Resilience of the Irish town

 

THESE ARE tough times for many Irish towns. Issues such as unemployment, financial insecurity, poor planning and emigration are exacting a heavy toll on communities. The five towns featured in Carl O’Brien’s Uptown Downtownseries in this newspaper over the last week are not exceptional. Their experiences, to a greater or lesser degree, are reflected in many other locations across the State.

For many, there is a sense of frustration that their difficulties are not solely explained by some negative historic legacy. In some, there is a sense that neglectful public policies by local and national government have squandered opportunities and laid the foundation of their decline. Poor planning decisions, for example, have contributed to the decline of town centres and drawn trade away to shopping centres on their fringes. In some places, unsightly tax-incentive fuelled apartment complexes now dominate once-picturesque streetscapes. Many residents feel they have been betrayed by local government and development authorities who stand accused of not doing enough to help replace old industries with new employment.

Urban centres cannot stay the same. They need to adapt to a changing society and culture to remain vibrant and relevant. In that context, there is an opportunity to begin a debate on how to re-imagine Irish towns and enable them reach their full potential. Several avenues are worth exploring. Potential solutions may lie in devolving greater power to local authorities or town councils – with appropriate oversight – and empowering communities to make their own decisions. Introducing more flexible forms of rate-setting in commercial areas or encouraging businesses back into town centres through tax incentives will contribute to revitalisation. Promoting and supporting local entrepreneurs and businesses will help create more sustainable sources of employment. And ensuring different authorities or representative groups co-operate around a shared vision is of crucial importance.

It would be unreasonable to expect the Government to provide all the answers. But it can help to sow the seeds of growth through its promised plans for job creation and political reform. There is much to learn too from the example of other centres at home and abroad which have successfully revitalised once-neglected locations.

For all the challenges ahead, Irish towns are still popular places. They experienced strong population growth in recent decades and are good places to do business and raise families. But more can be done to assist their development and there are reasons to be hopeful. Towns have proved remarkably resilient in the past, enduring and – in many cases – flourishing despite famine, emigration and recession. Even in these challenging economic times, the Uptown Downtownseries featured stories of hope, of new businesses setting up in the teeth of recession, of jobless people carving out opportunities for themselves and of towns rediscovering a resilience that few realised they had. Given the right decisions, there is every reason to be optimistic.