Unattractive rural towns are ultimately doomed

They must be places where couples, families and empty-nesters want to live

Kiltimagh: No one shouted stop

Kiltimagh: No one shouted stop

 

The plight of Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, as depicted in Rosita Boland’s recent article “Half-dead – A town in rural Ireland” could be told of countless others that have seen their populations fall and their vitality erode in the half-century since The Irish Times’s John Healy first highlighted the decline of rural life in No One Shouted Stop -The Death of an Irish Town in relation to his home place of Charlestown, also in Co Mayo.

The reasons for the decline are complex, but one fact stands out: Ireland’s towns and villages are no longer vibrant urban entities. In recent decades schools, shopping, commerce and even civic functions have moved to out-of-town locations, and the bulk of residential construction has been in suburban estates and one-off houses in the countryside.

At least since the publication of the National Spatial Strategy in 2002, planning policy has promoted objectives to consolidate and regenerate cities, towns and villages; keeping them physically compact, and the focus of the social, commercial and civic life of their communities.

However, last week’s report from the National Statistics Office that almost 30 per cent of the past year’s planning permissions have been for one-off houses points to an acute failure of this policy. Unchecked, the recovering economy and demand for new housing will repeat the mistakes of the past – littering the country with low-density sprawling development.

One ray of hope stands out in the CSO figures. The number of apartment applications has quadrupled, perhaps indicating that the demographic revolution Ireland is undergoing – smaller households, changing lifestyles and greater cultural diversity – might be reflected in a swing in popular taste to “European” urban models. How might this come to pass?

First, the concept that “towns are good for us” needs to be embedded in the popular consciousness: Westport, Co Mayo, for instance, is an example of a place responding to the challenges with a vision shared by all stakeholders. At this year’s MacGill Summer School Westport’s town architect, Simon Wall, said its successes were founded on the adoption of an Integrated Action Plan in 2000.

Generated by the town council, in tandem with business and community interests, the plan, Wall said, has provided a framework to ensure that the town’s heritage was protected while new development expanded its retail, industrial and residential base during the Celtic Tiger years.

Public realm

Attracting people and investment to town centres requires a focus on the provision of a high-quality public realm: everything from lighting and street furniture to traffic calming and the townscape.

Towns that have invested in improving their urban environments – Kilkenny, Abbeyleix, Clonakilty and Killorglin, to name a few – have done so out of a conviction that a high-quality public realm is central to attracting investment, employment and tourism to their locations.

Retail development is equally critical to the vitality of towns and villages, not least in promoting the multi-purpose shopping, business and leisure trips that add to the vitality of local economies.

My experience in drafting the design manual that accompanied the 2012 Retail Planning Guidelines suggests that restricting the power of retail multiples to impose their “big box” designs on edge-of-centre sites is one of the greatest challenges we face in halting the decline of rural towns.

Any town without a residential community is doomed. If rural towns and villages are to be attractive places to live, they must provide the type of housing that today’s couples, families and empty-nesters aspire to. Despite guidelines to the contrary, there has been virtually no housing construction in core urban areas in the last decades – save for social housing. While people cannot be coerced into living in towns, they might opt for the convenience of urban living if town and village housing was seen as an attractive choice and if they were given an alternative to the suburban models promoted by the construction sector.

Government guidelines have recommended that planning authorities include policies to promote quality design in their development and local area plans. The objective is quite clear: the delivery of high-quality environments requires a commitment that is shared by planning authorities and developers, and the appointment of skilled design teams.

Incentives

The regeneration of rural towns and villages may well require a revival of tax incentives for developments of the right type and in the right locations. The current Historic Towns Initiative has provided a modicum of tax relief in three “heritage towns”: Youghal, Westport and Listowel. Could this not be expanded?

One of the oft-repeated quotations from the 2004 National Economic and Social Council report, Housing in Ireland, Performance and Policy, is that the challenge of building high-quality, sustainable cities and towns compares to the greatest challenges that Ireland has faced – and met – in the past. The country’s projected population growth indicates that is still one of the greatest challenges that we face.

The question is whether the 200,000 homes required between now and 2050 will be in the countryside, in suburban estates and rural areas, remote from schools, shops and workplaces?

Or can we exploit the opportunities provided by our recovering economy to secure regeneration of the nation’s towns and villages as attractive and desirable places to live and work.

If we get it wrong, we will be living with the consequences for decades and beyond. And the costs will be significant – economically, socially and environmentally.

Paul Keogh is a founding partner of Paul Keogh Architects and co-chair of the Department of Environment/RIAI Sustainable Communities and Housing Committee. He was a judge in The Irish Times 2012 “Best Place to Live in Ireland” competition, won by Westport, Co Mayo.

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