Physical fabric of our country left in tatters


RENEWING THE REPUBLIC:We need to fashion a new sense of property and planning if we are to heal the blighted landscape left as a legacy by the boom

THE MOST tangible evidence of the economic boom is all around us, in the way our cities, towns and rural landscape have been irretrievably altered. Everywhere we turn this small island now looks utterly different from the way it did less than 20 years ago. And yet in debates such as Renewing the Republicthe radical physical changes our State has undergone in the recent past, and the long-term consequences of those changes for all of us, remain largely unconsidered.

This is not an unusual state of affairs. During a recent week of discussion about the role of Irish culture in revitalising the country heard on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, attention was paid to writers and musicians, giving an impression of our culture being entirely oral and aural. In Ireland the importance of the visual sense is widely undervalued.

Must it be pointed out that we do not live in a state of mind? Ireland is a geographical entity, a physical place which we can choose either to cherish and improve or to harm. The choices we make directly affect our daily existence and those of generations to come. In any discussion of how Ireland might recover from its present woes, it is essential our physical circumstances be addressed as well as our cerebral and spiritual condition.

Crucially we must accept that every one of us has an entitlement to participate in such a discussion, that Ireland belongs to all her citizens and not just to those in possession of documents proving their ownership of specific parcels of land. Title deeds may show that I own my own house, for example, but what I do to the building impacts on my neighbours, on the area in which I live, on the appearance and character of the entire region. Therefore, before I do anything to my property, I need to take more than self-interest into account: I must consider the interests of the wider community. This means I cannot necessarily exploit what I perceive to be my property’s potential. I may have to accept that land in my ownership cannot be rezoned, or that a building I have bought cannot undergo so-called redevelopment if existing structures are judged worthy of preservation. Land and property owners must appreciate that with entitlement comes responsibility and the latter will sometimes outrank the former.

Our recent economic boom discouraged any concept of communal consideration with frequently dire results to the physical fabric of Ireland. Land and property were deemed valuable only for their financial worth and to be exploited for short-term gain, regardless of the long-term outcome. This is one of the reasons Ireland looks so radically different today: we turned into a nation of interim speculators. The consequence of these misguided efforts in this arena is a country replete with ill-sited, ill-conceived and ill-designed structures – office blocks, hotels, housing – which seem destined to remain forever surplus to requirements.

Perhaps the solution is to replace the concept of ownership with one of custodianship, with an acknowledgment that we are just temporary caretakers of any property in our possession. As such we have a duty both to our fellow citizens and to future generations to take care of what is in our tenure, and we must expect ourselves be called to account if we fail in the task. Our successors will not thank us for the way in which we have systematically destroyed what was handed down to us by our forebears. They are liable to be puzzled by our preparedness to accept the second-rate, the shoddy and the low-grade because it offered the fastest financial recompense. They will wonder why we did not pause to consider the corollary of our rush to make a quick profit: that in doing so we committed a violent assault on our own country, an assault from which it can never hope to recover. If we are to avoid making the same mistakes in the future, changes must be made in the way we view our nation.

To this end, we need to realise that planning cannot be conducted either on a pro tempore basis or taking only local interests into account. In matters of planning, the local ought to be national and the national local. What happens in any one part of the country is of relevance to all of it. Planning must be considered in its entirety, with an obligation on builders and developers to deliver on all amenities such as schools, shops and community amenities before they are permitted to construct new homes.

We have to pay greater attention to the merits of good design and not merely regard it as an expendable extra. During the boom years many of our local authorities moved into new purpose-built premises designed to such high standards that they won awards. Yet those same authorities made no effort to encourage similar standards of good design in the areas under their jurisdiction. Architects will tell you that members of their profession were uninvolved in the majority of new housing erected during the past two decades. There was no requirement to call on an architect’s services and as a result almost all recent construction work in the domestic housing market is shamefully ugly and a blot on the landscape into which it has been inconsiderately dropped.

Investment in quality pays dividends in any field; we should recognise that insisting on higher standards of design will in turn improve the appearance of our country with benefits for everyone. The calibre of every proposed development’s design should be critical in deciding whether or not it is granted planning approval.

Similarly we should require all owners to maintain any building in their care. Even at the height of the boom our cities and towns remained blighted by buildings permitted to fall into dereliction. The recession threatens to make this problem steadily worse. There should be incentives for maintaining a structure and penalties for failing to do so. It is utter folly not to realise the potential of our existing building stock before we construct anything else.

Failure to cherish that stock displays contempt for our ancestors and the heritage they have bequeathed us. We pay a great deal of lip service to history in this country while in practice showing scant regard for our heritage. In this we demonstrate not just disrespect to those who have gone before us but also foolish ignorance of our own welfare since the nation’s built heritage is a priceless asset which, once lost, can never be replaced. Heritage tourism is one of the principal areas of growth in today’s global travel industry and tourism is now one of the State’s major sources of revenue. It makes sense therefore to conserve and cherish the buildings we have inherited since they hold the potential to attract more visitors to Ireland.

We should put ourselves in the position of people who are coming to this country for the first time and in this way we have a better chance of seeing clearly the havoc wrought on Ireland’s physical fabric during the boom years. This Republic needs not just to be renewed but also re-viewed.

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