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David McWilliams: Decades of recurring housing crises remains a reality - penalising the young, rewarding the old

When the young are penalised and the old rewarded, generational conflict is exacerbated. We need a radically new approach that’s focused on the long-term

Sir John Gray's statue on O'Connell Street in Dublin. He masterminded the creation of the best urban water and sanitation system in Europe. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The Housing Commission now believes that Ireland might need to build as many as 62,000 homes per year until 2050, rather than the 33,000 figure the Government suggests. The population is surging and, as pointed out here a few weeks back, Ireland needs to get into what could be termed the “10 Million Mindset”. This refers to the notion that the population of the island is heading towards 10 million and therefore the type of economic planning required for housing, transport, education and health should have 10 million in mind.

In our short-term world, thinking long term is difficult, But if we are to avoid the sticking-plaster approach to development, that’s what we must do. We’ve done it before, so why not now?

A great example of this type of long- term thinking is exemplified by a man whose statue stands on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Few remember him, but John Gray did more to improve the day-to-day lives of ordinary Irish people than many of our more celebrated heroes. A Protestant nationalist, Gray founded the Freeman’s Journal, was a surgeon and a MP – first for the Liberal Party and then the Home Rule Party. He was a keen supporter of Daniel O’Connell and raised the money for O’Connell’s statue on the same street.

Gray was determined to rid Dublin of the filthy sanitation that had afflicted the city’s poor for generations. Dublin’s ghettos, swelled by migrants fleeing famine in the west and south, suffered recurring bouts of cholera and typhus. As surgeon general as well as head of Dublin Corporation, Gray decided to take on Ireland’s commercial vested interests and create the best urban water and sanitation system in Europe, designed for a city with a much larger population than the 300,000 at the time. The result was a huge public infrastructure project: the Vartry Reservoir scheme in Wicklow, which we still use today.


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Up to then, Dublin’s water was taken from the canals and controlled by the canal companies and some of the rail companies, who owned parts of the canals. Gray sought to break control of these companies (which charged for unsanitary drinking water from the canals) and create a modern water system. He forced the parliament in London to finance his scheme in the face of opposition from local vested interests.

The scheme included the construction of a large reservoir in the Wicklow Mountains, 520ft above the highest point in Dublin city. The water was then transported to the city through a 2½-mile tunnel cut 160ft below ground level, a considerable feat in 1860s Ireland. At the end of the tunnel, Gray built a 17-mile-long mains to Stillorgan, from where it was distributed throughout the city.

Fearing the age-old Irish weakness for land speculation ahead of a political rezoning, Gray bought up all the land around the reservoir in Roundwood and sold it back to Dublin Corporation at the same price. The tunnel is still used to this day.

Gray had the sort of legacy approach needed to plan for great change. He wasn’t thinking years ahead, but decades, even centuries. He built with the welfare of citizens not yet born in mind.

Housing dilemma

Consider today’s housing dilemma. If we are to build 60,000 homes per year until 2050, where will they be, what type of homes should they be, and what will those expanded and new streets, towns and cities look like?

The first thing to appreciate is that Ireland is lopsided. Around 30 per cent of the population already live in Dublin. The capital’s population has increased by 75,000 since 2016, compared with only 29,000 in all the other cities put together. Some 50 per cent of Irish economic activity occurs in Dublin, compared with 32 per cent of the UK’s in London.

The Government’s Project Ireland 2040 report suggests we could see nearly 75 per cent of the population growth and corresponding proportion of new builds (around 500,000) being built in Dublin’s commuter towns. This would be a disaster from a social, climatic and transport perspective. Ireland’s cities, starting with Dublin, need to be much denser. The 10 Million Mindset requires that we adapt our existing cities in such a way that does not blight their cultural and civic heritage, but equally does not detract from their potential.

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When it comes to economic and urban planning for 10 million, we are looking at a showdown between the tyranny of nostalgia, driven by people who want to preserve everything at all costs, and the tyranny of modernism, driven by those who want to build without limits. This battle plays out every day in the courts, in planning offices, on building sites, in residents’ committees and within the financial system.

The nostalgists have a highly persuasive argument, largely based on ideas of what makes a great city or town. They appreciate that a city is as delicate as an ecosystem, not unlike a rainforest, where the whole urban balance could be thrown off kilter by change. High-rise, more dense cities would change the character of the place so much that they fear the city would not thrive.

People and streets are at the centre of the urban world. Streets should be mixed and diverse. The great American urbanist Jane Jacobs once described the “ballet” of the street, of people going about their business in the public space, mingling, buying, selling, living and working in the same area. This means small, heavily populated streets, encapsulated in the 15-minute city idea.

The modernists, including many economists, say this vision of a city is all very well; but that if we don’t build at a much greater pace, with more dense developments, which means higher rise in existing cities, we won’t build enough homes and prices will rocket. For them, nostalgia preserves an ambient city for those already in residence but does nothing for the tens of thousands of citizens who also want to live in the city with access to better transport, culture, entertainment, hospitals, universities and the general buzz of urban life.

Today’s Irish cities have low population density. Compare the most densely populated square kilometre in four cities, as calculated by Prof Alasdair Rae in work published in 2018: Paris at 52,218; Amsterdam at 23,485; Berlin at 23,379; and Dublin at 12,176. By another measure, Eurostat lists Dublin as the 96th most densely populated area in Europe in 2019, again behind Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and many others. Irish cities are villages in comparison with many European cities, making all public services far more expensive to deliver because the more people there are, the more efficient and less expensive it is to provide health, education and transport. *

The harsh fact is that we built only 20,433 homes in 2021. Although we are building far more, with 29,851 in 2022, we are still far off what’s needed. At such a pace, urban living will be affordable only to the very rich, meaning the nostalgist vision will be available only to the elite and the modernist nightmare of decades of recurring housing crises remains a reality. This means penalising the young and rewarding the old, exacerbating generational conflict. Nobody wins. When it comes to housing, rather than slugging it out between the nostalgists and the modernists, a synthesis might yield a better result.

The unforgiving nature of the 10 Million Mindset implies planning for, rather than arguing about, a far greater population, and this should be the No 1 priority for Irish society. Where’s the 21st-century John Gray, someone who sees action as being far more consequential than slogans and understands that real infrastructure brings real difference, not just for today’s citizens but tomorrow’s as well.

* This article was edited on February 10th, 2023, as the original article compared figures by Alasdair Rae on the most densely populated square kilometre of several European cities, with recent census figures for Dublin, which used a different measure. New information has been added above for clarification.