I pulled together some notes when speaking to Rory Hearne for an article he was writing on the topic for the Irish Examiner. I am putting them up here without much additional elaboration, but they are based on research from an ongoing IRC-funded project that I have been working on along with Kathleen Stokes.

The question of causes and solutions to housing vacancy is a complicated one, and while it can’t be solved overnight there is an urgent need for steps to be taken that begin to address it.

As it stands, there are a series of challenges relating to identifying, measuring and bringing vacant housing stock back into use.

Housing vacancy is notoriously difficult to identify and accurately measure. We currently measure housing vacancy at the national level through the Census and the Geodirectory address database. However, in both cases data on vacancy is not the primary thing being collected, but is rather a secondary dataset generated through other data collection priorities. The Census has arguably the wider coverage because enumerators can get access to apartment buildings, which are not accessible to other forms of measurement. But because the Census occurs at 5 year intervals it can only offer a static picture that doesn’t capture a lot of the flux in property markets.

In addition to long-term vacancy, there will be short term vacancies of various types – properties for sale, going through probate, houses as part of the Fair Deal scheme, Airbnb or other short term rentals – captured in this overall figure by virtue of being unoccupied on the night of the census. The types of vacancy that may occur are diverse and present different challenges from a classification and policy action perspective. Similarly, determining the length of time vacant can be a challenge for existing measures.

Without having an accurate picture of the levels of different types of vacant housing, it can be a challenge to implement policies to bring vacant stock back into use. What is clear is that different types of vacancy produce unique challenges and that the geographical and property market context influences the form that potential solutions might take.

The government approach that was initiated under Rebuilding Ireland has essentially tried to use market mechanisms to incentivise owners to either sell or lease the property to local authorities for social housing. The uptake of these schemes has been modest and geographically uneven. Waterford city has brought half of all the housing units under these schemes back into use, for example, through a coordinated and targeted approach.

But those working on bringing vacant housing back into use have highlighted a range of other barriers. These include regulatory issues like fire safety standards or conservation of structures with heritage status; market factors like land speculation and site assembly but also market failures to provide appropriate finance to build-out small and medium sized projects; and governance issues relating to the capacity of local authorities to enforce existing measures.

One significant issue underpinning all of this is the strength of private property rights inferred by the constitution. Put simply, the greatest barrier to bringing vacant housing stock back into use is that many owners simply don’t want to engage in doing so. Given the length of time involved, the resources of labour and time needed and the unpredictable outcomes, local authorities have indicated that they often only initiate compulsory purchase orders (CPO) as a last resort. They have much greater success with owners who are willing to engage.

The flip side of the slow take up of these ‘carrots’ is of course is that the existing ‘sticks’ do not sufficiently penalise owners for leaving property vacant. However while taxes on vacant property are certainly part of the puzzle, they won’t provide a silver bullet to fixing problems of vacancy. This is in part because there are many different types of vacant property and reasons for it being vacant; indeed, incentives may be a more pragmatic approach to unlocking some in the short term. But it is also because our property and land markets – especially our housing markets – are dysfunctional in many respects. Vacancy is one component and feature of this dysfunction. Therefore, it is impossible to solve vacancy without also addressing these wider problems with how urban development and housing works in the interests of some groups and against those of others.

A starting point is thinking about ways to make it less attractive to sit on vacant property as a speculative asset. But this is only a beginning. Building from an expanded typology or set of classifications, more detailed qualitative research is needed on the institutional, legal, market and social barriers involved in bringing different forms of vacant properties back into use in different geographical areas. Tackling problems of vacancy requires moving beyond technocratic fixes and opens up more fundamental questions about how we value urban space, prioritise particular forms of development, and balance the rights and responsibilities of property as absolute right to exclude against the common good.

Cian O’Callaghan

The CSO has just issued its annual Population and Migration Estimates for 2021, and 5+ million is the headline figure. That’s the estimated population of the Republic of Ireland – the first time the population has been this high since 1851. It’s an important milestone.

There’s another important story in the estimates, though. This is what has happened to migration patterns in the past year. The 2020 estimates covered the period to the end of April 2020, just as Covid was beginning to make its presence felt. The 2021 estimates cover the period from May 2020 to April 2021, and give the first indication of how Covid has affected migration to and from Ireland.

The first important point to note is that immigration to Ireland has dropped by around 24%: from 85,400 in 2020 to 65,200 in 2021. The last time immigration levels were this low was in 2013. While there have been falls across all immigrant groups, there’s a particularly marked fall in immigrants with a nationality other than UK or EU. This figure was 30,400 in 2020: it has more than halved, to 14,100, in 2021. This is probably largely connected to student visa holders: with the move to online teaching, students were no longer required to move to Ireland.

The second important point to note is that the level of emigration from Ireland remained relatively stable: 54,000 in 2021, compared to 56,500 in 2020. However, the proportion of Irish nationals emigrating has dropped to 42.2% in 2021, the lowest in a number of years. In contrast, the proportion of emigrants with a nationality other than UK or EU has increased, from 12.6% in 2015 to 28.5% in 2021: this is likely to include students, workers, and their families.

