Forget ‘new cities’, focus should be on existing towns

Behind talk of regional hubs and a choked-up Dublin is the failure of Irish urban planning

The construction of the Esplanada dos Ministerios on the Monumental Axis in Brasilia, Brazil, circa 1959:  these days the whole “new city” concept seems a bit archaic, a retro-futurist dream of modernist optimism. Photograph: Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The construction of the Esplanada dos Ministerios on the Monumental Axis in Brasilia, Brazil, circa 1959: these days the whole “new city” concept seems a bit archaic, a retro-futurist dream of modernist optimism. Photograph: Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images

 

Beware brainstorming awaydays. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being dragged along to one of these grim exercises in corporate team-building, you’ll know the drill. Whisked away from the safety of their desks, reluctant participants are taken to an undisclosed location to be prodded by a “facilitator” armed with flipchart and big black marker into expressing Big Thoughts About the Future.

This process usually yields a list of “action items”, which end up in the back of a cupboard somewhere. Everyone agrees never to talk about the experience again and real life resumes, untroubled by whatever random notions the participants came up with to fill the yawning void between coffee breaks.

So when news emerged this week that one of the subjects discussed at the Cabinet brainstorming session in Castletown House (worryingly, the first in a series planned by Leo Varadkar) was the possibility of a new city in the midlands or northwest, the sensible thing to do was to treat the matter as you would a suggestion that the time had come for Ireland to host the Winter Olympics. It is safe to assume that the prospect of a Brasilia in Westmeath or a Milton Keynes in the Cavan lakelands is fairly remote. In fact, these days the whole “new city” concept seems a bit archaic, a retro-futurist dream of modernist optimism featuring monorails, aerial walkways and perpetual sunshine. In any case, for such a project to happen, it would require the sort of economic command and control policies more associated with the late Nicolae Ceausescu than with Paschal Donohoe.

Network of gateways

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the idea of building a brand new city as a counterweight to Dublin has popped up regularly over the decades, which may tell us something about the level of critical thinking among our political classes when it comes to planning the future shape of Ireland. Given that this week’s Cabinet discussion took place against the backdrop of the impending new national planning framework, known as Ireland 2040, it doesn’t bode particularly well for the quality of the brains being stormed.

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In any case, based on past experience, it’s a moot point as to whether we should regard documents such as Ireland 2040 as anything more than speculative fiction. The framework, due for delivery before the end of this year, is the successor to the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) 2002-2020, which itself had the declared objective of achieving “a better balance of social, economic and physical development across Ireland, supported by more effective planning . . . through a network of gateways and hubs”. We can all agree how profoundly our lives have been transformed by this concept over the last decade and a half.

The NSS did not propose a new city, but it did identify the towns of Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar as “linked gateways”, and posited the theory that the equilateral triangle they formed could become “the hub” of the country – an excellent early example of the 21st-century truth that any sentence containing the word “hub” should automatically be treated as bullshit. Even 20 years ago, when climate change was not as pressing an issue, the idea that a “hub” splayed across a swathe of the Midlands roughly equivalent in size to Los Angeles was a good idea seemed – literally – a stretch.

Exurban sprawl

As it happens, the proposition was never tested, since the government of the day cast aside the strategy in favour of the more pressing national objectives of divvying up goodies among ministerial constituencies and providing tax breaks for ghost estates on flood plains. So here we are back again on page one.

Whether or not Dublin is too big in relation to the rest of the country is debatable – although it’s usually just treated as a fact. But the reality is that the city is probably only just about big enough to keep up with the international competition. Dublin’s real problem is not population size but density – the exurban sprawl across the doughnut of counties that form the so-called Greater Dublin Area make it difficult if not impossible to achieve the critical mass required for the sort of high-quality mass transport systems and services a modern city needs. The idea, reported from last week’s Cabinet meeting, that Dublin would soon become “choked” is laughable – just look at an aerial photograph of the city and see how low-density and spread-out it is. The shortage is not of space, but of the will to free up that space.

Meanwhile, for all the handwringing, little has been done that would really address the national imbalance. Ever since 1968, when the Buchanan report recommended investing in the development of Cork and Limerick/Shannon, successive governments and individual politicians have ignored the glaringly obvious; the only way to achieve a more balanced spread of population across the country is to focus on encouraging development in its other existing cities. That conclusion becomes even more compelling with the challenges now posed by climate change. Ministers were told this week that the population of the State is projected to increase by 900,000, or 19 per cent, to 5.6 million in 2040. Almost a million people will need somewhere to live – will that be in ever further-flung commuter dormitory towns or in well-planned cities? It certainly won’t be in any new midlands metropolis

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