Home Great ideas John Moran – No one Shouted Stop (The growth of cars and suburbia)

John Moran – No one Shouted Stop (The growth of cars and suburbia)

129 min read

The following is the full text of a speech recently delivered (Friday 7th October 2016) by RHH International Chief Executive, John Moran to the Irish Planning Institute Conference at the Gibson Hotel in Dublin. 

This is an incredibly important topic for the future of our country and so I am going today to have to ask some very hard and politically difficult questions.   That said, it is doubly intimidating to be setting out my own hopes for Ireland in a room with so many experts ready to pounce on what I might say.

I was however greatly heartened by what I heard earlier suggesting that this time we are ready to again consider some of the hard questions and that he welcomes real debate.  But we know frankly the political process hi-jacked the last effort to produce a spatial strategy for the country.

You as planners with key training in this area have now a major role in educating the public and the debate to ensure it does not happen this time around.  I want to thank Deirdre and her team for the opportunity to discuss these issues today and to congratulate Niall and Terry for engaging directly in fora like this.

My hope is you won’t stop today but will step up too to the plate, provide evidence and debate and use the new tools like social media and other tools which can help get to a better evidentiary based result this time around.

Speaking of same, my twitter handle is @moranjohna1 and later I’ll post my speech and I am more than happy to continue debating with you there if we do not have enough time during the Q&A

There’s an obvious but necessary issue which I mention up front.  To get to the right answer, we’ll be up against vested interests of course.  It was said earlier that some of the towns we built in the past may be beyond repair or perhaps were never suited to Ireland in 2016.   Like the little villages we lost in the west during famine times or even that island village Peig Sayers abandoned and which we have not rebuilt, spending scarce resources on legacy settlements no longer suited to modern Ireland rather than where they are most needed should not be allowed.  But not everyone will be happy with that.

The other thing we need to hit straight on is our use and resourcing for cars rather than public transport, cycling or walking.  Measures designed to reduce car use continue to hit major resistance.  And not just in Ireland.  As former planning commissioner of Santa Monica said when complaining he could not get seven story apartment blocks through but the opponents enthused over a seven story downtown garage, For some people “Parking is like sex” for these people, they believe “If you have to pay for it, it’s not right”.  Well I am not recommending that we change our views about paying for sex but we most certainly should make sure we continue to charge heavily for parking and other road use where space is scarce in our cities.

Anyway, let me get going.  I think you all know I seem to have become an amateur wannabe planner since I left Merrion Street.  I did not even do planning law for my law degree so what I am going to say won’t have all of the science which will be applied to develop the national planning framework.  Of course you can argue other ways and other solutions. I want you to.  I am however passionate about us doing better this time and I have carefully tried to watch a lot of what is happening all over the world and in Ireland.  I have also been forced to read a lot because of these speeches.  So what I hope to do today is to raise some issues based on practices observed elsewhere, try and apply them to Ireland and get the ball rolling on the debate.

Main points

There is a massive amount of road (no pun) I could cover today but I only have 30 minutes.  I am sure we might not get to it all but I’ll publish the speech later.  If you want the highlights, the main points today for me will be:-

  • New modern strategy needed: If Ireland wants to remain competitive on the global stage, it needs quickly to develop new spatial strategies and related planning rules.  Dublin particularly needs to improve dramatically its own urban fabric but we also need to see greater regional development as our population and economy expands.  Only in this way can pressure be alleviated on Dublin’s infrastructure to give it time to roll back the worst impacts of bad planning decisions in the past without preventing continued growth
  • 4 types of development: To explain where I am coming from in developing this thesis, I’d like to describe for you four types of development. We must not think we can develop a once size fits all planning approach or simply continue going as we have done in recent decades
  • No complacency please: There is no room for complacency from our 5% growth levels.  Something quite dramatic still needs to be done and funded to cope with the massive population shifts we are experiencing on the island.  Globalisation and the need to manage carbon footprints require changing the way everything operates.  Technology whether it is faster rapid transport, smart phones, the internet or driverless cars will provide new solutions we could never have imagined even ten years ago and we must embrace not reject them.
  • Put the East on a diet for a while: Anyone who sits in traffic for over an hour to get to work knows we are not coping well with our huge structural challenge.  Take a look at my first slide
  • slide-1This is a map of Ireland by population.  It does not make a pretty picture.  Particularly the bulge on the east.  It is time to put at least the East of Ireland on a diet – Ireland needs to ditch our cars used for commuting long distances or going to the shop, ride efficient transport and better still cycle or walk more and use all that free time for quality time with family and friends or to exercise.
  • Ditch Suburbia as the answer: To do this we need to also ditch our car dependent suburbia model or perhaps more realistically in the short term make true urban spaces more attractive so our population growth can vote with their feet (and I mean that, not with their cars!) and turn their back on Irish suburbia (sometimes presented on the outskirts of towns without even a train station) and demand more attractive housing close to work and amenities like good education for their kids.
  • Some people want “urbia”: As I grow older, I know I want to be able to live without a car in my daily life, close to work, surrounded by top notch public realm and fun things to do with my friends.  I’d love to hop in a driverless shared vehicle or rent one for a couple of hours for that special trip where public transport will not work.  I’d like to ride a high speed train to go from Limerick to Dublin in one hour and onwards to Belfast.  To listen to some of our politicians and interest groups, you might think I am some outlier but the reality is there are many others who share that vision too rather than living in car dependent suburbia or rural Ireland.  And many do not want to wait until they are my age to start living that way. We should be planning to make that possible for them.  Increasingly, young people and others all over the world are now turning their back on suburbia to want to live in denser urban spaces and those of us who grew up living in suburbia or rural Ireland hooked on cars need to recognise that if we want to retain and be attractive for our kids and the world’s talented kids.
  • Ireland’s Glocal Cities: Arresting the creation of more suburbia could be feasible if we focus our energy on developing a small number of globally connected regionally distributed cities with a local feel – so called “glocal cities” – by densifying and modernising our urban models of planning there.  Remember people want more and more to be able to walk or take efficient and comfortable public transport to their work, the shop, the cinema, to sport and to the crèche.  We should encourage this.  It is good for the environment and for the rural Ireland we love so much. Let me be clear thought about one thing.  We do not need to rush to take away or destroy the lifestyles of those currently choosing car dependent suburbia.  What I am saying is just don’t make it any larger.  I am mainly saying we focus this new approach for our increasing population growth first, for their new school places, their new homes, and their new hospital beds.  It is not acceptable to have to wait as much as 30 minutes to board a bus in the centre of Dublin or our regional cities nor that it takes over 30 minutes to travel less than 3 km in our city centre.  I had both experiences earlier this week at 8.30am in the morning (a peak time to get people to schools and work quickly and efficiently).  We also need new ways to decide what success looks like and how to measure progress.  It cannot just be about pure population growth and I’ll expand on that.
  • Population centres can have different Functions: We must also not look at all of our growing population centres in the same way.  We need to draw a difference between how we approach a population centre which has expanded largely dependent on another larger space close by for its economic growth and those centres with sufficient clusters of activity and the growth potential to be themselves a “big city” for their hinterland.
  • Ireland as a collection of glocal cities: In that way, we will be able to select and develop the more attractive Irish model of urban carless living we need to sustainably develop for the future.  I would argue that one of the best ways to do this involves developing a counterbalance to Dublin’s growth along the western corridor and together creating a cluster of interconnected glocal cities of a scale and size to each be capable of spilling economic wealth into their hinterlands.   Again, I was heartened this morning to hear of the focus on growth centres but let’s not just look at that as population growing in a commuter town for another city but rather a centre able to generate growth itself!
  • We can win in this global race: Frankly, like us in Ireland to date, so many other competitor countries still do this so badly that if we get this right quickly it will allow us to stand out and compete in a post Brexit Europe.
  • But a mindset change is required: It will however require a complete mindset change so that we reward (not penalise) those willing to chuck the idea of two cars and a garden outside the front door, to live the compromise of density rather than choose individualism as their preferred model of living.   It cannot be tolerated that those willing to share their lives with others in denser urban areas for the common good should have their lives put on hold by traffic jams or their services under-performing to cater for others living outside those zones.  But we must also create affordable homes in those city areas so everyone can choose to live there not just the rich or those already in place.  This we can do by ditching overly restrictive regulations for example on height, regulations designed to protect vested interests or unreasonable requirements for unnecessary parking or excessive minimum size apartments.
  • The warning I’d like to share today though is that if we do not move we will continue to lose ground to those other cities who are successfully redirecting their growth and more efficiently delivering public services in these ways
  • There lies the solution to help rural Ireland; Once we have moved successfully down that path, we can then start to have a less emotional and more evidentiary debate about the best way to revitalise and protect rural Ireland, remembering that if we are being honest we’ll accept that the best way to maintain rural Ireland as an amenity to be enjoyed by all is to stop adding more people to live in it.