There have also been changes in where emigrants are going. In 2021, 33% of all emigrants (18,200) went to the UK. In 2020, that proportion was 17.6%. In contrast, 12.6% of all emigrants went to Australia, Canada or the US in 2021, compared with 27% in 2020. There’s a long tradition of people moving from Ireland to the UK at times of crisis. Most recently, the numbers emigrating to the UK jumped from 7,600 in the year to April 2008, just before the period of austerity, to 20,000 just three years later, in the year to April 2011. Writing in 2008, geographer Bronwen Walter described:

“the ongoing need for Britain to provide a ‘safety-valve’ for vulnerable Irish people”

Bronwen Walter, 2008

This is evident in these Population and Migration Estimates, with Britain again becoming a significant destination for emigrants from Ireland.

The impact of the fall in immigration levels in particular, coupled with the increase in emigration of ‘Rest of World’ nationals (those with a nationality other than UK or EU), is beginning to be felt across Ireland. In the recent past, jobs in sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing and services were often taken by immigrants. These are sectors that are now reporting labour shortages (see Irish Times, Dáil Debates, Irish Examiner, and Farmers Journal).

As we emerge from Covid restrictions, it’s unclear what will happen to migration patterns in the near future, and what this will mean for Irish society. However, we do need to pay attention to what this CSO publication shows us: ongoing high levels of emigration, the continued significance of Britain as an emigrant destination (even with Brexit), and the important – if often hidden – role that migrants play in key sectors of the Irish economy and society.

Mary Gilmartin

Embodied carbon is the elephant in the room that may stymie all of our best-laid housing plans

One of the biggest myths we tell ourselves, in the context of the unfolding climate emergency, is that our normative expectations of the future can, more or less, carry on as normal. This applies equally to national political debates around how to solve the housing crisis, as to anything else. Whether on the left or the right, everybody agrees that more housing supply is the answer, although the manner in which that supply should be delivered of course differs markedly.

Yet, more often than not, the issue of expanding housing supply is discussed in near total isolation from the climate crisis and how we respond to it. The most recent figures from the Central Bank suggest that approximately 34,000 housing units will be required each year for at least the next decade – a figure which is largely accepted as gospel by all sides of the housing debate and likely to be included as the headline target in the Government’s forthcoming ‘Housing for All’ plan. Other estimates, such as those from Trinity College Dublin’s Ronan Lyons, puts the required number at closer to 47,000 per annum. Regardless, the general consensus is that an awful lot of new-build housing supply is required.

Private developers and the construction industry respond with glee to such projections, using them to put downward pressure on planning and building regulations, and to delegitimate public opposition to the ever increasing preponderance of very poor quality mass housing schemes. Activists on the left, on the other hand, argue that the government must commit to a doubling housing capital expenditure, as recommended by the ESRI, so as to achieve a build target of at least 20,000 public homes annually, insisting that anything less is just tinkering around the edges of an ever ballooning crisis.

The trouble is that building new housing is an incredibly carbon and energy intensive process, a fact which gets virtually no coverage whatsoever in the debates. While the data inevitably varies, research has shown that, on average, the carbon emissions associated with the construction of a new dwelling in Ireland, known as embodied carbon, is around 30 tonnes. This does not include the ongoing operational emissions associated with the use of the dwelling over its life-cycle or its eventual demolition, just the upfront carbon emitted during the manufacturing of the building materials, the transport of those materials to the site and the construction process itself.

Traditional cement and concrete based products, which remain highly predominant in new building in Ireland, account for roughly half of this embodied carbon. Indeed, concrete has been described as the most environmentally destructive material on earth, emitting 2.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases annually and responsible for 8% of global emissions, approximately three times that of aviation. The figures on worldwide concrete use are truly staggering. Since 2003, for example, China has poured more concrete every three years than the USA managed in the entire 20th century. If concrete was a country, it would be the third highest emitter of carbon in the world and it is the second most used substance globally, after water.

In Ireland, buildings are responsible for approximately 40% of energy related carbon emissions, with 28% coming from operational carbon and 11% coming from embodied carbon. However, while the policy and media attention has focused almost exclusively on the issue of operational carbon, such as the roll-out of energy retrofitting programmes, according to the Irish Green Building Council (IGBC), following the introduction of new building regulations in 2019, it is embodied carbon which now accounts for the major proportion (c.50%) of the total life-cycle carbon emissions of new homes.

Taking an average value of 30 tonnes of carbon per dwelling unit, building 34,000 houses would result in the production of over 1 million tonnes of emissions every year. The IGBC has estimated that, unless embodied carbon is radically reduced, constructing the 500,000 housing units envisaged as part of the National Planning Framework, and all the associated infrastructure, would result in between 38 and 50 million tonnes of carbon being emitted over the period to 2040.

The recently adopted Climate Change & Low Carbon Amendment Act 2021, however, requires that Ireland’s emissions fall by an annual average of approximately 3.5 million tonnes per year to 2030, halving our total annual emissions to just 31 million tonnes per annum by the end of the decade. It is evident that when housing supply and climate targets are set out side-by-side, the dilemma is stark. Developing that many new housing units while seeking to reduce emissions by that magnitude is problematic, to say the very least. The irony here is that if we were actually currently solving our housing crisis by providing much more supply, we would be simultaneously making our climate challenge worse, much worse.

At present, there are no firm proposals to regulate embodied carbon in Ireland. However, there are some promised changes at EU level and a number of European countries have already introduced measures which may ultimately have an influence here. However, given the immense lobbying power of the Irish Concrete Federation (ICF) and the general deference to the construction and property sectors, alongside the huge political pressure to urgently deliver new, affordable homes, it is probably unlikely to expect Ireland to be an early mover on enhanced regulation.

