve spent time in seem have their own particular proportion of the two types.
In fact one street villages have some obvious characterists which make them less likely to support a vibrant atmosphere. First of all the average distance between any two building doorways is at least twice that of a clustered shaped village; this mitigates against pedestrians particularly. Such one street villages lack any sort of natural centre or focus point; there is little reason to congregate anywhere (even if you had time between your long walk from the bank machine at one end to the shop at the other). Personally, even if the public domain is top notch and the private buildings are well maintained there is no mystery or excitement to such villages – you can see everything in the village from any point; for me the excitement of turning corners or walking down side streets is part of the attraction of rambling around villages and towns even ones I am very familiar with. Finally most such villages, even with traffic calming measures are generally bisected by a steam of traffic – which is very hostile to pedestrians; for example, despite the carefully maintained public domain and the few attractive buildings, Birdhill on the N7 will never be a successful village.
This issue could have been addressed quite easily if Irish planners had even attempted to do their job; i.e. plan logical extensions to villages and towns. Instead they’ve made the problem worse by generally extending the ribbon on both ends with small housing estates, garages and even retail units instead of trying to plan to make the village or town more circular in shape by laying out new cross streets. In fact the potential to flesh out our towns and villages is still there. Unfortunately the economic situation means that this will remain just a potential. My pessimism is taking over again but I doubt Irish planners have the vision or ambition to even think about ideas like this. It’s quite depressing to think that we have basically done no planning of this nature at all since the 19th century. I simply cannot believe that developers would care all that much whether what they were building was fattening a village or town or stretching it thinner so planning is what is at fault here.
Admittedly I got a bit worked up about where to site big retail units (sorry johnglas) but it’s a manifestation of frustration with the shallowness of thought shown by Irish planners; this is probably unfair but most Irish planning commentary seems to concentrate on irrelevant factors like OOT retail.
July 15, 2009 at 9:53 pm #807934AnonymousInactive
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.
Well lets look at that. Some towns are lucky, but why shouldn’t they all be so lucky? Luck should have a lot less to do with it. There are structural and systemic reasons, why we are depending on luck to far too great an extent. When I read what GrahamH has gone to considerable bother jotting down above, I am very much reminded of the work that Emer O’Siochru has done with Feasta. I once got my hands on a report she completed for Comhar, on the subject of Irish towns and villages. I have never seen it published anywhere online, but it was a real cracker of a report.
Basically, its main thesis was very bold. That the land owners immediately in and around an Irish village, should be able to pool their respective land resources into some kind of joint company. That is, without a whole series of taxation charges kicking in. While it is very easy in the Irish situation, if you have a field of say 4 acres next to a town, to divest yourself of 2 of those acres to the local builder. There is no complementary way in which a 4 acre plot could be joined up with another 2 acre plot in order to make up a sizeable property. That is, without the respective land owners being caught out financially and taxaxtion-wise in all manner of ways. It discourages people from even trying.
The thesis of Emer O’Siochru’s paper, is that once the land owners put all of their property into a holding unit, then the servicing of the land becomes a much simpler matter indeed. Boundaries can be erased and land can be serviced therefore, giving back to the holding company the best value possible for its investment. There could be some kind of management ajency set up which funded this sort of work at attractive interest rates. Something that wouldn’t involve going to banks and the creation of more private debt. What the current system in Ireland favours is the practice of breaking up pieces of land into smaller and smaller pieces. (Don’t our little mickey mouse local developers love to do all of that kind of messing around, it makes them feel as if they are big shots. Usually there is a GAA club or something involved somewhere in the thick of it)
Then the real social cost of all of parish pump, Fianna Fail Tom-dickery, is passed on to the local authority. Who now has the job of servicing this very inefficient organisation of land. Doing a bit here and a bit there. Little by little as it were, rather like south Kerry and the exercise of filling the pot holes. All kinds of legal complications have to be surmounted to achieve anything. It is an on-going thing, it never really gets done. It costs a fortune and is a way for the local authority to pump cash into a local economy but receive very poor value for the investment. A way more money is spent that is initially intended. The capital investment is squandered over many years. The public money going down the drain, quite literally.
In the heal of the hunt, the Part V legislation put even greater pressure on land owners to divide up their properties. (And consequently, even greater pressure on local authority stretched budgets to provide adequate standards of servicing and road maintenace) Because then both developers of the 2 acre plots would request exemptions from Part V requirements, build less a lot less houses than what the land could take and try to sell them off as exclusive, non S&A residential MacMansions. That is why who need an artificial land boom, in order to raise the price of houses sufficiently, that such mad cap schemes become feasible at all. It is popular though, because a few local big shots think they are making a bit of money, at least for a while. Then when it all goes pear shaped, they can be philosophical and talk about ‘times being bad’.
What it amounts to is a very inefficient use of land resources and the needed services to enable any sort of development on the land. I once walked away from a job like this, because I was so disgusted by the whole toxic process and the arse holes I had to deal with. That was before I even knew what the word ‘sustainability’ even meant. I said if I am going to do this at all, I might as well do it right and work for the real experts at it. I am glad I did that. Even though in the end, the low cost developer ended up squandering more than the lot of them put together.
The more obvious way for Ireland to get value for money is to squash all of these taxations schemes and the Part V legislation, which encourage land to be spilt up into miserable pokey little parcels. Even Liam Carroll had understood this idea 20 years ago when he started to put together sites to build on in Dublin city. Frank McDonald would never describe Liam as a ‘sustainable’ developer. But in many respects the low-cost model of construction, will result in somebody doing many things which can be described as very sustainable.
If we abolished those capital gains and what not, we would make the money back elsewhere in more economical servicing of land in our towns and villages. Opening up all sorts of options for architects/developers to come along and design sustainable communities etc. We could set up a construction management body to be involved, like Dublin Airport Authority and their CIP.
Adamstown is worth looking at from this point of view. They certainly went about building the infrastructure in advance in a very sustainable and cost effective manner. The construction manager there for Castlethorn was ex. Project Management, and really knows what he is doing. I will leave you with this link in the mean time. It is something that Emer published on the Feasta website and has some interesting discussion in it.
This is why we need to get away from the U-value and light bulb definition of sustainable architecture. We need to get real as George Lee would say. We need to look for efficiencies at all stages of the development process. The local authorities, auctioneers and all land professionals have to start to get their heads together. In my blog entry here I tried to emphasize that as much as I can.
Brian O’ Hanlon
July 15, 2009 at 10:26 pm #807935AnonymousInactive
A lot of very deep stuff for those of you interested here.
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