A population divided

People have such different often diametrically opposite views that this is a very hard space to navigate rationally but I urge you as planners to continue to be vocal to get the facts out there as my guess is that as a group you understand these trends better than many others and the value of the sacrifices we need to make.

This can be a particularly divisive debate with lots of interest groups arguing to protect the status quo.

  • Snobbery Factor and the already entitled elite

Some may simply be afraid of or not want change as things look pretty okay for them right now in their large houses, half acre gardens with two cars in the drive-way.  Why would they want lower income or lower priced housing in their neighbourhood to bring down prices or restrictions on the roads they drive?  Face it, it will be hard to convince this cohort to shift their ways.  The best we may be able to do is to realise what the true motive may be as they clamour for retention of the status quo, broadband and other services delivered to their doors which we can only do less efficiently and therefore at a cost to others and for more road or parking spaces when they drive to town.  We must find a way to weigh that motive more fairly against the broader common good.  This elite are often those best organised or funded in society to fight the battle and so it is all the more important to get the balance right and to have the courage to respond or resist their demands where the common good requires it.

Sometime a vocal minority’s views can easily risk prevailing over a silent or less organised majority.  Here’s an interesting slide to give you a sense of who spends money in Dublin shops.


I suspect many of us are surprised by the low 1 in five number for persons who spend money by coming to the city centre by car.   Similarly, in Barcelona, private vehicles account for just 20% of total movements but occupy 60% of street space.  In contrast to Dublin, Barcelona has embarked on a very interesting exercise down town.  Currently Barcelona has only 6.6 sq metres of green space per inhabitant.  Compare that to London’s 27 or even Amsterdam’s very impressive 87.5.    So they are now implementing a plan that creates superblocks (say of 9 blocks of their grid pattern city) around which traffic will flow with the spaces in between reimagined to fill the city with life and give some of those roads back to the people without cars.  You’ll see some visuals on this next slide:


Now think for a moment about how an organised outcry by groups like the car park owners are succeeding in delaying the College Green pedestrian and public transport plans making life better for Dublin’s majority of shoppers.

  • The unenlightened or those not recognising their reality

Others object perhaps because without better explanation of the facts they do not see how life could be better for them or their children or perhaps are in denial about just how many of their children have chosen to live in urban spaces anyway for greater opportunity which they cannot find in smaller towns.  For this cohort we have to do a much better job of explaining what better could look like and perhaps putting pilot models in place.  It will be less effective telling people it can be great to live in apartments or raise families in them because people can do that in Barcelona or Paris. Rather we should build a new model environment in Ireland which works within our culture and let them see it in action.

  • The Wordsworth Supporters who may have a point until we fix urban Ireland

Other opponents of urban living are wedded to somewhat romantic ideas encouraged by popular culture from William Wordsworth’s Daffodils and vales and hills to Bob the Builder and the Brady Bunch.  The feelings are so-ingrained that may never honestly face up to the fact that many of the problems they complain about in 2016 rural Ireland – isolation, lack of services, vulnerability are the consequences of the choice to turn their back on denser community living wanting to live remotely in the first place.

Let’s be honest here though too.  Our own 2016 urban spaces do not work so well too so it is easier to criticise those areas and their lifestyles without recognising that this is because they are not really urban but predominantly driven by suburban living and car dependency.  Even here in Dublin, our capital city, we all know how quickly we find ourselves in rows of single houses and gardens as you dip a little outside the canals!