The difficulty of course is that concrete is both abundant and cheap, very cheap, accounting for just 3.4% of the cost of an average semi-detached house, according to the ICF. It is also a brilliantly adaptable building material, hence its ubiquity. The ICF estimate that delivering 500,000 new houses over the next 20 years will require the production of 1.5 billion tonnes of aggregates, which is also essential for concrete and cement production. The industry has therefore been busy lobbying for new fast-track planning rules to facilitate expanded quarry development, despite it’s rather dubious history of planning and regulatory compliance. To this day, there are dozens of illegal quarries operating throughout the country, causing significant environmental damage. Even during the recent high-profile mica and pyrite scandals, political criticism of the industry has been extremely muted.

The IGBC, on the other hand, whom have been a very lonely voice in trying to raise the profile of the hidden significance of embodied carbon, has been advocating for Ireland to commit to Net Zero Carbon Buildings, which would account for both the upfront and ongoing carbon emissions. At the very least, this would involve prioritising alternative and more sustainable construction materials which are low or zero carbon, such as the greater use of ‘green concrete’ and locally sourced timber products. The bad news is that many of these alternatives are in their infancy or face significant technical barriers to adoption, not least cost. Worse still, is that the main problem is really a matter of scale and the sheer demand for new buildings and urban infrastructure, which greatly outruns any carbon efficiency gains.

The IPCC Report published this week has unequivocally shown that we have entered the age of consequences and we are witnessing first-hand the devastating effects of global heating wreaking havoc around the world. Increasingly our lives will become dictated by rigorous adherence to carbon budgets, due to be published shortly, which will intersect all policy spheres, including housing, in multiple, complex ways. It is perhaps because of our inherited, implicit biases towards departmentalised, technical and supply-side solutions that we consistently fail to apprehend that climate change is a classic wicked problem. For example, we are already experiencing a chronic shortage in the supply of timber and any major expansion of the use of alternative low-carbon building technologies to address embodied carbon, especially the use of biomaterials, would have very significant knock-on implications for land use, particularly in the context of competing priorities such as biodiversity, carbon sequestration and food production. Similarly, Ireland is currently experiencing acute skilled labour shortages and lack of capacity in the construction sector, exacerbated by the pandemic, which may even see it have to choose between building new homes and retrofitting existing homes.

University College Dublin academic, Aidan Regan, has been to the fore in attempting to break down the silo mentality infecting housing policy debates, insisting instead that it must be seen as part of a broader urban crisis. To this, we urgently need to add the climate crisis – not just in respect of the relatively well understood issue of operational emissions, but also the very significant hidden challenge of embodied carbon. Moreover, achieving emissions targets directly calls into question Ireland’s preferred means of delivering new housing – the private market. Over the past decade, government has repeatedly foot-dragged on introducing higher building efficiency standards, fearful that increasing costs would be an impediment to supply and deter international capital. Given the basic profit fundament governing the property market, it is probably unreasonable to expect that it will be capable of delivering the homes needed in the context of an increased regulatory burden. This is, yet again, further justification for a much greater direct state involvement in the regulation and supply of new housing.

All of this of course will also have profound implications for how we plan and develop our cities and towns into the future. It is often said ‘the greenest building is one that is already built’ and it is estimated that Ireland has somewhere in the region of 200,000 vacant homes, enough for at least six years supply. Currently housing targets are allocated centrally and handed down from on high for local councils to prepare their zoning plans. It’s a simple numbers game. However, living within carbon budgets will mean that planning policy will have to become less about zoning, supply and densification within ‘compact growth’ principles but increasingly about how to avoid new building and infrastructure altogether through the creative reuse and repurposing of existing built stock within existing urban footprints. It will also mean that, instead of slavishly responding to market vagaries, planning will have to become more interventionist and directly involved in dictating what gets built, where, when and by whom (e.g. homes v. hotels etc).

Source: IGBC

Using a simple linear trajectory, the MarEI Institute at University College Cork has estimated that Ireland’s maximum carbon budget to 2030 is in, or around, 423 million tonnes. This budget will be subject to many competing demands (e.g. agriculture) and very complex decarbonisation challenges (e.g. transport). On our current trajectory we are estimated to emit 654 million tonnes over the same period. The challenge is without parallel. How we choose to spend our available carbon budget will be a matter of political will and choice involving very painful decisions, at least in the short-run, in staring down business-as-usual vested interests.

None of this, of course, is to argue against developing new housing. There is an absolutely necessity to provide high-quality net zero carbon homes. But as I have argued before, we may also need to downscale our taken-for-granted assumptions of very high future housing demand, which are substantially based on an extrapolation of historic trends of high economic growth and immigration into the future. In a climate changed world, past results are not a reliable guide of future performance. Lands zoned for housing may also need to be re-tasked for other uses, such as providing more natural green spaces and adaptation to ever more severe and disruptive weather events (e.g. flood attenuation, urban heat island effects etc.). It is hard to overestimate the revolutionary implications this will have for, not just planning, but also land markets, the entire functioning of the economy, fiscal policy, balanced regional development etc., and will require nothing less than a transformed planning culture.

We have not just entered the age of consequences, but the age of (very hard) choices.

