Planners look to the potential of built-up core in 'party capital'

 

GALWAY REVELLED in being the “fastest-growing city in Europe” during the boom. Over the past 50 years, the Republic’s fourth-largest city grew 340 per cent in terms of population but, as local architect Roddy Mannion points out, the land area it occupies expanded by 1,000 per cent – nearly three times as much.

Fresh from its success in hosting the Volvo Ocean Race and with the annual arts festival just finished, followed hot on its heels by the Galway Races which start today, it’s easy to be seduced by this self-proclaimed “party capital” and turn a blind eye to the city’s wider failures – notably suburban sprawl and its inevitable consequences.

“We’re very good about waxing lyrical about the great features of the city, less good in acknowledging the flaws and weaknesses,” Mannion says. “But the next decade is going to be quiet , so we need to spend time thinking about where we want to go and how we’re going to get there.”

Mannion’s new book, Galway: A Sense of Place, bemoans the city’s relentless sprawl and tellingly contrasts the compact medieval core that everyone finds so appealing to the amorphous, low-density suburbs with their bleak distributor roads. In this respect, it’s just like anywhere else in Ireland.

He has calculated that Galway had a density of 90 people per hectare (216 per acre) in 1961. Fifty years later, this had fallen to just 30 per hectare (72 per acre) in the city. He also says that, uniquely in Ireland, Galway City Council’s development plan prohibits higher densities in built-up areas.

Mannion says there is “huge potential to accommodate future growth of Galway in the range of 1km to 5km from Eyre Square without having to build a new city on the way to Oranmore, in the so-called Ardaun Corridor”, a reference to current plans, dating from 1999, for a new suburb with a projected population of 18,000.

He wants the Department of the Environment to issue a directive “restricting any further growth of our cities beyond their current periphery until the existing ‘middle’ is consolidated and intensified to a target density of 60 persons per hectare ” – the minimum density needed to support local services.

With Ireland’s ageing population and low house occupancy confirmed by the census, the Co Galway-born architect has put forward a radical idea of “suburban renewal” – turning semi-detached houses into four-storey apartment buildings by removing their roofs so that the “air space” above them could be developed.

He’s at a loss to know why a 1999 planning and transport study, carried out by Buchanan Partners for the city council, didn’t look at the potential of developing new housing along the railway line to Athenry, where most of the land is zoned for amenity or recreational use. “They didn’t even consider it,” he says.

As a result of how Galway has developed, two-thirds of its commuters travel to work by car, with a further 10 per cent using vans or lorries. Bus usage is only 2.3 per cent and rail patronage infinitesimal (0.2 per cent). Cyclists account for 1.5 per cent and walkers less than 10 per cent, while 9 per cent work from home.

Acting city manager Joe O’Neill believes this “modal split” is improving with the belated introduction of bus corridors and, latterly, cycle lanes. “One million travelled on the Doughiska route last year. If the service is attractive, there’s no reason why people wouldn’t use it,” he says. “There’s also been a big upsurge in cycling.”

Gluas, a Galway version of Dublin’s Luas, has been proposed as a viable way to transform public transport in the city by Pádraic O’Donoghue, dean of engineering at NUI Galway, and a citizens’ group that includes Brendan Holland of Galway Chamber of Commerce. But it has failed to win strong political support.

Meanwhile, the roundabouts that characterised Galway’s approach roads – each named after one or other of the city’s 14 “tribes” – are being replaced by signalised junctions; they were running out of names, and the roundabouts were overwhelmed by traffic as well as being dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians.

O’Neill is convinced the city still needs more roads, particularly the proposed outer bypass. This would run through an environmentally sensitive area at Menlo, infringing the EU habitats directive, and is now before the European Court of Justice.

The Government has already decided to fund the scheme, if the court upholds it.

Derrick Hambleton, chairman of the Galway branch of An Taisce and a long-time taxi driver, agrees with Mannion’s proposal that future development should be concentrated on transport corridors, such as the railway line to Athenry and on leftover sites in and around the city centre.

To do that would require the city council to shelve the proposed development of Ardaun in the east, where they plan to create a improved version of sprawling Knocknacarra to the west. The equivalent of two full-time planners are working on this scheme, despite the collapse of the property market.

“Realistically, I don’t see Ardaun being developed this century – that’s how premature I think it is,” Mannion says. He believes the planners should be looking instead at the potential of Renmore barracks, sitting between Lough Atalia and Galway Bay: “I’m sure it will go, but politicians are up in arms over the idea of closing it.”

But Hambleton strongly disagrees with Mannion’s proposal that open land along the Corrib could be developed as a “riverfront green city”, saying: “No one in London would allow building on any of its great parks! Like our green riverside, they are too precious.” O’Neill likens the idea to “building houses in Phoenix Park”.

Yet there are fallow green areas along the Corrib, both north and south of the Quincentennial Bridge, that could be developed for housing. “This is very much a provocative proposal, but worth looking at,” Mannion says. “Just because these areas are designated for conservation shouldn’t preclude development.”

An Taisce’s view is that the emphasis “must now be on consolidating development on 158 hectares of residential zoned and serviceable lands for housing and amenity purposes on all sides of the city which have yet to be developed. Consolidation and sustainable higher density must be the central theme . . . ”