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Rising to the residential challenge

Are high-rise buildings the only solution to the density issue? Experts share their views

With no end in sight for Ireland’s housing crisis, city planners face real challenges when it comes to meeting the needs of people seeking a place to live at the same time as offering them a decent quality of life. It is clear that low-density housing, in our cities at least, is a thing of the past but is high rise the only solution to the density issue?

Not necessarily, according to Michael Hynes, joint managing partner with residential developer Quintain. "We have to think about the issue of housing density and we need to make better use of our land," he contends. "We have to fundamentally change our development plan principles. For many people, density means high rise but it doesn't have to. We already have high-density areas like Drumcondra or Phibsborough and they are not high rise. Maybe the trade-off is not having front gardens. We need to look at Copenhagen and other very good cities across Europe to see how they have dealt with the issue."

He notes that the definition of low rise under the current planning guidelines can be up to eight storeys high. “We don’t have to have a tall building on every single plot,” he says. “Heights should be mixed appropriately. You can do something if people open their minds to different things. We need to have an appropriate mix of houses, apartments and duplexes with space between them.”

Vibrant city

“It’s a question of both quality and density,” says Dublin city planning officer John O’Hara. “Dublin is a low-density city. It is very late in the day to start putting in strong streets like in Copenhagen or Barcelona. They have five- and six-storey houses and Barcelona is a very vibrant city. So is Copenhagen in its own way. Even where Dublin has some five- or six-storey buildings it gets low as soon as you go a building back. You find a lot of single- or two-storey houses behind the city streets. We need to provide more streets with six-, seven- and eight-storey buildings. We can have the occasional landmark building as well of course but glory buildings have their own microclimates and so on. You have to be careful with them.”


And those landmark buildings aren’t actually a necessity. “You can get the same density per hectare if have eight-storey buildings rather than a 30-storey building with plazas around it and so on,” O’Hara points out. “If you go out to suburban areas with two-storey houses with long gardens you could encourage neighbours to combine their back gardens and create new mews developments. These could provide homes for their children and future generations in the area rather than export them to commuter counties.”

Increased height may be the only option due to other pressures, according to Grant Thornton chief economist Anthony Webb. “It’s obvious if you want more people to live in the city you need to either grow out or grow up,” he says. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of appetite to go up. In the last year we learned what we do when we have more leisure and have been outside a lot more in parks and so on. There is also going to be a shift to having more space in houses as we spend more time working at home. Moving up seems obvious in this light.”

Housing demand in our cities looks set to continue and even increase. "There has been some narrative written around the masses leaving our cities for towns and rural living throughout the country, and similar has been reported internationally," says KPMG future analytics director and co-head Stephen Purcell. "Many data-led property industry studies, however, show that the demand for city living remains and will continue to be strong. The sustainable provision of infrastructure and other public investments is best focused where we consolidate our cities in a manner that does not compromise on quality design and living."

And he agrees it is possible to achieve high density without height. “Density and height are still too often mistaken as mutually reliant – you can have density without height, and you can have height without density – but I feel Ireland needs to acknowledge that land within our city areas and large towns is essentially a finite resource and needs to be used efficiently.”

Unit size will need to be addressed. “There is a case for requiring promoters of a project to more readily demonstrate that the profile of an area in terms of household composition, housing stock and population change justifies the mix and typology of units being proposed in residential or residentially-led schemes,” says Purcell.

Cultural shift

“This is starting to be reflected in recent years. I think ultimately if we are to move away from the traditional ‘semi-d’ model – and we are starting to see more apartments consented – if not coming through to construction, such as through the Strategic Housing provisions, we need to develop a national conversation and cultural shift in what homes and what communities we want in the decades ahead. But the now age-old issue of construction viability has simply not been adequately resolved.”

Property Industry Ireland director and former Fingal County manager David O’Connor believes the debate must move beyond physical housing units. “As land is a non-renewable resource, it demands of us that we put it to the most sustainable use in the interest of future generations,” he says.

“Debating or considering housing in terms of units per hectare completely misses the means and opportunities to satisfy real housing need. Housing need cannot be thought of just in terms of the physical enclosure of the home. Planning for housing must extend far beyond provision of the walls of our dwellings and include all the physical and community support infrastructure necessary for a stable existence.”

It is in our collective interest to take this broader view, he argues. “At a time when the emphasis is on consolidation – hardly surprising for a generation that increasingly values upcycling and reuse over disposal – we must look at our existing places and find where we can upcycle and reuse our existing buildings and places. We must employ the same thrift in developing and applying standards for that reuse and reinvention. If we ask existing populations to take in more people can we find a way to reward them, notwithstanding that perceptions of change may rarely be as threatening as the perceived outcome?”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times