Gavin Daly

*This blog post was referenced in a recent media article by Dr. Rory Hearne in the Irish Examiner. You can also listen to the article on the Reboot Republic .

Image

Back in 2009, at the height of global financial crisis, John Lovering in a hard-hitting editorial in International Planning Studies declared that, finally, it had happened.

The recession marked ‘the end of planning as we had known it’. There was no going back. The neoliberal model of urban policy-making, “it’s inequities, it’s harmful social and cultural effects, it’s disastrous impact on the environment and its economic unsustainability” was dead.

Except of course, like previous crises, it wasn’t.

Phoenixlike, the strange non-death of neoliberalism emerged unfazed. The Irish planning profession, anxious to deflect from its complicity in the Celtic Tiger and unsure of what else to do, slavishly followed along as every manner of idiotic mass tourism hotel, student housing scheme, build-to-rent apartment development, co-living unit and high-rise office block was approved, each testament to the parasitic power and private fortunes of international capital wrapped up in some Orwellian supply-side doublespeak of what is good for us.

Fast forward ten years, and there has been much talk again recently, in light of the COVID19 crisis, of the urgent need for a deep structural change in the planning and organisation of our urban environments. We have seen some promising signs in this direction as cities across Europe, including Dublin, seize the opportunity to repurpose streets from private cars to pedestrians and cyclists – initiatives long held back by reactionary interests – and a greater acknowledgement of the real value of green spaces, clean air, noiselessness, social cohesion and nature in urban liveability. These may be temporary, but demonstrate what is possible.

The pandemic has also laid bare the recrudesce of a planning system that has once more been reduced to a reactive, short-term and opportunity-driven activity which is likely to see the our cities littered with overcapacity and stranded assets.

The economic impact of COVID19 is, as yet, unknown but projections suggest it is likely to be severe and turbulent. As in 2009, the planning profession is about to be again sharply thrust up against what is probably its chief intellectual weakness – what to do when the land market is rendered largely inoperative? In such a situation the pattern of land-use will have to be determined administratively, but planning, as a body of knowledge, offers no ideas as to how this might be done. Paralysis ensues.

Like all cultural shocks, the COVID19 disruption presents liminal spaces, moments of cultural rupture, to rethink and do things differently, and to listen to alternative voices from outside the mainstream proposing hitherto unthinkable solutions – but who are almost always ignored – that radically challenge our take-for-granted worldviews in ways that is impossible through incremental change.

In order to make the best of this opportunity, planners will first have to wake up to the inexorable socio-ecological realities and discontinuities that will transform their identities in the 21st Century and recognise that, as Lovering advised, the best place for many of the policies pursued over the past decades is in the bin.

First to go should be the speculative, pseudo-planning ‘compact city’ doctrine and the much-purported groupthink amongst developers and urban growthists that urban regeneration needs to be hyper-densified in order to be sustainable, but which has thus far failed to regenerate much beyond the bottom-line of the property developers, financiers and consultants.

Alternative pathways abound, leaning on insights from the peripheries of orthodox received wisdom. The City of Amsterdam, for example, has recently adopted a new holistic strategy for transformative urban action based on the pioneering ‘Doughnut Economics’ of British economist, Kate Raworth.

The Amsterdam ‘City Donut’ presents a long-term planning policy vision which seeks to supplant the growth-orientated and competitive commodification of the city with ‘a thriving, regenerative and inclusive city for all citizens, while respecting the planetary boundaries’ to tackle climate breakdown and ecological collapse. To this end Amsterdam has joined the Thriving Cities Initiative (TCI), a collaboration between C40, Circle Economy, and Doughnut Economics Action Lab, which works with cities pursuing such a transformation.

Such dissident thinking, which has long been ‘beyond the pale’ for Irish policy elites, resonates with the open letter, signed by more than a thousand academics and experts from more than sixty countries, calling for Degrowth – a democratically planned yet adaptive, sustainable, and equitable downscaling of the economy – to be put at the centre of the COVID19 response, to build a more just and sustainable society and prevent further crises.

The Degrowth urban manifesto seeks to give the city back to its people, radically reorganise transport and mobility, (re)naturalise and decommodify the city, and, rather than densify, significantly increase space dedicated to green space, tree cover; biodiversity and urban ecosystems; and public housing, with a focus urban mobility on cycling, walking and public transport. These ideas reflect new ideas emerging from ‘post-growth’ planning thought which emphasises, solidarity, wellbeing, connectedness, empathy and a lifestyle based on principles of sufficiency.

Supporting growth and an irrational belief in ever rising asset values has, of course, always been the primary and unquestioned motivation of urban planning. It shall come as no surprise that, just as it was in the aftermath of the 2009 crisis, embracing new ethics and post-materialistic values will be stringently resisted by the old order who, as long as there are no viable alternatives, will engage in predatory delay insisting that the solution to the crisis is to work even harder at business-as-usual. Neoliberal urbanism has, after all, demonstrated extraordinary asymmetric capacity to crimp and contain disconfirming alternatives .

However, these are ideas whose time is coming. Nature is foreclosing our culture. To return to Lovering’s exhortation, planners will not be leading the action here, however “if they can shed the myopic habits of recent years and recapture the broader social and ethical inspirations with which the very concept of planning in modern times began, then planning might once again become worthy of the name”.

We cannot afford to waste the opportunity of crisis once more. Resigned realism is the best way to ensure the least transformative outcome.

