Paul Keogh: housing is the fabric of our communities

Ireland cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past and must build sustainably

Ireland’s 30-somethings have happily opted for higher density apartment living and the ‘European’ lifestyles this generates. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Ireland’s 30-somethings have happily opted for higher density apartment living and the ‘European’ lifestyles this generates. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Future housing is not just about bricks and mortar, it provides the fabric of our urban and rural communities.When research predicting today’s housing crisis was presented to the 2011 RIAI / DoECLG National Housing Conference, it was greeted with general incredulity, and derided in some quarters as self-interested pleadings by its authors (DTZ Sherry FitzGerald) on behalf of a construction sector then in the depths of recession.

This is a far cry from today’s consensus that there is a severe housing crisis; acknowledged by the creation of a new Minister for Housing post and the appointment of Simon Coveney, one of the cabinet’s most able ministers.

Nevertheless, recent media coverage indicates an alarming lack of evidence-based thinking on how we might deliver the quantum of housing required: What type of homes will we need? Where will they be? How will they be delivered?

On one hand, as reported by Olivia Kelly in The Irish Times, recent submissions to Dublin City Council from the construction sector and certain state agencies argued that restrictions on tall buildings have curtailed development, and that our economic recovery will not be properly exploited without flexibility in relation to building height.

On the other, the ESRI’s recent report that 70 per cent of housing in the last decade comprised one-off houses – and that diverging prices between urban and peripheral locations might result in similar patterns going forward – supports claims there is a market preference for low-density housing, and not apartments.

What is the solution? With 25,000 new homes needed annually for the foreseeable future, can we afford to repeat past mistakes: building a further 100,000-plus houses in low-density suburban and rural locations and consigning another generation to unsustainable lifestyles of car-dependency and long-distance commuting?

Environmental illness

The alternative: exploit the opportunities in our recovering economy and projected building programme to focus development – whether in existing urban areas, rural towns or edge-of-centre locations – on the “sustainable neighbourhood” model: places that are compact and combine residential with other uses; places that are dense enough to support the economic provision of transport, education, retail and recreational facilities; and built to the highest standards of architecture and urban design.

Forfás’s report Our Cities: Drivers of National Competitiveness highlighted that cities – and not nations – are now the drivers of the world’s economy. It said the investment, and talent, that drives modern knowledge-based industry seeks places with first-class infrastructure and quality living environments; adding that Ireland’s record of poor planning has affected both our quality of life and economic competitiveness.

In social terms, the 2006 Institute of Public Health’s Health Impacts of the Built Environment reported that many of today’s illnesses – not least obesity – are exacerbated by environmental factors. The urban model most likely to promote health and wellbeing, the IPH said, is the mixed-use neighbourhood that enables people to go about their daily routines without a car, increasing both their physical activity and the level of social capital within communities.

Environmentally, the higher densities of European cities support inherently greener lifestyles. The average urban dweller generates half the emissions of people in low-density suburban and rural locations: more urban inhabitants walk, cycle and use public transport; they need less energy to heat their townhouses and apartments; and they use infrastructure, services and amenities more efficiently.

Claims that the market wants low density housing, and not apartments, contradict the Housing Agency’s estimate that more than half of all construction in the years ahead will be for one- and two-person households – hardly the cohort in need of large one-off houses.

A cursory visit to Dublin’s Docklands suggests that Ireland’s 30-somethings – who drive the high-tech industries our economy depends on – are happy to opt for higher density apartment living and the “European” lifestyles this generates.

One of the most erroneous fallacies is that higher density means high-rise. As indicated by recent examples, densities in the region of 130 homes a hectare – more than sufficient to support high quality transport, shopping, education, employment and leisure facilities – can be provided at heights not exceeding DCC’s five- and six-storey limits: the heights of Cork, Limerick or Dublin’s Georgian cores.

Outside the cities, town-centre living, once the choice of the professional classes, is almost exclusively confined to social housing and low-quality tax-driven development. Could the current demand not be harnessed to stimulate the regeneration of rural towns? And could their countless vacant sites and empty upper floors not be exploited to meet housing needs, in addition to reviving the economic and social vitality of these locations?

Sustainable cities

Whether high or low-rise, the key issue is that “sustainable” housing construction is not just about bricks and mortar, or putting roofs above people’s heads. Housing is the fabric of our cities, towns and villages: it shapes the streets and spaces that are public “rooms”. Those that are well designed, managed and maintained are more attractive as places to live, work and visit, and as destinations for inward investment and employment.

One of the oft-quoted statements from the National Economic and Social Council’s landmark report, Housing in Ireland, Performance and Policy, is that that the challenge of building high-quality, sustainable cities and towns compares with the greatest challenges that Ireland faced – and met – in the past. With the population projected to grow to over five million by 2030, this still remains one of our greatest challenges.

Paul Keogh is a former president of the RIAI, a founding member of Group 91 and partner in Paul Keogh Architects

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