  • Vested economic interests – car makers, would be development land owners

Beyond that, and more dangerously is another cohort where there is real economic self-interest at risk and therefore large publicity and lobbying budgets to fight the cause.  This cohort argue for continuation of suburban development and car-living because they stand to lose very considerably if we stop building houses on their green fields or we stop buying cars or petrol or using their companies to build roads.  Our planning appeal process gives them an opportunity to object to or delay the process for desirable inner city developments even though the impact on them is negligible or their number far outweighs the number who benefit.

Naturally, developers choose understandably the path of least resistance in the face of these objectors – they buy the green fields beyond the cities edges and build low density two story houses for owners who buy more cars and you know who gains then from the loss of development in the city centre.

The methods of this group can be direct or they can be subtle.  Across the world, we have heard the arguments that pedestrians or even bicycles are a danger on the road and cause crashes.  We do not hear the reality that few people have ever been killed by crashing into another pedestrian or bicycle.  It is cars which are dangerous where there are people around.  Why then try and keep people away from cars with barriers to allow cars to move more quickly?   Why develop larger turning circles at cross roads for cars and trucks to turn but make the crossing even wider and more difficult for pedestrians?   The views of these vested interests are imbedded in popular culture just like the cigarette manufacturers efforts to show smoking was cool were discretely planted in our minds in old movies and advertising. Our perceptions of the pedestrian have changed somewhat over the years as demonstrated in this slide.

slide20Why is it that as a kid, there were presents of model cars of Ferraris, Mercedes, Lamborghinis as desirable things one day to have for real but train sets were already viewed as outdated and something of an older era?  How many video games do you know which make it cool to be driving a metro train or riding a bike through urban streets rather than high adrenalin games where you sit behind the wheel of a fast car?  It is well identified how much popular culture including children’s cartoons and adult programmes extolled the virtues of suburban living but warned of sinister crime ridden inner cities.


Is there any Common Ground at all?

Like with any conflict, though, it is best to seek to find areas common ground first and there are many.

  • I have spoken before about the reality that in other advanced economies of the world, cities are the engines of real growth in advanced economies. This is not to deny the importance of non-urban spaces in our economy too.  It is just though to recognise the reality which is now more and more accepted that cities are more productive and without them, Ireland would work less well.
  • The second thing we know is that services have typically overtaken manufacturing and innovation and increased productivity will be key. Again, though this is not to turn our backs on manufacturing but to realise that we need to modify our prior views that we can move jobs to rural areas or regional towns by building factories for FDI.   It does mean though focusing much of our effort on the environment (offices, housing, education and the rest) which is conducive to the development of high end service industries.
  • We know that greater housing supply brings down the cost of buying or renting.
  • We all know deep in our hearts (although we often like to ignore the fact) that the greater the density of housing, the less it costs to supply it to buyers or renters especially if you take into account also the other costs to society accurately in making that comparison and if you tailor the new housing for denser urban spaces such that car ownership or parking is not part of the living requirements and smaller spaces are permitted taking into account the amenities available in the public realm.   You may not need a spare room as a devoted play-ground for a lone child or even two if the apartment block is equipped with a low cost crèche where kids can play with each other while the parents do chores.
  • We know it is cheaper and faces less resistance to put up low density housing on cheap rural land but deep down we all know this comes at a significant cost to human health and to our environment.
  • We also know that low density increases the cost per capita to society of supplying services like medical, schooling, water, broadband, electricity, transport and leisure facilities and so it reduces our ability to maximise the result for the majority of people from limited recourse.
  • Similarly, although certain populist parts of our political debate would like to ignore the fact we know that there is not an unlimited pot of money to provide good services to everyone inefficiently and so we have to look for ways to do it more efficiently if we want to keep up standards as populations grow or even better improve the levels.
  • We have legacy models of living in Ireland deeply ingrained in our culture which might need to be shaken by any new approach and that is tough to do especially for politicians looking for re-election. Models to incentivise change for the greater good are therefore also required to help those discommoded by this new approach.
  • Our little Ireland is going through major shifts which were brought home to us in the recent CSO census highlights and we need to wake up and recognise them before it is too late. Even those in Dublin agree it will no longer work to have a mainly Dublin strategy and we all know we can no longer afford to try and give one of everything to everyone in the crowd.
  • There is a better way though – we know that others like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Arhus and others have already tried some of these new methods and succeeded in creating interesting dynamic urban living choices for their residents.

The Difficulties of picking a strategy

But despite all of that common ground, at this next question it starts to get really difficult.  If we know it is not working as it is currently set up, what should the other strategy be?

Let’s be honest, there is more than one solution but sadly they are not all compatible with each other.  Also, we do not have unlimited resources to throw at the problem.  We cannot start implementing multiple and different solutions at the same time.  They may not be consistent and work against each other or at best we risk losing time or wasting effort.  That was the lesson of the NSS and worse, the decentralisation efforts of Charlie McCreevy.   We have to pick an initial destination which makes sense and work towards that.  It may not be the only one but working towards only one of the numerous choices may work.

How can I explain this another way?  It might be equally enjoyable and useful to try and learn any one of a variety different languages.  But trying to learn too many at the same time may mean not mastering any and therefore being disappointed with all the effort.  On the other hand, having selected one and mastered it, we can then go on to learn another language and much of the lessons learned learning the first additional one will actually make the second task simpler.

But while we might be able to make up our minds on which language to start with, I know this is not easy for the politicians to choose that language say Spanish for us all then go explain to the French and the Italians or even the Polish why their  language was not chosen first – especially if they are constituents

But it has to be done and I’ll appeal to you to help as the planning profession have a special responsibility and skill to define the issues and win over public acceptance as we move into the important task of the successor to the must discredited NSS.

And even once selected there are other challenges

And getting to define and implement this solution is no mean feat.

  • Everyone needs to be on board and aligned

It involves all public services aligning themselves to that choice.  To work well everyone has to be on board.  To create growth cities you have to announce you will prioritise health and education there, not wait until after the builders have rolled in, people have bought houses and found themselves stranded without services.

