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Opinion: Now is the time to make Ireland's cities liveable again

Strategic planning consultant James Chilton says 2020 has exposed weaknesses in the design of Irish cities, and now is the time to reimagine a new liveable urban space.

James Chilton

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

WHAT DO YOU think of when you imagine a modern Irish city? Does it include copious numbers of shoppers, office workers and cars? That’s been the city model we’ve known to date – retail and office.

But everything has changed, and now Irish cities need reimagining, we need to rethink how they work. That means rethinking where we live, how we work and play. It means our cities must evolve to become more desirable places to live.

For many years there have been calls to make cities, in Ireland and internationally, more attractive. When this happens, they become better places to visit, with those visitors staying longer, spending more and having a better experience.

In recent weeks and months, there has been much discussion on the impact Covid-19 is having on our city centres. Those living in those urban areas know the city’s cores are much quieter, with a shortage of domestic and overseas visitors and students.

Some city dwellers welcomed these changes during the lockdown, and arguably the novelty of city life without the noise of traffic was a welcome one. But we now have cities and smaller urban areas where workers and shoppers have disappeared from the streets. This is having knock-on effects on not only the economy but on the vibrancy and vitality of these cities. 

shutterstock_1493177810 O'Connell Street in Dublin city (file photo). Source: Shutterstock/Dux Croatorum

Taking workers, shoppers out of the centres lays bare the reality of the modern city, and ultimately the decisions taken in the last few decades with regards to the type of communities we want in the city and how we want them to develop.

Now is the time to recognise that change is required in the way Irish cities are designed. We need a renewed vision of what progress means.

Learning from others

Ireland’s cities grew organically from smaller urban centres. The population of Dublin in 1700 was around 60,000 people, with significant growth due to the commercial success of Dublin Port and the city’s diverse economy.

However, when we’re considering the future of the capital, we should learn from the flight of residents who fled to the suburbs as living conditions in the city centre deteriorated in the late 19th and early 20th Century.

Perhaps we need to look to successful examples of multifunctional towns and suburbs in Ireland and overseas – those supporting all facets of life, not just employment and tourism but also health, wellbeing, culture, housing and education – for how we can reinvent our cities for the future.

We can look to many urban regeneration and tourism projects for good practice. Evidence from the UK’s High Streets Task Force, from 154 towns, indicates multifunctional towns and districts fared better during the Covid-19 crisis.

From 1 March to 30 June 2020, footfall in smaller district centres fell by 34.5%, compared to a drop of 75.9% in larger cities over the same period. More people have been working from home in the pandemic and this had a positive impact on many towns and suburbs.

Professor Cathy Parker from the Institute of Place Management in Manchester says: “People are rediscovering their local areas and rethinking what they want from their high streets.”

The research findings are equally applicable to Irish cities and towns. Services people need include food, open space, healthcare, schools, and childcare, and the places where these occur have suffered less of a decline in footfall.

People want multifunctional places that provide what they need near where they live. Wouldn’t it be a positive thing if urban children could view their city as a place where they can cycle with confidence and play, a city that is a liveable and easily accessible place?

A changing Ireland

In our work at Future Analytics Consulting (FAC), we have undertaken ‘health check’ projects for many towns in Ireland, including towns and villages in Wicklow, Westmeath, Clare, Carlow Kilkenny and Cork, as well as ‘Rejuvenating Irish Small Town Centres – a call to action’ prepared for the SCSI in 2018.

In many of these, we worked with local authorities and business and resident communities to develop an inclusive town team to drive change. Earlier this year the government published the Town Centres Living Initiative Synthesis Report, based on research in six pilot towns.

It focuses on proposals around the reuse of vacant and underused buildings, bringing a greater population density to Ireland’s town centres, making them more attractive places to live.

Through our work, we’ve found that many towns share the same planning and growth issues. The key priorities for Irish towns when it comes to change should be collaboration, liveability, sustainability, connectivity and ultimately an intergenerational approach to design and planning.

New approaches

Previous 20th Century development models are now outdated and do not meet the multi-faceted challenges we face in the 21st Century. That was true before Covid-19, but it is has come into sharper focus during the pandemic.

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There have been Covid-related responses recently from, for example, Dublin City Council’s successful pedestrianisation trials which led to increased takings of between 40% and 100%, according to a survey of 292 businesses, with over 90% of respondents to an online survey in favour of a permanent change.

Fingal County Council trialled pedestrianisation in Malahide with local views coming out for and against, and further consultation due in 2021. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has continued its successful interventions along the coast with the new Coastal Mobility Route.

There are of course many other interventions by local authorities around the country to enhance the fabric of cities. However, while acknowledging that many small-scale changes together have a positive impact, we likely need a fundamental re-focus of what our cities are, what we want them to be. It’s time to ask ourselves, what kind of cities do we want to pass on to future generations?

There are several alternative models being introduced and implemented worldwide that could be used as an optimum model for the more sustainable development of Irish cities. Examples of these include Kate Raeworth’s Doughnut Economics which Amsterdam has committed to and the 15-minute city in Paris. That was recently proposed by Dublin Chamber as a model for Dublin.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ provides a framework for action for the world’s cities. Targets for 2030 include ensuring access for all to adequate housing, transport, and services, and reducing the adverse environmental impact of cities.

Key to success has got to be engagement between business, residents and local authorities. The proposal from Dublin Chamber is a positive and creative move which bodes well. Pilot programmes like this are needed in local authorities, but real transformational change will only come with a whole city and holistic visionary approach, especially considering our climate and biodiversity crisis.

The Future?

We are in unprecedented times, bringing rapid and unexpected changes. Covid-19 has forced us to change how we work and operate as a society and economy. Now our cities must change with us and this requires a holistic city approach to drive policy changes and bring about urban change.

Our cities can become better places that cater for all. This is about enhancing social infrastructure, creating more green space, better public transport, more markets! Would more people travel into Dublin city centre if the Iveagh Market building was a thriving artisan food and craft market?

Now is the time to redefine the metrics of success from those based on retail and office towards new ones based on footfall, liveability, green space, and positive sentiment.

Ultimately this is about creating cities that we are happy to live in and pass on to our children, cities that are liveable, thriving and resilient against future shocks.

James Chilton is an Associate Director with Future Analytics Consulting Ltd, a leading planning, development and socio-economic analytics consultancy based in Dublin with an extensive project portfolio throughout Ireland. 

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