Gavin Daly

@gavinjdaly @irelandplanners

*This blog has also been posted on Planners Network Ireland. If you wish to add your voice to other progressive planning voices, please sign-up!

Prof. Kath Browne, School of Geography, UCD.

Coronavirus is geographical: It moves transnationally, has national responses, and provokes local ramifications. It directly influences our everyday lives and how we move—or don’t move—through space in ways that many of took for granted. Already, geographers across Ireland are responding, to name just a few (and there are many more!): Dr. Gerard MacCarthy and Dr. Padraig MacCarron using RIP.ie to map death notices; Dr. Gerald Mills used mapping techniques to pinpoint the location and growth of cases in Ireland; Dr. Niamh Cherry-Moore and the Greening Dublin team, exposed inequities of access to green space and the relevance of green space for health and well-being; Dr. Bradley Garrett’s work on bunkers and preppers having massive resonances, Prof. Rob Kitchin and team creating the Cornovirsus dashboard and currently, Dr. Niharika Banerjea, Leela Bakshi and I are pulling together a reflection on liveability and COVID19 for a special issue of Dialogues in Human Geography. This short piece will focus on some starting points that I have been considering in linking Coronovirus and some themes in Critical geographies, linking it to further work under preparation around liveability and the ‘New Ordinaries’ of COVID19.

Making Lives Liveable

Whereas liveability in geography has been addressed primarily in terms of availability of cultural infrastructure, amenities, and economic opportunities (Florida 2004), liveability is a pressing contemporary question. Our work on the project Making Lives Liveable, interrogated what makes life liveable in ways that understand where we are as crucial to these liveabilities (see for example Banerjea and Browne, 2018; Browne et al., 2017; 2019; McGlynn et al., 2020). What makes life liveable is now a key question, as governments both under lockdown and those seeking to emerge from it, work to maintain a compliance with restrictions that save lives. Yet, whose lives matter has also been a key preoccupation of considerations of liveability. Whose life matters is an inherently political and geographic question, with thousands dying trying to get to Europe and into the USA; a lack of counting of the death tolls in some populations due to war (Butler 2016). Discussions of liveability have addressed whose lives matter, who is expendable, who is less than human, questions that relate directly to Butler’s consideration of livable lives (Butler, 2004; 2016). Reactions to COVID19 demonstrate that those with ‘underlying conditions’ and the elderly, can be spoken of in ways that make people expendable, as if their lives mattered less. Nonetheless, precarity, health wise, but also economically, socially and through our mental health, is more widespread affecting more than those whose lives have been considered less worthy of life.

Population Compliance and Self Surveillance

The boundaries of individuality are contested by a potentially deadly virus that moves between us. The relations between us are also central to the response. The strategies adopted by numerous governments, pertain to the prevention of the transmission via population compliance to physical distancing (for those whom this is possible).  Whilst this can be achieved through sanctions and policing (as I listen to the surveillance helicopter fly overhead) and the variations on this vary state to state, there is also an important connection between self-surveillance and compliance. A relative having been shouted at for going for a walk in Brazil with her family, a practice which is not officially illegal, now no longer leaves the apartment with her family. Applying Foucault, self-surveillance is created through fear of state sanction, but also produced through social norms that inform what are ‘appropriate’ and socially sanctioned behaviours, and where these are allowed and prohibited.  These behaviours are policed between ‘us’ ‘keeping an eye’ on each other. Yet, in considering adherence and compliance through policing or forced compliance, we cannot overlook the productive relations of care that are also apparent in various societal responses.  Care work is also keeping people at home, out of public spaces, away from relatives and groups.

KB post pic

Micro-Resistances

As with all norms there will be resistance, including through official routes such as the court cases taken against laws that prohibit movement, but perhaps more impactful are those resistances that take place in everyday spaces, what might be termed micro-resistances. Compliance and adherence will be spatial, there will be different levels of adherence to public health measures, in different places.  This will depend on a variety of factors, some of which cannot be predicted in advance, but in Ireland, it might be related to proximity to for example other people/shops, notions of respectability, engagement with authorities and the state, factors around housing, including overcrowding and access to green space, and safety within and outside the home. These are not uniform across the country, within different regions, or within different cities/villages/towns. In turn they will have different effects, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Geographies from the global to the home matter in understanding the implications of COVID19.

Power and social difference

There is also much to be said about how policing others in person and through social media, as well as other ways of seeking to create compliance by social disapproval creates vilification, reiterates problematic assumptions of for example young people, those who are economically marginalised, as well as other marginalised people, such as travellers. As has long been shown, these marginalisations are both spatial differentiated, and also create places often within good/bad binaries.  These hierarchies also creates an us/them, good/bad in ways that reiterate social polarisations. There are undoubtedly there are multiple and diverse power relations that will need to be unpacked both in the here and now of living with COVID19 and in the ongoing ramifications of social, political and economic upheaval. Currently, with others in the UK/Ireland, I am working on an ESRC/IRC networking bid to consider these ‘New Ordinaries’ and the potentials and inequities of COVID19- using theorisations of sexual and gender politics in the 21st century to conceptualise seismic social and cultural shifts that offer both potentials and losses.