  • We need different rules for different places and new technologies

It may also mean relaxing rules and regulations developed for older technology or with a one size fits all world and taking risks along the way to try out new approaches.

  • Do we set the quality standard high enough?

Are we capable in Ireland of setting our ambition at the right level or will we just accept a more average standard – like we as a nation tend to complain less when a restaurant delivers a less than perfect meal?  We cannot accept anything but the best in the area of public realm, public services and infrastructure.   Last week, I was in Athens with its population of over 4 million, wondering how Ireland would look if it had that many people wanting to live in Dublin?  This next slide shows some of the imagery from that city.


This is not comparing “rich” cities like Berlin or Paris to Dublin!  Remember the Greek economy generates only about the same wealth as ours but with twice the population living off of it.  We can say they have more debt to repay but yet when you travel around Athens you see some really interesting and exciting downtown urban designs and rapid transit.   Simple things are eye catching.  The metro and how clean it is.  The grass planted between the tracks of their Luas equivalent as it winds between trees and through vibrant city squares and between 5 and 6 story apartment blocks with large balconies.  These do not cost a fortune.  What I wonder though do Greek kids or visitors think of Ireland’s transport options as they queue up for buses in Lucan, Phibsboro or Ringsend?

  • Growth could come much faster than we think

In our globalised world, it is now likely we need to plan for scale of growth we have never experienced since the foundation of the state.  Of course, Brexit might bring less economic growth but it might create an environment of much population growth. Are we ready for that?

Luxembourg for example is planning today and implementing measures to double its population in the European Union.  Have we been too conditioned by rather low population growth since the 1850s?  Do we know how to plan for very significant and rapid population growth?  Not too long ago people were criticising the DAA for Terminal 2 when it was largely empty during the bust years.  Now we are seeing that fill up and starting a review to see about a Terminal 3.

I worry that we perhaps have a tendency in Ireland to look at where we are today and try and work out how to build for another 20% perhaps even 25%.  What I am talking about is asking how our country should operate and work not just with 6 million people, but perhaps with even 8 million people.   In a way that makes the task easier though as at first we are talking more about where and how the new people should live and work and less imposing new practices on the existing structures and population.  I fear though that policy makers and others find it hard to imagine this growth given Ireland’s recent history.

Let’s think about some of the external facts.  How many of the 64 million people in the United Kingdom who speak English might this weekend after Teresa May’s speeches be wondering where they might move in the European Union if the post Brexit Britain is no longer attractive?  How many of those might be thinking English speaking Ireland looks a good bet?   The population of our current second city Cork is 400,000.  If only ½ of one percent of the population of the UK chose to live in Ireland’s ‘real capita’l, they would double the size of it.  No one better than the Irish know how easily and quickly people can move.  We know just how many left Ireland for other pastures quickly when the going got tough here in recent years.

And then with the UK on the way out, how many others across Europe’s low growth southern states or low income eastern countries might be thinking a move to Ireland would also be a good thing?

And it is not right to assume that they will just land in Dublin.  The Bookings Institute have observed that in the US migrants are now skipping the big city entry points like New York or Los Angeles and moving directly to the US’s more successful smaller urban cities.

You will have heard it said that in a European Union, Ireland operates a bit more like a dispersed city state.  That is how we must now think about this?  And remember in this context that US experience shows us that small cities tend to double their populations more quickly than large ones. Could the same be true of small countries in a free mobility zone.  Jim Noonan in his very interesting book “Small Cities USA” has calculated that among the fastest growing smaller metro areas in the US, the median change in the percentage of the population who are foreign born was over 600%.  He has also noticed by the way that the more diverse the economies of those cities, the less inequality of income which is another key point as we think about strategies for our regional cities.

To well-seasoned planners like you, it will be no surprise to learn that with freedom of labour and capital, cities can grow phenomenally fast if successful (as indeed they can decline quickly too).  You’ll all know about the rapid growth of places like Las Vegas.  You might think that city is special and sui generis.  But take Salinas in California – the so called Salad Bowl of the United States on account of its agricultural hinterland.  That is a city less well known to us perhaps but where US migration has played an important role as it could in Ireland if we were to become even trendier for young Italians and Spaniards or even British kids capable of taking out a European Union passport.  That city has seen its population soar from 19,000 in 1900, 130,000 by the mid-20th Century, 250,000 by 1970 and to over 400,000 by 2000.  Now tell me, is Kilkenny or Athlone ready for that?

What might the solution start to look like?

To build capacity to absorb this future, I have thrown out the idea of building a counterbalance along the Western coast by connecting its centre to Dublin with a rapid transit option.   The Eurostar runs at over 300km an hour so you could be in Limerick from Dublin in less than 45 minutes.  Even people within a radius of Limerick, say Kerry, Clare, Tipperary and North Cork could go first to Limerick station and be in Heuston faster than they can drive from the Red Cow Roundabout at present.   I know I have not costed it yet.  But could we consider that against a backdrop of 600,000 people in Limerick as it might very well act as the catalyst for that and alleviate much pressure on Dublin.

With cities like Galway, Cork and Limerick operating much better, their surrounding hinterlands will be able to do much better too.  But then I would say that wouldn’t I, because I am from Limerick.  I am however happy to stack up my analysis with any of the other options being proposed at the moment.  But I am not saying it is the only solution, there may even be another good one too.  What I just do not want is decision paralysis as we are not able to make a preferential choice.

It is a hard truth.  Something we might not want to hear.  But if we spread our resources trying to please everyone a little first, if we pander to local politics (and voters who want to vote for local politics) particularly if it is to continue supporting outdated and models of living harmful to our environment or our health – then we will end up operating below our national potential, all becoming poorer than we should be and end up with the Buchanan spectre of underperforming our economic potential, lower income levels all around and increased emigration rather just internal migration in our country.

If we are to subsidise anything as a priority, it should be encouraging people (especially our population growth) to relocate to more desirable diverse urban areas and thereby develop more efficient living conditions for our population.  We can then create a new symbiotic relationship between urban and rural, and in turn generate greater economic spill-over for those who do chose not to live in those cities or can’t do so.

This investment will also allow us to deliver existing services more efficiently and save money for either more investment or better services levels.

