Opportunity for growth in town regeneration
Our town centres have huge potential as places in which to rebuild communities
A shop for sale beside the clock tower in Youghal, Co Cork. Photograph: David Sleator
There are dark shadows looming over the economic prospects and cultural qualities of the small towns and villages throughout the country. Local shops are losing trade and many are empty. Banks, Garda stations, courthouses and post offices, all of which have traditionally been at the hub of social life, are closing.
There are many reasons for this, including the emergence of the new digital world and in particular the growth of online shopping; the growing trend towards centralisation of community services; the proliferation of standalone shopping and commercial uses on the edges of towns; and the free-for-all frenzy of building of one-off suburban-type houses throughout the countryside.
Such uses suck the life-blood out of the historic centres, particularly in the smaller towns. These emerging conditions have been the subject of much comment in recent times and present a major challenge to local communities, planning authorities and the Government.
Towns and villages are a significant element of our national cultural heritage: they are distributed widely throughout the country and vary from the small crossroads village, which is the heartbeat of rural community life, to the larger market and county towns, which provide a diverse range of employment, commercial, social and cultural facilities.
Their physical form is generally dictated by the local landscape and topography and may have evolved gradually over the years. In historic towns such as Youghal and Ennis, medieval beginnings are clearly evident in the street patterns and individual historic structures. Hilltop towns such as Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, Rathfriland, Co Down, and Rosscarbery, Co Cork, command panoramic views over the surrounding countryside.
This patina of history, location and function, together with its range of buildings and public spaces, is what gives a town its individual character and personality, are important elements in our tourist industry and are now under threat.
Towns have, above all else, been places in which to live. The physical proximity to social, community and economic facilities has throughout history been an important factor in the growth of cultural life generally. The informal and unexpected face-to-face meetings that take place regularly in towns add tremendously to their social character and are among the great delights of urban living.
We are in a new technological age that will continue to evolve and shape how we live. The centralisation of social and community facilities is likely to continue despite strong local opposition on many issues.
There remain important social challenges of which how and where we live is a major constituent. There will always be a need for a wide range of well-built, energy-efficient, creatively designed and aesthetically pleasing homes for families of all sizes, incomes and aspirations. It is in this area that the regeneration of our smaller towns may be rekindled.
This is the time for Government, planning authorities and local communities to recognise and emphasise the potential for greater residential use within the historic cores of our towns and villages. Local development plans and Government initiatives should include clear objectives encouraging and stimulating such uses.
There are many opportunities for intensification of residential uses within the historic centres of all our towns. For example, a typical shop/dwelling, two to three storeys facing the street with perhaps a yard and garden behind, is to be found in towns throughout the country.
Many such places now lie empty or underused, often festooned with “for sale” signs. They are eminently suitable for conversion into high-quality residences. These would be by no means modest homes. Other empty and underused buildings, whether previously residential or not, could with sensitive and imaginative designs become pleasant living spaces.
These projects by their nature and variety are likely to generate additional employment over many different social groups, not least in the building industry, where employment is most urgently needed. The influx of a new residential population will bring a much-needed vitality and act as a stimulus to existing, struggling uses. The new population will provide a stimulus for future social and economic growth and help establish a more sustainable settlement pattern for the generations to come.
Patrick Shaffrey is an architect and conservator and the author, with Maura Shaffrey, of Buildings of Irish Towns: a Treasury of Everyday Architecture