In considering how COVID19 has altered the potentials of contemporary life there are potentials and losses. The question of what makes life liveable is pressing, both in how we make lives under lockdown liveable in equitable ways and also as an opportunity to think about how we create new models of liveability through exploring how ‘best to live’ (Butler 2016).  As isolation becomes a social norm not previously envisaged, critical geography helps us understand our ‘new normal’ and the different ways in which we live and create these normal. At its heart, critical geography is about how we can create more liveable lives by exploring the power relations that make lives less liveable, precarious and expendable. As we face hugely uncertain times and paradigm shifts that both connect and disconnect us, our social worlds are fractured and remade. These power relations become more apparent with governments creating bans on everyday activities, friends imposing shared restriction on their usual social events; and the market price-gauging immediate necessities.

Imagining New Futures

How we make sense of the current normal, and decide which elements to move forward, is interlaced with power. There have been moments where change was possible, but unachieved, in Ireland the 1916 rising promised social equalities, globally the financial crisis of 2008 provided an opportunity to realise a paradigm shift.  Yet in both cases social and capitalist norms were reinstated or even strengthened.  But there were other potential futures, and there are again new possibilities of shifts in social and economic equalities. To realise these potentials we need to identify them, value them and believe in the possibilities of fluid and unpredictable worlds. Reflections on how we navigate this time period and how we progress after Coronavirus, requires more than political, economic and media responses.  We need responses that engage with the social in ways that centralise how these are created in places and differentiated geographically, that work with communities, and that offer possibilities of restructuring lives in ways that now might be unimaginable. It is time to imagine new worlds, new futures. Critical Geographers are well placed to engage in this endeavour which requires nuanced analysis of power, society and space.

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dr. Carla Kayanan for her generous feedback and comments on this piece and all that she brings to geography in UCD and beyond. Thanks to Cari Burke for her reading and support, and for encouraging this blog to happen! Thanks to Niharika and Leela for working with me on the liveabilities research, and to all now working on the ESRC/IRC grant.

 

References

Banerjea, N. and Browne, K. (2018). Liveable lives: A transnational queer-feminist reflection on sexuality, development and governance. In Mason, C. (ed), Routledge Handbook of Queer Development Studies, (pp. 169-179). Routledge: London.

Browne, K., et al. (2017). “Towards transnational feminist queer methodologies.” Gender, Place & Culture 24(10) (pp. 1376-1397).

Browne, K., Banerjea, N., McGlynn, N., Bakshi, L., Beethi, S. and Biswas, R. (2019). The limits of legislative change: Moving beyond inclusion/exclusion to create ‘a life worth living’. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space. https://doi.org/10.1177/2399654419845910

Butler, J., (2004). Undoing gender. Routledge: London

Butler, J. (2016). Rethinking vulnerability and resistance. In J. Butler, Z. Gambetti & L. Sabsay (eds.), Vulnerability in resistance, (pp. 12–27). Duke University Press: Durham, NC.

Florida, R. (2004). The rise of the creative class;and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

McGlynn, N., Browne, K., Banerjea, N., Biswas, R., Banerjee, R., Sumita and Bakshi L. (2020). “More than happiness: Aliveness and struggle in lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer lives.” Sexualities. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460719888436

 

 

2KM from home

This is an image of my main cycling route that I have been using to try and keep my distance up during the lockdown since mid-March. It is about 15km all in all and I have varied it little over the weeks. (I find myself dreaming a lot about cycling much further and linear distances lately.) When I am out cycling, I am as careful as I can be in terms of distance from other road users, others on bikes and pedestrians. In the first three weeks of the lockdown, people seemed happy to walk on the road, taking wide arcs to avoid other pedestrians. We were getting used to these new metrics of public life: 2 metres, 2 kilometres. We walked languidly across main roads once filled with fast-moving cars and vans. More people feeling like they can walk at a human pace on Finglas and Glasnevin roads is a good thing. What was also noticeable was how few vehicle drivers minded this. There was an accommodation based on the frequent reminders that ‘we were all in this together’ and how we are all working to ‘flatten the curve’.

In the last fortnight though, things have changed. As some workplaces are adjusting and opening up and with the weather became more tolerable outdoors, we can note an increased weekday volume of car and van traffic. It means that the interaction between this motor traffic and other road users has reverted to what it was before mid-March. Pedestrians are back running across poorly designed vehicle entrances into rows of neighbourhood shops. Pedestrian lights are again being used and the kerb parking is back; we are conceding to motorised traffic again. When we talk about ‘a return to normal’ and ‘flicking a switch’ we have to remember that pedestrian and bike users will go back to normal first. Not because we are complacent or lacking in awareness but because we intuitively know two tonnes of metal, plastic and glass is being driven incautiously near us again. But this post is not about bikes versus cars.

In the last week or so we have seen the city council in Dublin making some concessions to pedestrians and commuting cyclists. A contraflow on a single street is an easy win, even if it took three decades to get done. The council is asking residents to make suggestions for alterations in public spaces to allow for physical distancing across the city. They are going to have a lot of work to do. Dublin’s footpaths are crowded and poorly bordered with road space. At every crossing in this city, pedestrians are hemmed in by barriers and bollards, a reminder that the city streets do not belong to us. Beg buttons dominate. Some are celebrating a bucolic urban age dawning: lower emissions, better quality air, the return of this thing called nature to our cities. All the other nice things we seek cannot be far behind: greenways for all, last mile supply chains springing up. As welcome as these concessions are, we cannot forget that power concedes nothing without a struggle. Car park owners are threatening legal action over the most minimal of plans to allow people to use more active travel modes. Their fear is that the car and their supposed wealthy owners will stop buying things they don’t need from shop workers increasingly threatened by a virus we still know very little about. Our food landscape is dominated by multiples, not craft butchers. We still do not have enough primary health care centres in this city but we have lots of empty hotel rooms.

