Arresting the Decline of Irish Cities

After returning from my first visit to Finland my wife thought it was most disloyal to declare I wanted to become a Finn. Why?  Because it appeared to me that the Finns I met had come close to finding the ideal formula for contemporary living.  While most are city dwellers they have humble retreats in the countryside also. A compact but excellently-designed apartment is complemented by a rustic cabin hidden in the trees on some small island in the Baltic or by a rural lake.

The simplicity of the cabin contrasted with the sophistication of the apartment.  Finns seem to lead parallel lives: the urban one produces world-beating advanced technology and the rural one reverts to simple living.  The cabins are discrete: mostly hidden in the trees, constructed using local materials, respecting vernacular architecture.  Some have running water, many still have dry toilets.  The need for showers and baths is circumvented by the daily stint in the wood-fired sauna followed by a plunge in the Baltic or the lake.  Only foreigners wear togs.

By accident or design, most likely the latter, the Finns have created conditions for modern living that appear idyllic to Irish commuters or those who despair as ribbon development slices through fragile countryside. Ireland could learn from the Finns.

Finnish cities work. Helsinki, a city of only half a million, has an interlinking street-car, bus and subway network that makes getting to work a swift and simple matter. Streams of commuter trains shuttle between the surrounding municipalities and the city. Clean Baltic waters lap the shore as yachts tack between the islands.

Busses are operated by independent companies. Bus routes and timetables are determined by the city. Contracts for routes are allocated on a competitive basis. The company offering the best quality-price ratio gets the contract. Quality points are awarded for a variety of factors ranging from bus size to comfort levels.

Well designed apartment buildings cluster about landscaped parks close to the city centre. The living is easy in Finnish cities and the countryside still retains its charm.

By contrast Irish cities have become sprawling, frustrating places in which to work or live. In the fragile countryside, towns and villages have been deformed by careless incoherent development.

Recent census data highlight the problems of Ireland’s regional cities. Suburbs are sprawling outwards into open countryside while the inner cities of Cork, Limerick and Waterford are in decline. This is more than a matter of passing statistical interest: it concerns the future prospects of Ireland’s regions. For, in the evolving knowledge economy attractive well-managed cities of scale and vision are the key drivers of regional development. European regions with such cities are likely to prosper; others to decline.

The drivers of the knowledge economy are mobile and choose to live and invest in places where the quality of life is attractive. The life-styles of many who find themselves trapped in the commuter belts about  Ireland’s cities offers a dismal scenario to those contemplating investing here.

Ireland lacks an overall vision for the development of its cities and countryside. More of the same is not the answer. A vision for future development is required that catches the national imagination and gives encouragement to believe that things are going to become steadily better rather than progressively worse.

The absence of vision for the evolution of Irish cities is aggravated by the absence of coherent local governance.

Most regional urban areas have long outgrown their city boundaries. As a result County Councils, rather than City Councils, have responsibility for planning the outward growth of the cities by default. The result is a lose/lose scenario.  The city authorities are frustrated in their attempts to devise coherent plans for the development of urban areas while the county authorities are distracted from their prime task: planning and managing the development of rural towns, villages and countryside.

Addressing this matter lies close to the heart of any attempt to improve the prospects for Irish cities and countryside. Politically the matter is challenging because each county resists the expansion of the city.  Kilkenny County Council opposes the logical extension of the Waterford city boundary and Limerick City has been frustrated for the past 50 years by both County Limerick and Clare.  As a result the Limerick City Council now controls a geographical area which is only 25 percent of the Limerick urban area. No coherent plans exist. Local energies and emotions are dissipated rather than united in planning good futures and attracting investment to the cities and their hinterland. As a result, regional investment has slowed. The hearts of Irish cities are in decline while their suburbs sprawl into countryside over which city authorities have no control.

Only central government can address the matter and ensure that there are rational governance structures at local level. But given the nature of the Irish electoral system successive governments have found reason to duck the sensitive issue and over the years have done no more than urge the local authorities to collaborate and find solutions. The outcomes have been as fruitless as the urgings are cynical.

The Local Government Act 2001 was seen as a hopeful development. It made provision for a permanent Local Government Commission to deal with a wide range of local government issues including local authority boundaries. The new Commission could help bypass the political log-jam and provide the framework within which cases for boundary extensions could be objectively examined. However the intentions of the Oireachtas and the wishes of the cities have been frustrated during the past five years: the necessary ministerial action to establish the Commission has not been taken.

There is still hope that Minister Dick Roche, who has taken a special interest in the matter, will have the courage to establish the Commission and permit the objective examination of the urban boundary proposals from the growing queue of regional cities to proceed. Until this happens Ireland’s urban areas will continue to grow without coherent planning or governance…and be bypassed by knowledge-economy investment that gravitates to vibrant cities with vision and effective governance.

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