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Is it time to reimagine our cities?

Pandemic has allowed county councils to consider possible future developments

Urban decay is nothing new to Ireland and with the mass switch to home working prompted by the pandemic, the lack of life in our city centres has been brought into stark relief. This has led to calls for our whole approach to city planning to be reimagined.

Dublin city planning officer John O’Hara agrees it is time to take a fresh look at the issue. “Back the in the 1980s we had a very large number of derelict sites and surface car parks in the city, particularly on the northside,” he says. “An Taisce and others were saying the city had been hollowed out. The Urban Renewal Act kick-started development back in 1986 and we addressed that issue, but we can’t be complacent. We do need a renaissance.”

Caution is required when it comes to grand plans, however. He points to the highly influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, which held 1950s urban planning policy responsible for the decline of many city neighbourhoods in the United States.

“The strength of cities is their diversity of use,” O’Hara says. “We need to translate that to Dublin. We need to look at the collapse of retail. That had already started due to the growth of e-tailing. We have to merge retailing with experiential city living. We need theatres and so on as well as retailers. We need to encourage a multiplicity of uses.”

Michael O'Connor, chair of Ibec industry association Property Industry Ireland and former Fingal county manager, says current planning methodologies need to be rethought.

“A recalibration of the concept of land-use zoning – confining and restricting use mix without reference to viability – as the foundation of planning is long overdue,” he says. “Its tenets were never based on the successes of natural growth that nurtured a vibrancy evident in the cities we all love to visit. City making is about creating the best places where people and society thrive. Therefore, the singular ingredient for success must be to drive the inhabitation of all our streets by people who live and work there, who mind them, love them, when they can live affordably and safely.”

‘Radical rethink’

Michael Hynes, joint managing partner of residential developer Quintain, agrees: "We need to move away from land-use zoning to an integrated approach. That will mean a radical rethink."

But the pandemic may not have the impact many people think. “I don’t think Covid will be a major turning point,” says Hynes. “It will probably accelerate things that were in the system already. Calls to cut down on long commutes and urban sprawl are not new. Covid will concentrate minds on that. The quality of the places where we live including things like the condition of the footpaths, schools, shops, amenities will be more of a focus. With the softening of office demand and softer retail demand, space in the city is starting to free up. One thing we don’t see in our cities is more residential or living about the shop. We might see more of that coming out of Covid.”

KPMG Future Analytics director and co-head Stephen Purcell shares that view on the impact of the pandemic. "I feel the initial panic of an existential threat to commercial office development in the city centre will be found to be misplaced," he says. "Certainly, there will be a sustained shift towards so-called 'hybrid' working practices with remote working and so on. At a practical level, we need to consider how city planning can more readily respond to such situations. This includes having the ability to facilitate temporary uses and easing the burden safely on small business operations, rethinking how our open spaces can be better designed and utilised, and the manner in which land and property uses can better interact in harmony."

Planning is about people, Purcell believes. “How we interact within our urban and rural environment, how we protect and enhance these areas, and how we develop in a sustainable manner. The pandemic has limited the study of people and movements within society, yet afforded planners and other built environment professionals the rare opportunity to take a step back and reflect, so that we can bounce forward in a more resilient way.”

People-centred approach

Limerick City and County Council has adopted a people-centred approach to the preparation of its new development plan. "Public engagement is a core value of Limerick City and County Council," says head of communications Laura Ryan. "We recognise that only by involving all stakeholders can Limerick become a smart, sustainable and resilient place. Central to becoming this is a commitment to the achieving of the United Nations Sustainable Development [Goals] and embracing the pledge that 'No one is left behind'. The preparation of the first Limerick City and County development demonstrates this commitment in action. Commencing last August and supported by the Positive City Exchange project, the council engaged across a range of platforms to engage a broad spectrum of stakeholders from across the county."

That engagement has delivered impressive results with more than 9,000 visits to the website including 3,000 visits to a dedicated virtual room as well as 70,000 impressions on social media. “These resulted in almost 250 actual submissions to the first stage of the process,” Ryan adds. “These submissions addressed a range of issues which aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] which provided the foundation for the development of a vision for Limerick which is centred on the goal of sustainable cities and communities with particular reference to amenity provision coupled with goals of economic growth and climate action.”

Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly director Jim Conway also emphasises the SDGs. "They should cascade down through the EU, the National Development Plan, regional strategies, the local authorities and their city and county development plans and their local area plans, and right down to the level of the citizen. This will ensure coherence of planning at a strategic level."


The emergence from the pandemic has provided space for Derry City and Strabane District Council to consider the future development of Derry. "We have an opportunity to focus on city-centre master planning to enable us to shape the development of the city and how it works," says director of environment and regeneration Karen Phillips. "Development will be focussed firstly along the waterfront but with linkages into the Walled City which is critical as our commercial core and which happens to be a Walled City conservation area, unique in Ireland."

“We have a focus on creating policies which will protect and retain our city centre to ensure its vitality and viability as the tension continues between city centre, out of town and online shopping,” she continues. “There will always be pressure on city centres to rejuvenate and consider new uses such as residential and leisure to supplement the loss of retail ground-floor spaces, however, there is an interesting debate emerging that suggests that the experiences of lockdown and the pandemic may in itself lead to the increase in city-centre shopping as a social/leisure activity to be looked forward to and enjoyed with friends and loved ones as online shopping does not give the social experience that real live shopping and coffee has.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times