Occupy May Day 2015 (17150201729)

We should be clear though that widening footpaths and making more temporary bike lanes does not mean that a deep well of communitarian values lying dormant is now being drawn from. These changes impact different groups in very different ways. Like the car users of suburban Dublin, normal daily life is being re-asserted in small places and in minor ways. We have seen how the CIF is pushing for building sites to be opened again supposedly to ‘complete the housing which we all need’. Their sudden appreciation for the housing that is not being built arises from a shrinking bottom line. They spent the last few years building hotels, student accommodation and luxury flats that cannot now be sold. If the first few days meant the appearance of a ‘new normal’, the last few days have seen significant changes to bring about the return of the old order. That this is being driven by the city’s most powerful actors (building developers, employers’ representatives) should not a surprise under the current way we go about creating things in this city. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by suburban customer rage and a growing sense that Nature is Healing (response: “we are the virus”). Our urban activity cannot be that passive that we watch things unfold before us. It is not wrong to want a cleaner city with more active modes of mobility but they are not adequate substitutes for an examination of what drives city development. To me and others, these are the very things that made a pandemic like this arise in the first instance. The old order conceded something called Sustainability and made us feel bad about not recycling correctly. The way we travel, eat and work is shortening our lives and killing others. Any new dispensation has to be thought up using the democratic tools and social and economic power at our disposal. This includes making more, not fewer, and radical demands of our elected local governments, officials and elected representatives. It means challenging extremely powerful actors in how the city changes. It cannot be done within the existing ways.

Eoin O’Mahony, UCD.

In July 2017, I posted a piece on this blog, arguing that the exit of the UK from the European Union constitutes a critical moment in Irish geography, with far-reaching consequences for the island of Ireland. I was (and continue to be) convinced that there is a strong spatial dimension to Brexit which is often overlooked in the mainstream academic and policy commentary. Brexit is fundamentally about territoriality. Brexit does not simply have geographical consequences; the act of the UK leaving the EU ruptures our taken-for-granted understandings of the position of Ireland within Europe and, in relation to the UK and, perhaps most North-South relations on the island of Ireland. Brexit is metageographical. The future of ‘European space’ is at stake. All of this makes, I believe, a persuasive case for a critical and sustained engagement by geographers and other spatially inclined thinkers with the phenomenon of Brexit and its implications, both in a critical, theoretical sense, in terms of how we understand territoriality in Europe, and in an applied in sense, in terms of addressing the challenges posed by this geopolitical moment (see also Boyle et al 2018).

Image source: The Irish Times

Since July 2017, things have of course moved on. Yet the fundamentals have remained the same. The UK formally left the EU on 31st January 2020. Yet, Brexit continues to have a Beckettian quality. ‘Leaving’ is a gradual process (as Jim was fond of reminding us) and there continues to be much uncertainty concerning the end of the transition period as a substantial agreement on the future relationship seems as far off as ever. Meanwhile, the current public health crisis has prompted a return to hard borders within Europe and restrictions on movement that few would have thought possible, just a few short months ago. Once again, the ideals of the European project are tested by a crisis of existential proportions. Much depends on the willingness of EU Member States to effectively demonstrate solidarity within Europe.

In May 2018, Gavan Rafferty (Ulster University) and I convened a session at the Conference of Irish Geographers in Maynooth focused on the implications of Brexit for cross-border cooperation and spatial planning on the island of Ireland. This session drew on the expertise of the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) in engaging with planners, policy-makers and other stakeholders at local, regional and national levels concerned with regional development and spatial planning in the border region, North and South, in the period since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The papers from this session subsequently formed the backbone of a Special Issue of Irish Geography, which has been published online just this week (official publication date November 2019). The papers explore the process and practice of creating spaces for cooperation across the Irish border, pre- and post- Brexit. Drawing on both critical theoretical debates on territoriality, soft spaces and spatial imaginaries as well as applied practical experience, the papers in the special issue highlight the scope for, but also the challenges of working with the ‘island of Ireland’ as a ‘soft space’ in the context of Brexit. It is argued that soft forms of public policy, working under the radar, in the shadow of territory should continue to play a significant role post-Brexit, but that sustained institutional and political support will be required to support these informal practices.

It is hoped that this publication will foster further critical reflection and engagement on the issues it raises as the implications of Brexit for the North-South and East-West relations become clearer.

Cormac Walsh (University of Hamburg and ICLRD)

The individual papers in the Special Issue are available to download (open access) from the Irish Geography website.

From 2013 to 2017, I lived and worked in Ireland. At University College Cork, I undertook my doctoral research project on the consequences of Ireland’s harsh austerity policies on youth living in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods (van Lanen, 2017). I employed qualitative methods, predominantly interviews with young adults, to investigate their encounters and experiences of austerity. Thus, I spoke with youth aged 18 to 25 in Knocknaheeny (Cork) and Ballymun (Dublin). These two neighbourhoods are among the most deprived locally and nationally, due to a combination of low educational achievements, high levels of unemployment, low incomes, and several other indicators. With this project, I aimed to understand how austerity is experienced in everyday life by a group that is vulnerable to the negative consequences of crisis, recession, and austerity.

