New Urbanism could make the city habitable

24th January 2001

WHEN Peter Bacon released his last report there was a lot of negative reaction to the suggestion that housing densities should be increased. The Evening Herald put a picture of Bacon’s palatial pad in the country on the front page.

We were asked to draw the conclusion that our masters wanted to live in manors while we lived in rabbit hutches.

I must admit that was my reaction too.

That was until I came across the New Urbanist movement. This is a revolutionary (but common sense) reaction of a new generation of planners and architects to the problems of urban sprawl.

In Dublin this movement could be the cavalry coming in the nick of time to save us from the twin crises of traffic and housing.

Let’s think about the problem for a minute. Let’s consider a few ifs.

If the population of greater Dublin grows by 300,000 over the next 10 years; and if we keep building on new land at the present rate of 10 houses per acre; and if the household size reduces to 2 per house as looks likely; then we are going to cover some 150,000 acres of land with new houses.

That’s not counting the local roads needed to access these houses, or the fact that these people will need to shop, drink, have a laugh or chat, and will, of course, want to go into town.

Naturally, nobody will walk anywhere as nowhere useful will be within walking distance.

It’s obvious that we need a Plan B.

Plan B roughly involves putting all those people into the space that we occupy now. New Urbanism describes how it might be done.

Take the example of Fairview. Fairview is roughly the Clontarf West D ward which takes in the park, the area opposite the park back to Marino and the Fairview Strand area. It is home to about 2,000 people.

Say that we decide to increase the population of Fairview to 4,000 people.

At first sight this would look like a bad idea to most people. People think that more people means less facilities per person.

But the opposite is true. Increasing the density of population creates a critical mass for a greater number of businesses and facilities. New restaurants, bookshops, pubs and clubs become viable.

And all are within walking distance. The shops that are there can expand their range of goods, lessening the tendency of people to travel out of their area.

The new Fairview would be limited to the same number of parking spaces thus reducing car ownership. The roads would be redesigned to suit pedestrians while public transport would be increased, again with a greater population density to support it.

Where would the new houses be built? By infill and by redeveloping some residential areas.

If you look at the aerial pictures in the property supplements you will see that behind many of the houses and shops, Dublin is empty. Note that I am not suggesting that we build on Fairview Park.

If all this sounds too idealistic there are sound commercial and investment principles behind it.

In administration, the new Fairview is much cheaper to maintain because it has a greater taxpayer to infrastructure ratio.

People do want to live in these areas. Just look at the prices for apartments in town compared with starter homes in the suburbs.

In America new mortgages are on offer for people without cars that take into account the £4,000 a year it costs to keep a car.

And as I’ve said above, new businesses are attracted by the custom while older shops redevelop to claim new customers.

So what’s stopping us?

We need to change the planning laws and culture. The idea of zoning (under attack from other quarters) has largely had its day.

We shouldn’t be afraid to challenge free market ideology in order to make long-term decisions. The new maximum limit to superstores is a good start.

Above all, urban development must be driven by planning rather than by developers wanting to throw up a few houses here and there.

As well as that…

Trying to feel sorry for Liam

BY the time you read this Liam Lawlor should have completed his stint in prison.

I wonder if people have thought out all the issues here, given the glee with which the sentence was greeted.

After all, a clear concept in human rights is the right to silence. But the Supreme Court has said that our Liam (I’m a constituent) has to lay bare the innards of all his business dealings whether connected with the planning tribunal or not.

We’re getting close to the argument that if you’ve nothing to hide – you’ve nothing to fear. Down that road is the route to a police state.

Because there are legitimate reasons why you mightn’t want your affairs made public.

You could be cheating on your business partner or your wife. You may be investing in the arms trade while a member of CND. You might be getting a nose job done.

None of this is illegal. And none of it is the business of the courts or the State.

I’m hoping that our politicians and judges have considered all this.

Because we have now sent a man to jail without proof of any criminal doings, except for refusing to talk. If he doesn’t co-operate we can keep him there forever.

Isn’t this even a little bit dodgy?