12 Mar 2007

You can get it at http://www.riai.ie/index.html?id=7219 (scroll to the end of the page and click on Download Urban Forum Manifesto).

A (much anticipated) work penned by the leading lights in the construction/planning professions, the report gives us very little new to think about. It’s called a ‘manifesto’, which had me expecting a pithy little document with sharply made points in language designed to rally but it has neither.

 The most radical idea it contains is a suggestion that we create an urban centre on the west coast of Ireland to counteract Dublin’s growing economic power. I was curious as to how the UF saw this coming about, so I sought some clarifications from one of the authors, Henk van der Kamp, who was kind enough to give detailed responses to all of my questions. You’ll find the whole Q+A after the jump. The Forum got decent media coverage at their launch but so far the manifesto hasn’t gained much traction. Part of the problem is that the various radio and newspaper wags covering the story were so uninformed the issue couldn’t be discussed in a meaningful way. The other part of it, though, is that the Forum needs to be way, way more provocative.   Henk’s contribution below.

PD. Why is it necessary to have an urban ‘counterbalance’ to Dublin?

H.There are both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ reasons for this. The ‘push’ reasons are related to the extent to which the city of Dublin is spreading into the surrounding counties. This results in unsustainable travel patterns and other problems relating to social stress which have been highlighted in the urban forum document. Also, traffic congestion is a problem in the Dublin area. The ‘pull’ reasons are that as Ireland is urbanizing and growing in population it is desirable that the growth of population and employment is spread reasonably evenly throughout the country. Where cities are too small they will find it difficult to attract international employers who generally wish to be located in large urban areas.  

PD. How does the Forum envisage creating an alternative urban centre to match the size and economic power of Dublin? Would it be achieved by using incentives to have businesses start-up/relocate to the west coast? Or would the State be required to take a direct interventionist approach?

H. The concept behind the Atlantic Gateway is that by combining the cities of Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford, it may be possible to achieve an urban size that is more closely related to the size of Dublin. While the cities are far apart, improvement in transport links (particularly rail) and identification of strategic sites for development within the overall network (an example of this is the Shannon zone), can do a lot towards achieving an urban network. Perception in the public mind is also very important, e.g. once the public understands and agrees with the Atlantic Gateway concept, it will further help to strengthen the cooperation between the cities concerned instead of them always competing with each other.

PD. How large do you envisage the new urban centre to be? And how linked to existing cities like Limerick or Galway? 

H. There is no new ‘urban centre’. The concept is one of a network of existing cities and towns.

PD. What does the Urban Forum see as the main problem with ‘one off’ housing development? Apart from aesthetic concerns, what are the key planning issues that one off housing raises? 

H. One-off housing presents potentially the following problems for long term sustainable spatial development:

  • car based employment and social trips
  • fragmentation of countryside with loss of pristine landscapes
  • risk of loss of social infrastructure in villages and towns (schools, shops etc.)
  • risk of groundwater pollution;
  • loss of possibilities to develop new infrastructure (e.g. roads) in rural areas because of proliferation of houses;
  • loss of potential population growth where this is needed to achieve critical mass, i.e. in urban centres;
  • traffic safety for children;
  • demand for costly infrastructure (postal deliveries etc.)

I should emphasise that these problems are theoretical and potential. There are also many advantages to one-off housing. What is needed is a public debate. Do we really want an Ireland where the landscape is filled with houses?

PD. Is it possible to grow urban Gateways in the co-ordinated way envisaged in the National Spatial Strategy? Does the ‘forced’ hierarchy of urban areas set out in the NSS not run contrary to the nature in which cities and towns grow (ie, in fits and starts and not in lock step with each other)? Also, is it possible to sustain such a centralised approach to national planning? 

H. It is very possible to ‘guide’ urban development. This is because urban development requires the zoning of land and the investment of public infrastructure. It is therefore possible to restrict the growth of certain towns while encouraging the growth of other towns. This is a well established policy which has been used internationally, e.g. the new towns in the UK.  

PD. What is the future for Part V Housing? Is it possible to row back to the original position of supplying houses to Local Authorities, now that the legislation has been watered down? If the Forum’s recommendations on zoning/land values were implemented, would the Part V provisions be necessary? 

H. Part V, while difficult to implement, has many merits even in its ‘watered down’ version. What is important is to establish the principle that the first preference must remain to integrate social and affordable houses in developments. It is true that such integration would be helped if the Forum’s recommendations on zoning and land values and a more ‘plan led’ development pattern were implemented. However, Part V would still play an important part in it.  

PD. How does the Forum see it’s recommendations being implemented? i.e. is the Forum hoping to generate political debate to have architects/planners/architects etc, rally as a group and use pressure tactics on the Government? Or is no direct follow up envisaged after the publication of the manifesto? 

H. The Forum hopes to generate a political debate and a public debate. It is hoped that the general public will consider the recommendations made in the report and will raise these issues with their public representatives and amongst themselves (e.g. in residents associations or community organizations). Ultimately, it is not a case that anybody is blamed but rather that we decide collectively what kind of Ireland we want before it is too late.

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