There is an even more fundamental point also often lost in this debate.  Not fixing our cities to provide affordable and good living for all is also a choice which deprives equality of choice to the poorer citizens of our nation.   Good cities are better ways to offer a choice of living for all income levels close to opportunities to better their lives.  That is why people of all income levels have and continue to flock to them across the globe.

Not everyone can afford themselves or should be supported to own to buy or rent their own three bedroom single house with a private garden and a car.  If we spend scarce resources to support or ignore the societal costs of those who chose to live like that, and in the process deprive the others of the best in class urban services and rent levels which would make their lives in cities affordable and more attractive, we betray the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation by diverting resources which should be used to create the more equal access to opportunity across all income levels for which cities are much better suited.

Since 2014, I tried to get people to question whether even if individuals wanted to do or continue doing as their parents and grandparents had done it before them, the country as a whole could and should allow so much single family housing especially in suburban settings in the face of scarce resources and carbon footprint requirements.  No one said a truer word that he who said “If you love nature, stop living in it!”  Even if you want to continue to allow free choice, then at least do not subsidise it as much as you subsidise those willing to share their lives with others in more effective urban spaces.

Refusing to implement and encourage higher density models, for me means damaging our environment, and generations of young house owners will continue to be forced to abandon the natural wish to live close to where opportunity and entertainment exists and forced to seek affordability by moving further and further from their jobs, having longer and longer commuting patterns, to the detriment of the environment, their own mental and physical health and those of their children.

Four models increasing density

We’ll come back to the specifics of Ireland a little later but let me show you quickly four models (with thanks to Vishaan Chakrabarti and his excellent book “A Country of Cities”) just to make sure we are on the same page with some of the core concepts.

I did this already in Glenties but I am going to once more look at four models of increasing urbanisation and density.  For the purposes of this analysis, I am going to not even get into the particular model Ireland offers in rural Ireland – the individual house on its own acre site all set out in a line along country roads or at the edges of small towns creating a physical barrier against the extension of the walkable downtown of those towns as its populations grow.  What I think of that as a model for the future should be obvious.

  • Exurban

So on this first slide of this set:


You see something Vishaan calls the “exurban model”, describing much of what we find in those small towns in Ireland to which we have tagged on little bits of suburban housing estates and maybe a small IDA factory.  The problem is that despite the small scale, people probably still need to hop into their car to get a pint of milk or go to Mass on Sunday.  There is certainly no scale to support adequate public transport to get efficiently to the nearest urban town and dispense of a car altogether and even if the area is lucky enough to be a transport node people probably also need to drive (not walk) from their houses to use it.   In this lowly populated area, the problem of the car is not really its impact locally (at six o’clock in the morning or however early they are up to try and travel the distance to work) but it is the impact of that car when it gets to the next sized town or city which causes the greater societal problem and cost.

When we became so fond of these small towns as an integral part of Ireland a 100 years ago, they created a local week long social life and fabric for people who rarely travelled to the next largest town except on market days and on those days they contributed to life and commerce there.  Now more often they go to the other towns daily extracting work and income from those other towns, having lunch but perhaps doing little else outside of the factory or office space and while there they use up the urban spaces to park their cars there and contribute to pollution and congestion there too for those living perhaps in smaller housing units there.   This change is really important to understand as we reconsider how to reignite rural villages and towns.

Despite the fundamental changes to the way we live there, many still consider it absolutely critical to support all of the elements of the living patterns represented on this slide.  I am not saying we should remove everyone from our countryside but we need to rethink how they can live and work there more effectively and what the new role of these small towns might be if we reject the model of simply growing them as suburbanised commuter towns for other more successful larger neighbours.  These towns exist today.  How can we redesign those small towns to better encourage those living alone (especially the aging population for whom this area is home) in surrounding areas to relocate there giving the town new vibrancy?  How can we better support the development of businesses for those who want to live there which from a base in that town (rather than the large town nearby) can service the inhabitants of the larger urban areas growing nearby?  But let’s not think that it is serving that town well to just grow its population with families forced to commute long distances to earn their living.

  • Suburban

The next slide shows suburban living – for me the worst of all models and where I find the least to recommend it.


Sadly, though, we will recognise this in much of the surrounding areas of our cities especially Dublin and even worse in many of our new 25,000+ towns like Naas and Navan who now look very much like large suburbs too.  And worse still we pretty much started building our cities this way as soon as the Georgian period was over as those able to afford to do so, rejected the conditions of our inner cities fleeing to build or buy individual houses in the fields of Ranelagh or Phibsborough.  Of course, as our cities expanded these areas close to the city centre actually became areas close to town but built with the wrong density.   It’s pretty much the same mistake we are doing all over the countries in terms of how we have been allowing development at the edges of our expanding town market squares.

Of course, it might be nice for everyone to have a house and a garden but it comes at horrendous costs to society.   The cost of providing services reduces a little from Exurbia but we see little sharing of resources, public spaces etc. no walkability.  This model is a great driver for consumerism so much beloved of corporate America and indeed of Ireland more recently.

Frankly, other than in the exceptionally affluent suburbs with large houses and gardens or those historically closest to the city centres, it presents a rather unhappy choice of living, especially against a backdrop of stagnant or even declining household incomes as we fail to deal with the challenges of globalisation.

Of course, the many vested interests I mentioned earlier for different reasons will claim people should be entitled to exercise their right to choose this.  But I wonder is the choice to live driven nowadays less by a true desire to live in commuterville but rather a rejection of our badly planned urban spaces with neglected public services or (by economic necessity) to escape the escalating cost of homes caused by refusal to allow and design effectively for higher density.  If you could provide affordable homes in well-functioning denser urban areas would people still opt for suburbia.

If you had the freedom to balance it all, would the lower actual cost in euros of housing in these suburbs outweigh the huge uncounted cost in terms of quality of living?  Interestingly, this very much “made in America model” has begun to be rejected by the very nation who extolled its virtues in shows like the Brady Bunch.  For the first time since the 1920s, in 2012 the Wall Street Journal indicated that American cities are now growing faster than their suburban counterparts.

  • Urban

Model 3 on the next slide shows something we will probably recognise as Dublin or downtown Cork or Limerick.


