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Opinion: We need to rethink how we plan our cities and towns after this year

Head of the Office of the Planning Regulator Niall Cussen says it’s time to change our thinking entirely around how we live and plan our communities.

Niall Cussen

COVID-19 HAS CHANGED much about our lives. It has changed how we work, how we socialise, even, at times, where we can go. Suburbs (where people live) bustle, but city centres and high streets (where people work and shop) bumble. 

Fewer cars and cleaner air mean roads and streets are safer for strolling. It’s been striking to see so many out for walks, cycles or just fresh air this year. The pandemic and its restrictions have emphasised the importance of your local community’s amenities and facilities. What can be accessed within 5km is a life-changer. 

As we (hopefully) emerge from the worst effects of the pandemic, on the back of positive news of vaccine developments, it’s most unlikely and probably undesirable that we’ll just revert to the way things were. Lessons need to be learned. 

Plans need to change

To someone working in planning for 30 years, the Covid crisis reaffirms – not reverses – good planning principles, derived over centuries in the relationship between planning and public health.

Urban planning in these islands began as a Victorian-era public health response to the spread of diseases in overcrowded urban slums. Cholera epidemics in the 19th century prompted modern sanitary systems. Building regulations around light and air countered respiratory disease. 

Private benefactors like the Guinness family-backed Iveagh Trust understood the link between good quality places and healthier communities.  

In 2020, Covid has brought us back full circle. The shock of Covid has reconnected us to the importance of the quality of our local places –urban or rural. Rooted in our localities, we are now noticing more – sometimes wanting better in terms of the way we move about, access to amenities and facilities we now know we really need. 

Emboldened by the need to act to save the vitality of de-workered city and town centres, many new initiatives have sprung up. Should these stay? Will they be enough?

Yes and no. Pre-covid, progressive local authorities were already working to provide better public infrastructure but the pandemic has stepped this up. Footpaths widened. New cycle routes. Extended outdoor eating areas. Urban mini-parks – all have sprung up to stir city and town centres on life-support. 

Public parks and amenities, play areas, canal towpaths have witnessed a marked growth in usage throughout Covid. We appreciate more than ever how our green spaces allow us to reconnect with nature and there are lessons there for future planning.

Community, not commutes

Our local authorities have made a huge effort in dealing with the pandemic. Those that continue to facilitate more active travel alternatives and put green thinking at the heart of their planning will be the ones that create much more resilient and adaptable communities for their citizens. These communities will be the ones to rebound quickest.

Covid has also prompted commentary around our approach to housing. An exodus from cities to rural e-working alternatives is seen by some as the answer.

But we faced an existential challenge long before Covid – climate change – and once the wretched disease is under control, climate action will continue to drive a need to change Ireland’s traditional focus on building our cities, towns and villages outwards.

An oft-heard and knee-jerk reaction is this: let’s spread people out more, build even more of our housing in the countryside, sure can’t we all e-work?

But where will that bring us? Remote working does offer new ways to reduce lengthy and unproductive commutes. E-working hubs are a game-changer in reviving rural towns and villages. But meeting most of our future housing demand in the countryside? Seriously? That would be a hugely energy-intensive way of living, with people more disconnected from the communities.

Instead, others champion smarter ways. Dublin Chamber has promoted its 15 minute City concept and the Southern Regional Assembly its 10 Minute Town Framework and Methodology.

These initiatives are about a more imaginative mixed-use approach to the planning of our cities and towns where everything you need is no more than 10 or 15 minutes away and you feel a part of a community, not just a commuter.

And that brings us to the big planning question on the response to places permanently affected if not all the office workers return to city and town centres and the shift to online retail continues. What should fill our city and town centres of the future?

The answer? City and town centres that cater to the people that live there, work there and enjoy all the amenities and cultural vitality.

Good planning is going to be the difference in adapting cities and towns, facilitating residential development that is affordable to replace the almost total reliance on office and retail which may no longer be in such demand.

Regional shifts

Last year, according to CSO statistics, Naas in County Kildare, saw about the same number of new homes built as in all of Dublin 1-8 combined. Most of our regional cities are likewise – greenfield trumps brownfield every time.

Isn’t that a wake-up call to authorities, communities and property owners to rethink what we prioritise in our city and town centres? As the National Planning Framework highlights, vibrant cities and towns will come about through publicly directed housing rather than sole reliance on market forces.

The physical layout of our homes also needs some fresh thinking. The point has been well-made in recent months that, for many, our homes are working harder than ever before. Part office, lecture hall, classroom and necessary provider of both personal yet flexible spaces. 

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And living and working in a home over a longer period brings energy efficiency into sharper focus. With heater settings in older homes pressed into 24-hour service, how many are thinking hard about retro-fitting. Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAi) grant schemes will be busy!

The basic point is that there were many trends present pre-Covid that our response to the pandemic must learn from and act on.

For the Office of the Planning Regulator, our independent assessments of local authority development plans, dozens of which are due for review in the next 12-18 months, our research and planning authority reviews programs, all reachable at www.opr.ie, are going to be the real litmus test in whether we have learned from the pandemic and reconnected to those old, but still true planning objectives.

Niall Cussen is Chief Executive and Planning Regulator at the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) established by Government in April 2019. Prior to his appointment, Niall was Chief Planner at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government from July 2014, having also worked in the Department from January 2000 in a number of professional planning roles. 

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Niall Cussen

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