The planners get it right at last

24th March 2000

This week’s decision by An Bord Pleanála to refuse the expansion of the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre could well mark a turning point in the development of this city. And the signal it sent to the the developers of the Spencer Dock project will have them reaching for their Rennies.

An Bord Pleanála decided that the plan to double the size of the Liffey Valley centre couldn’t fit in with the orderly development of West Dublin for two reasons. The first was traffic and the second was the impact on local retailers.

This is probably the first time that a major authority in Ireland has ruled that our ballooning ‘car culture’ is unsustainable.

The idea that Dublin will have four or five major shopping areas and that everyone will drive to them is ludicrous. We couldn’t build the roads necessary and we shouldn’t have to put up with the degradation to the environment that such a strategy would cause.

Put simply, two competing philosophies are at work here – Big is Best and Small is Beautiful.

The first philosophy is fuelled by the billions of pounds sloshing around in pension funds and financial institutions looking for a reasonable return. Large shopping centres are a sound long-term bet and one big project is easier to manage than twenty little ones. And the big developers like a project to match their egos.

The second philosophy has, unfortunately, few proponents. In this case the objectors were actually the local traders acting out of commercial interest. Good for them but the rest of us had a huge stake in this also.

The large developments are sucking the life out of our communities. Right around Dublin the small parade of shops is dying in front of our eyes. How often do you come across these little streets of four or five businesses now? They can be recognised by the peeling paint and the boarded up shop where the butchers use to be. Instead of walking to buy our beef we now drive to the mall.

Local communities are being weakened by the exodus of local traders and the downgrading of local focal points. When we need local networks to fight crime or stand up for each other we will find that they are gone. People are increasingly forming circles of friends outside their geographical communities.

The people we need to fight these large developments are local politicians. But in the case of the Liffey Valley centre the objectivity of the local council was compromised by the fact that the council stood to gain millions in extra rates annually. The politicians will argue that a lot of work could be done with the extra funds but that is short-term thinking.

The practical problem is that it is difficult to measure the value of local communities and areas in pounds and pence. Because developers are proactive and talk cash up front politicians can be persuaded. Local communities can only object and are then seen as obstructive and reactionary.

The decision of An Bord Pleanála will at least stop the gallup of the developers. But this is not enough. Our planners need to get in first with local development plans on a scale that strengthens local communities.

The economies of scale that so favour the big development must be matched by the long-term needs of our communities. Human scale development I say, and roll on the Spencer Dock decision.