A density of 15 inhabitants per acre – critically still too little to justify proper mass transit solutions.   But at least a greater walkability in downtown areas and bus based public transport.  The problem here is that low density downtown means overly expensive private housing close to the city centre or vain efforts to provide low income housing.  It also means insufficient availability of fast rapid public transit to allow dense nodes to develop across the city (as for example you see in Paris or London).

Because these cities are surrounded by hectares and hectares of the suburbia above, commuters from those areas drive into the city or ride buses which terminate not outside a central core area but come all the way into the congested central areas further delaying the travel times for those living in the city area even when they use public transport.

  • Hyper dense Urban

The final model shows how a city could actually operate.


It is the lifestyle we now see celebrated in Friends or Sex in the City and appealing to a greater number of people fortunate to be able to live there.  Having a density of population and greater height firstly allows for use of rapid transit expands the desirable areas and supply of housing.  It allows businesses to be distributed more broadly and thereby creates much more space and taxation income for increased public amenities and services.    As the city takes up less overall space, undeveloped countryside is closer to all and indeed can penetrate into and be made available to residents of the city via public city parks and well-designed roads with dedicated cycle paths and more efficient public transport options.  Others show us that there is much more we can do in terms of how we design these spaces not just to be melting pots of ideas and fun but to have better urban services and affordability and quality of life.

We cannot let our long term planning choices be conditioned neither by prejudices of what city living is like which are in no small part caused by ineffective planning and insufficient investment nor equally by nostalgic and unrealistic views of what country life really is about.  Think about which of the images looks the more appealing on this next few slides.


Firstly, this is probably what most of us are conditioned to think about when we think of city centre living.  Here are some other images of what it might involve.


Next, this is what we are given to think about for rural Ireland or leafy suburbia.


But this is not the only side as the next slide shows with images we will all recognise too.


Now I know you can argue different sides or this.  The point I am making is that both have pros and cons.  It is not all rural nirvana as some rural proponents would have us believe.

Standing on the shoulders of Giants

In presenting all of this I am not making it all up and it is not just Jane Jacobs although of course her seminal work is very important.  As Vishaan noted, this is “standing on the giants” of many of the greatest urban geographers.  What are some of the other facts they have otherwise thought us:

The work of Ryan Avent showed that as job density per hectare doubles, productivity rises between 6% and 28%

Vishaan himself and others have pointed out if you love nature, don’t live in it or you’ll actually kill it!

  • 905 of the GDP of the US and 86% of the jobs are generated in the metropolitan areas which occupy 3% of the land in the US. I do not have our own figures but you can be sure that they follow the same pattern
  • People often say that the world’s population is urbanising. Regrettably, this is not true.  It is in fact primarily sub-urbanising.
  • Many people cherish diversity available in cities seeing it as enriching to their own and their children’s social well-being allowing minds to be expanded and leading to greater happiness
  • Carlino, Hatterjee and Hunt show that a city with twice the employment density will exhibit a parent intensity that is 20% higher
  • Saskia Sassen has explained that while suburban life relies primarily on the investment of capital, urban life and the process of gentrification rely more heavily on the investment of labour
  • McCann and Ewing in a study of 200,000 inhabitants of 448 US counties, found that those living in sprawling car dependent built environments were more likely to suffer from obesity than those living in cities.
  • Life expectancies in America’s densest cities were reported by the American Lung Association in 2012 to be significantly longer than in areas thought to be more “natural”
  • To encourage use of public transport and rejection of private cars, the walking distance to the transport needs to be somewhere less than 10 mins, the frequency less than 15 mins although that can perhaps increase a little if new technology is used to make timetables and arrival times more dependable.

Rejection of the central core business district area.

Another very important more recent development however which is important to our debate has been the rejection of the model of larger cities based on a single central core business district which hollows out at night as people go home to their homes – see the next slide.


A good example of the new thinking is the redevelopment of the mixed amenity zone for the redevelopment of lower Manhattan after 9/11 or even the way London has developed its own distinct areas, Canary Wharf, the City, the West End, Shoreditch and the like.

The new model for cities is therefore to build clusters of high density mixed activity development around transport nodes across the urban space leaving parkland and public amenities not suburban type sprawl in between and easily accessible to those living in the nodes.


Equally important and perhaps even more so for Ireland, we have started to see internationally the emergence of the glocal city competing and winning with the mega cities – a somewhat self-contained city (in the sense of not being a commuter town for another larger area nearby) of a certain scale with multiple sectors of activity which offers the advantages of smaller local community living along with the economic prosperity that comes from being a part of the global and not just a local economy.

Jon Norman In the book I mentioned earlier, “Small Cities” has a fascinating study of 80 such cities in the United States and their differing fortunes.

In his analysis, he makes the point that population growth alone cannot be the factor of success.  Some cities have experienced very strong such growth for various reasons but have failed to develop the economic activity to provide jobs for the new arrivals with the result that unemployment and social problems soar.  Instead he measures success or otherwise of cities against three measures, population growth, change in median income and income inequality.

I am not sure therefore that these three are adequate though. To people in Dublin it will be obvious that just having higher income than another city is not necessarily success if you are coping with much higher charges like rent on account of housing shortages.  In thinking about the KPIs to measure performance of our local authorities and councillors, I would also like to see additional measures which go to quality of living not just the financial wellbeing of the population – perhaps average commuting times, square metres of green space per inhabitant and measures capturing the quality and use of public amenities.  Also, measures which go towards more sustainable living and more efficient public service delivery, lower percentage of use of private vehicles, use of bicycles or walking, greater density of population on non-green space land, energy ratings of buildings and the like. And finally, given Ireland’s history of getting it wrong on housing with soaring rent or purchase prices, something like median disposable income should be added.

Taking this a step further, given the structure of our own local property tax, we would also need to be sure to not penalise indeed rather we should actually reward authorities scoring well on these measures by making sure that they can retain more of the tax collected at local level which of course is likely to go up as the area reaps the benefits of that success and values rise or more homes are built.

