Why do some of our town centres feel like ghost towns, even in summer? It’s not down to population decline. In the two decades between 1996 and 2016 the population of Ireland’s towns increased by 62 per cent, compared with a more modest 23 per cent in cities and city suburbs.
Two factors killed the opportunity to reinvigorate town centres. Much of the increase was in the commuter-belt towns, so the new arrivals are gone for much of the working week. Transport emissions climbed and an increasingly expensive commute became part of the daily grind until the Covid pause. The second factor, which killed town centres, was that so few new arrivals actually moved into them. Developers made much more profit from building suburbs on greenfield sites.
The good news is that fixing town centres is both a housing and a climate fix. The Government’s Town Centre First initiative started this year. Local authorities should be appointing dedicated town-centre officials. Architects have been reimagining town buildings as attractive places for families to live. In Ballina, Co Mayo, they have just come up with a plan to give town-centre living the lift it needs. Accelerating Change Together, or Act, a social enterprise of architects, urbanists and policy specialists, has submitted an ambitious plan that could provide inspiration for unloved buildings in towns across the country. Act’s cofounder Kevin Loftus believes “there is great potential for our rural towns and villages to be a key tool in tackling our housing crisis and the battle against climate change, while also bringing vibrancy back to our communities”.
Scotch House is a set of buildings looking on to Pearse Street in Ballina. At the back it will face the town’s new innovation quarter, which is planned for an empty former army barracks. Act’s plan for Scotch House would see the refurbishment of existing buildings and the construction of a series of new low-energy buildings made from lightweight straw panels, superinsulated so householders will have zero or minimal heating bills. Each unit will have its own-door access to green space, with an imaginative mix of ground and roof-level gardens. The plan provides nine times the required outdoor space for the number of units, with dedicated play spaces, Loftus explains. There will be growing spaces, solar panels, rainwater harvesting and a communal room for remote working, community gatherings and a possible “library of things”. A residents’ lobby on the ground floor will have space for extra storage and bike parking.
Buyers queued to buy apartments in the Green Building in Temple Bar in 1994. Nearly 30 years later, smart green buildings are still not the norm. Developments like Scotch House have the potential to change that, and put sustainable life back into the hearts of towns.