Moderate density, design and political will can solve housing crisis

Urban sprawl put Ireland into paralysis and policymakers must alleviate despair

The housing crisis didn’t happen in a single season – it has taken 50 years to get into this mess and the way out is not to lower building standards or to abandon planning regulations (though they need to be changed). A radical solution is required. Two things need to be said. One, tower blocks are not the answer.

Two, comprehensive redevelopment of the inner suburbs is required. This needs the full involvement of stakeholders and full, generous compensation for the upheaval and inconvenience.

Let’s look at how we got here. The aim of architects and planners to separate urban functions and to allocate more space to housing was well-intentioned. Industry in the 1930s was pretty malodorous and it made sense to get it out of city back yards. And people needed better housing.

The solution looks like the 19th-century city

The beneficial effects were immediately apparent and the downside a matter of a bit more driving, perhaps. The disadvantages are what we suffer now. Low-density planning increased the demand for land. It raised the cost of housing and added to the time taken to get around. Higher house prices cost us socially, economically, healthwise and environmentally.


Looking just at the economics, low-density housing means bigger mortgages and long commutes. Overworking and commuting takes time from families and from community involvement.

At the core of the problem is the fact that, other things being equal, the further a property is from the city centre and other amenities, the less desirable it is and the more desirable a central location becomes. Limited supply and high demand for central locations raises the cost of every other house. Every increase in the cost of city centre locations raises the cost of every other property or else increases the need to commute – or usually both.

Social costs

There will always be some price differential related to distance from city centres and amenities. Ireland is an extreme case of the hazards of low-density, urban sprawl. The ambition to give everyone a front and back garden turns out to be as problematic as promising to put everyone at the top of a queue. It worked for a while but now we have paralysis.

At the core of the problem, we can see that high housing costs drives up rents which destroys people’s ability to save. High land prices drive up retail costs which also makes saving harder.

Needing two jobs to pay for a home necessitates a second car and childcare. The social costs from the despair of eternal renting to the stress of paying for it and time in traffic are plainly horrendous.

What we can understand from this is that the dramatic acceleration in the use of land has had very costly consequences. Reversing that won’t be easy. The housing crisis truly is a wicked problem. Defining it correctly is part of the problem; there is no single right answer.

Solutions will change the system irreversibly and quite possibly some will feel a loss due to any policy solution being implemented. But as it is, everyone except those in a paid-for home and with large salaries is being crushed by housing costs. Even grandparents bear a burden as they see their children leading tiring lives and perhaps are even tired themselves from obligatory grandchildcare.

Housing format

The solution is not a market fix, tempting though that may be. Solving this demands political vision, economic investment and the involvement of communities and architects. Policymakers must engage with something they tend to avoid: architecture and design.

This is because design and architecture are fundamental to the solution and are not merely a matter of decoration. Specifically, policymakers have to buy into a solution with a specific architectural expression. The exact format of the housing in an affordable city is as important as the exact procedure a surgeon follows to treat a patient.

So, what does the solution look like? It will offend Ireland’s particularly vociferous high-rise boosters and fans of the three-bed-semi equally. The solution looks like the 19th-century city: streets with modern construction standards, a minimum of 120 sq m for each family and a variety of single family homes, up to five or six floors.

This pattern exists already – it’s the standard in Germany and many north European cities (the ones we like to visit). So, it’s nothing strange. Modern building technology can mitigate or eliminate neighbour noise. There are no technical barriers to the affordable, medium-density city. It must be reiterated that it involves a mix of housing formats so there is something even for those who insist on a single-family home.

We’ve tried the low-rise city suburb, and we’ve tried high-rise apartments. The solution is moderate density, high-design standards and political will. The result is a chance of freedom from the tyranny of life-long mortgages or life-long housing insecurity.

Richard Herriott is associate professor of industrial design at the Kolding Design School, Denmark