Why are Irish towns 'dying on their feet'?


A new book examines the Irish rural town: its origins, built form, cultural character and intrinsic value as an urban model in modern society

Orla Murphy’s book, simply called Town, could not be coming at a more crucial time for the future of Irish towns. As she writes, they went through “huge change” throughout the boom – fundamentally different to anything that confronted towns in the past, including the overlay of canals and railways.

“The system of planning in its current form has failed towns in the last 20 years. It is a system which has been overly prescriptive in regulating what cannot be done within towns while simultaneously facilitating a spread of monofunctional housing outside of towns, punctuated by nodes of large retail space arranged along distributor roads.”

This is much closer to reality than what environmental consultant Conor Skehan told the Irish Georgian Society’s Picking up the Pieces conference earlier this month, when he attributed the blame for Irish towns “dying on their feet” to a proliferation of protected historic buildings that couldn’t easily be adapted to new uses.

In fact, what’s been killing Irish towns is a relentless process of suburbanisation that has been going on for years, starting long before there were any listed buildings, let alone protected structures. The butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers who once lived above their shops now reside in bungalows on the outskirts.

“One-off housing – with its accompanying dependency on the car – became the preferred option for rural town users,” Murphy writes. “Towns have become increasingly filled with cars [and] carparks. This process began in the 1970s and is ongoing. It is now unusual to live and raise a family in a town house.”

Murphy says, “The rapid suburbanisation of towns has happened on a scale that has in many cases dwarfed the core of the town.” And this has led to “a steady and ongoing vacancy of town streets”, with the upper floors of buildings no longer occupied. As we all know, buildings that are not used will inevitably fall into decay.

Town documents Murphy’s research into the Irish rural town: its origins, built form, cultural character and intrinsic value as an urban model in contemporary society and alternative to the city. It also highlights the “comprehensible scale and legibility” of towns and the importance of their relationship with agricultural hinterlands.

A studio lecturer at UCD School of Architecture, Murphy was able to indulge in the luxury of original research by winning the Kevin Kieran Award for 2009-2011 from the Arts Council and Office of Public Works, which funded a two-year research project analysing how we live and “how we might dream to inhabit the contemporary Irish town”.

Her copiously illustrated book puts forward a “manifesto of sorts” on how to make towns great places to live, work, learn and play, through “the weaving together of people in a place” in a way that’s “more considered, crafted and open than the prescriptive two-dimensional model which [local authority] development plans allow”.

Some of her suggestions are blindingly obvious, such as widening footpaths and narrowing carriageways, making easy pedestrian street-to-street connections through long urban blocks – with arcades, for example – or laying out crosstown pedestrian and cycle routes, connecting public buildings and squares along the way.

Murphy’s manifesto calls for an audit of vacant and underused space in towns – something that could be done now by underemployed planners – and reductions in commercial rates for new businesses prepared to take them on. (No rates are chargeable on vacant buildings, thereby encouraging dereliction.)

She also calls for an audit of “missing amenities” in towns, finding ways to accommodate these cheaply on a temporary basis with a view to making them permanent. “Establish what it is that characterises a town, what it’s really good at . . . Then make it the best of its type and tell everyone about it.”

Murphy wants schools at all levels to be kept within town cores, as well as making sure any new public buildings are of “exemplary design quality”. Local authorities should also be planning for the provision of family homes within the core by making backland or brownfield sites available for housing construction. “Starting with the block and the street, provide a framework within which new homes can be inserted over time,” her manifesto for towns says.

“Maintain discernible plot width: this allows for future change to happen on a plot-by-plot basis.” In other words, there should be no importation of suburban models, as has happened in many towns.

Examples of good development in backland areas of Irish towns are still sparse. One award-winning scheme is sheltered housing that was built for the elderly in Gorey, Co Wexford, designed by Paul Keogh Architects for the St Vincent de Paul Society. Just metres from the local Catholic church, it’s within easy walking distance of shops, cafes and the post office.

Town has been self-published by Orla Murphy with support from the Heritage Council and retails at €20. There is also a short animated film, made in collaboration with Orla McHardy, which can be accessed at townresearch.ie

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