I would also like to see furtherance of these KPIs being integrated into all public spending.  Perhaps we could actually increase social protection supports for those who chose to live in a way where car ownership is not necessary or who live in higher density housing and use public realm rather than holding out for a private garden.  Perhaps we could even give higher buyer purchase assistance also or otherwise reduce taxation levels for people whose lifestyle choices contribute to the KPIs and raise levels for those whose choices work in the opposite direction.   Again, some great questions for our politicians.  If we take this broader view, is it right to charge a couple who live with their kid in a 2 bedroom apartment in a 6 story apartment block valued at 300,000 on account of its city centre location and proximity to public transport and schools the same LPT as a similar family who live in a poorly insulated 3 bedroom semidetached house situated in a low density zone where cars are required for travel?   To listen to the current debate, the clamour is rather to reduce the latter’s charges as they have less public services and need to pay for the operation of the car rather than reward the former family who have made a choice which benefits society more.

What does this all mean for Ireland?

So coming back to our topic of overall strategy for our country, it’ll be easier now to understand the more radical suggestion I am advocating for Dublin and Ireland.

  • A Western Economic Corridor

When I have spoken about this before, I suggested a plan whereby we look at Ireland rather as a single global city with urban clusters interconnected by rapid transit.  Happily train speeds now make that much more realistic than was ever the case when Buchanan presented his enlightened analysis of the solution back in the 1960 and allows to perhaps add other areas.

The idea to ensure balance east and west too was that urban clusters would be generated in places like Galway, Cork, Limerick and other places (but only enough that each had sufficient scale and density in and of themselves to justify the investment in public transport connectivity).  We would then move to build those areas into cities of several hundred thousands of people each with their own range of economic clusters of activity.

Each are actually very small and with less historical legacy suburban development than Dublin.  It seems to me then that we then need to encourage those cities to develop so as to create a new attractive affordable Irish model of multi-family dwelling living for our incremental population growth using higher densities than suburban living allows.  We should also learn from the rejection of central business districts to develop those models not along the lines of Dublin with all of the buses and transit designed to bring people from the edges into the centre.  We should plan the growth of our new glocal cities as a patchwork of local high density neighbourhoods where people live, walk to jobs, schools, medical facilities, entertainment and live close to the green parks which surround each.

That means incorporating in those urban areas as a priority before (but not to the exclusion as resources allow of) other areas much better top end public realm and shared public services, to a quality like we have never seen in the country, facilitated by the economies of scale in delivery coming from that density and the fact that everyone is willing to share.

To alleviate both excessive growth in Dublin and suburban sprawl which is killing rural Ireland, they have to become the cool hip places to live with the best education and medical facilities in the country.  We cannot force people to live there but we can do a lot more by delivering better services and affordable housing to make it the best choice for them.

  • A carless community with new well designed public realm and services

To put it simply, what that means is that people become happy to give up their cars.  We get over the status symbol snobbery indoctrinated to us since we were kids.  We make schools, work and other amenities accessible by public transport or on foot or bike schemes.  We provide storage in apartment blocks and around town for bikes instead of cars.  To prevent soaring prices in one area, we create districts with housing, schooling, jobs and amenities connected by rapid transit.

You have all heard I am sure of unconscious bias in terms of diversity in the workplace.  We see another example of it in this space for example even in the language we use. Why is it a housing strategy?  We all know a “house” is a dwelling especially with a ground floor and perhaps one of two other floors. Why not refer to it as an accommodation crisis and strategy?  Other surburban bias is evident in our rules and specifically our revised building regulations.

It would seem that they were written with a commendable desire to expand the size of apartments. But I would ask two questions today.  Were these really meant for a sort of suburbian urban space or centre close to a transport node.

For example, in much of central Paris, the average cost of a square metre of an apartment in many central areas is 10,000 per m2 to buy?  I start with the idea that I would like a large number not just come elite of our society to live in those areas too, in Dublin, in Cork, in Limerick.  The new guidelines introduce a minimum size for a studio of 40 m2.  That essentially means that if Dublin as a city becomes very successful and has property prices like Paris, the cheapest form of accommodation by structure for empty nesters or even young professionals tends towards the equivalent of 400,000 euros. Houses and larger homes will by definition be more expensive.  So it would require massive intervention by the state to subsidise living for many people in the cities, even those who might have been able to afford a mortgage of 300,000.

Another bias against density in the regulations is essentially a failure to take account of what should be very significant public realm amenities which should be present in those areas (although maybe this is a recognition our spaces are not working well and an effort to push the responsibility onto developers rather than planning authorities).  For example, while car parking might be dispensed with or avoided in “very accessible areas” (but it is up to the developer to make the case rather than the other way around), “as a benchmark guideline for apartments, an absolute minimum or one secure covered bicycle parking space per unit should be required” and this to be increased in more urban contexts and inner urban areas.  How does this really gel with a walk to work environment or good rapid transport.  Does every inhabitant of Manhattan or Paris really strive to own and park a bike?  How are city-bikes factored into this?  And why is it that cities like Copenhagan can aspire to the provision of covered secure municipal parking for bikes but our authorities can’t?

Even for other apartment living, the starting bias is not that no parking should be provided if local authorities provide adequate public transport, municipal parking or ride-sharing/car rental in the neighbourhood.  Rather the “benchmark guideline” is that for apartments, one car parking space per unit should generally be required.   While it can be reduced or avoided in “very accessible” areas it might even be increased in a more suburban context.  The problem for me is that a bureaucratic onus is put on the developer as “the onus will be on the applicate to demonstrate to the planning authorities why car parking provision can be avoided and that the site is sufficiently well located in relation to employment, amenities and services that other non-car based modes of transport will meet the needs of residents.  Surely, the local authority knows this best and more critically should know what is in the planning elsewhere?  This type of guideline makes no provision for improvements within the control alone of the authorities and also opens up the development to planning appeals from vested interests who can pounce on this.  Why not instead, simply zone areas (for example anywhere in our living cities initiative areas) as automatically qualifying for the non provision of car parking and indeed bike parking and spur the local authorities to improve the services and reduce the cost of refurb or rebuild.

Indeed, encouraging people to forego cars of their own is not only good for their pocket but it also means that they are more willing to use shared cars which makes that service work better for all. Local authorities could encourage this by making it easier for the location of facilities for businesses providing hire by the hour rental cars at nearby transit nodes or by the opening up of place to place transport to the kind of car pooling and sharing economy models we see in other countries but sadly not yet here in Ireland.

Another idea along this vein in the hopefully rare situations where it is concluded that car parking still needs to be provided might be that the spaces remain the property of the management company, to be rented by them to occupiers (or indeed others) at a market rent.  The rent collected could then be used to reduce the normal annual maintenance fees thereby rewarding those without cars essentially with reduced maintenance fees and opening up the complex to people on lower incomes.

And remember the benefits are numerous.  The non-car owner saves at least 6,000 euros of post-tax income to spend on their kids and their own health and enjoyment.   They are more likely to walk or cycle rather than get in a vehicle.  Driveway car parking can also disappear as a feature of developments which not only returns the driveway to grass or common use but also gives back the kerb for on street parking for others or even less interrupted bike lanes.

A transition plan

Many ideas however worthy fail as no one can find a way to implement them and garner public support.   That is where you all come in.

Even if we all believe in the world I am presenting, there is no magic wand to implement it.

I am suggesting therefore a transition model to a better world for all might be to aggressively try the new thinking about spatial design out in a glocal city where local government and the local residents might be more willing to try out new ideas but where there is already a fabric of urban living in existence so that solutions to the legacy problems elsewhere can be trialled.   It will involve relaxing regulations around public transport and sharing of those private cars which remain to reduce single car journeys.

In this way, developing a better model of urban living, involving very considerable investment outside of Dublin might not only show us there is an alternative and better way.  It should also release some of the pressure in Dublin at present by creating an attractive counter force when it came to new choices of where to live.   It might mean that the migration we are inevitably facing still into the future would be migration to not just Dublin but potentially to different clusters in the country which have achieved the necessary scale.

Everyone knows I am from Limerick so let’s not hide that fact.  I do however think that from what I have observed and for obvious geographical reasons, Limerick is up to becoming that test location.   If I were from Cork, you might take that suggestion more easily.  That does not meant however that it is not without merit just because it is a Limerick man proposing it.  I have had the dual advantage in thinking about this of knowing that city with all of its great strengths and weaknesses as a child but also I have worked closely with the city in the last three to four years and know it is ready for such a challenge.  And of course there are probably other cities too who might be up for the same challenge.  It is just I myself could not say the same for others with confidence nor do I know those cities well enough to be able to propose such a detailed plan for them.

So what therefore am I suggesting?  Well first, that building on my idea from above of a more balanced Ireland viewed not as Dublin with declining regions but rather as a global city of urban clusters, we try and create that counterbalance with a concentrated and focused effort to build up a western economic corridor between Galway and Cork – an idea not too dissimilar to that of Buchanan in the late 1960’s but updated to reflect the improved connectivity about to be opened between Limerick and Galway and the development of Galway since the 1960’s as an important cluster in the medical sciences area in particular.

I would hope you agree from the analysis above that we have a long way to go to better plan best in class urban spaces.  I suggest therefore we think bold by imagining and later building the first of those alternative location in a space between Ennis and Limerick and therefore centrally benefitting Cork, Galway, Tralee, Nenagh, Portlaoise and the like.

We challenge the local authorities and populations of Limerick-Ennis to come up with a plan to accommodate 300,000-400,000 of additional growth, which would grow the urban space into a scale to make it likely to be relevant internationally.  We demand that the authorities define for inclusion into the next local development plan what it would take to make it one of the most desirable urban places in which to live in the country.

We would be able to turbo-charge progress by deciding at a national level to locate there in priority any new incremental national public services, like new 3rd level educational places and new national level hospital services.  Arhus did something similar and so now a city of only 250,000 people houses Denmark’s largest hospital, is building a rapid transit system to accommodate and expected growth of population to 375,000 by 2030.   It has an average age of 37.5 making it Denmark’s youngest city with a largely urbanely distributed population.

We could also challenge that plan to rethinking how we should plan, resource and build the rest of the rural towns and areas of our country which are in the hinterland of that expanded city and what new symbiotic relationship can be developed between these two areas so that they become not polarised but developed so as to complement each other.

At present, our regional cities remain sub-scale, many people are living undesirable suburban car-dominated commuting lifestyles and indeed many operate just as commuter towns for Dublin rather than sub-clusters of economic growth in their own right.    Let’s use that plan to pilot a redesigned urban areas to have true urban living which means areas where one can have the freedom to live without a car.  Then roadtested (pardon the pun) and as fast as resources allow, we can move the approach to Galway, Cork, Waterford and perhaps Kilkenny, Athlone and others who will each have already been benefiting in any event from the growth of this counterbalance to Dublin centrally located between all three of those five locations.

And what does this mean for rural Ireland?  Right now, most if not all of it is suffering from its distance from Dublin.  This would start to change. For example, west Clare or Golden Vale towns would have less reason to be seeking FDI investment but could rather focus more to reverse rural decline by concentrating on tourism and other services for a Limerick home to 500,000 people and Galway perhaps 200,000 or 300,000.   Instead, its towns would be thriving locations for local services to the urban residents across tourism, food industries and the like.

I shall leave you with just one last slide which shows two alternatives for consideration.



The blue line shows the amount of our country which currently finds itself within 125km of the centre of population centres of 500,000+ – i.e., Dublin mapped against the population changes we witnessed for the last sentence in each county.  Then by contrast, you see the greater impact in terms of coverage if we could grow only one city, in this case centrally located Limerick, as a counterbalance glocal city with 500,000+ of population to Dublin.

It is pretty obvious how much more proximate all other cities become and much of the rest of the country’s towns and rural areas with the exception of the norther western countries.

An approach like this would allow us to adjust the models for the covered cities and towns to reflect the expanding hinterland areas and then allow us to concentrate different resources in the North-West, perhaps by having even more focused investment in marine and tourism sectors.

I am sure we will have a lot to discuss at the Q&A session but I shall leave it for now. Thank you for your very kind attention.

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One Comment

  1. Darragh Rogan

    16th October 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Great piece. I believe that by engaging the population, to show them that urban life is more beneficial (for all the reasons you cite) their demand will drive a change in policy


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