Ireland is one of the countries that implemented a severe austerity package after accepting an external assistance package from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. I picked Ireland for my research into everyday austerity because its population predominantly speaks English rather than Greek, Spanish or Portuguese. Although sharing a language with youth from Ballymun and Knocknaheeny, I experienced some hesitation in establishing contacts and recruiting research participants in these neighbourhoods. A sudden awareness of my positionality regularly stopped me when I was about to call someone, start a conversation, or attend an event. Differences in social identity and status made me fear that youth from these neighbourhoods would not take me seriously. The Knocknaheeny population was Irish, was sometimes stigmatised, and regularly with low income and lower educational achievements. I was a highly educated, financially-secure foreigner working at University College Cork. I feared this difference was too big, and this fear was so overwhelming I would freeze.

Previously, Claire Mansfield (2011) also conducted research in Knocknaheeny. In her thesis, she writes that she felt an outsider in the neighbourhood because of her differing clothing style, accent, and because she was unfamiliar in the area. Fiona Kelleher (2013) was from Knocknaheeny and investigated teenagers in the neighbourhood. She established contact with local youth smoothly as she was familiar with Knocknaheeny and its inhabitants. However, the fact that she was conducting research clearly influenced her interactions with local youth too. I feared that, if Cork researchers were experiencing difficulties to be accepted and respected, this would be further amplified for a complete stranger.

In Body and soul, Loïc Wacquant describes his fieldwork as a white French academic in a black boxing club in Chicago. Wacquant argues that his French background made it easier to establish contacts in an American ghetto. He writes

‘(…) my French nationality granted me a sort of statutory exteriority with respect to the structure of relations of exploitation, contempt, misunderstanding, and mutual distrust that oppose blacks and whites in America. I benefited from the historical capital of sympathy that France enjoys in the African-American population […] and from the simple fact of not having the hexis of the average white American, which continually marks, if against his or her own best intentions, the impenetrable border between the communities.’ (Wacquant, 2004, p. 10)

Now, Cork is not Chicago, and youth from Knocknaheeny do not possess a different skin colour than me. However, I still found solace in this paragraph. And indeed, in Knocknaheeny, my ‘Dutchness’ proved valuable as it facilitated contact, and both youth and older inhabitants were quickly interested in my presence.

During Cork Culture Night 2014, I was the only ‘unfamiliar’ visitor at the Knocknaheeny hip-hop event. A Dutchman interested in the neighbourhood was received enthusiastically by the present youth. During the whole evening, I was approached by some and introduced to others. Like in the situation described by Wacquant, my ‘Dutchness’ reduced the sometimes tricky and charged relationship of misunderstanding and mutual distrust between Knocknaheeny youth and other areas of Cork city because I was an obvious outsider. Furthermore, especially male attendants were interested in the liberal Dutch attitude to recreational drugs or shared enthusiastic stories about their trips to Amsterdam. The Dutch drugs image thus provided a form of what Wacquant describes as ‘capital of sympathy’.

Ultimately, my status as an outsider, as a highly-educated Dutch qualitative researcher, did not hinder my research project. Perhaps, it even assisted me. Nonetheless, my insecurities never entirely disappeared. Simultaneously, others, like Marielle Zill, have shown that outsider-identities can also frustrate research and access to participants. Personal contact is in the nature of most qualitative research, resulting in a situation where various spheres of personal and academic identity influence the relationship between the researcher and their participants. It is impossible to bridge these differences in identities entirely. Still, it is essential to be conscious of their potential impacts on the relation with participants. Qualitative researchers should carefully consider how we position ourselves, what questions we ask, and how these impact the practice, analysis and results of our research. While this is not always easy, it is essential for high-quality, in-depth qualitative research.

Sander van Lanen

References

Kelleher, F. (2013). Place, teenagers, and urban identities: A new social geography of young people in Cork. Cork: University College Cork.

Mansfield, C. (2011). Social sustainability and the city: An investigation into the environmental geographies of two neighbourhoods in Cork. Cork: University College Cork.

Wacquant, L. (2004). Body & soul: Notebooks of an apprentice boxer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

van Lanen (2017) Youth and austerity in the city: geographies of precarity in disadvantaged urban areas in Ireland. Cork: University College Cork.

 

 

 

In political struggles for publicly funded housing in Ireland since the 2010 crisis, the word ghetto has re-appeared. When proposals for social and public housing are put forward by activists, unions and others, one of the ways they are opposed, whether it be via mainstream media, or elsewhere is by the deployment of the word ‘ghetto’. Opponents of a massed public housing investment programme raise the spectre of the ghetto if we were to invest in a housing programme that meant more than a handful of public housing units in the same place. In this blog post I want to trace the birth and development of this use of the word ghetto in a public housing context in Ireland, not in a theoretical but an empirical way. This provides some evidence for a paper I am returning to again having put it to one side in late 2018.

The use of the word ghetto has been a feature of the story of local authority housing in Ireland since the 1980s. To understand the ways in which ghetto has become identified with public housing, we need to trace its origins. There is not a simple and defined correspondence with the use of the words ghetto and housing in Ireland. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, the word ghetto appears closely aligned with public housing in the newspapers of the time. To show how this alignment occurs, I have analysed the content of a range of articles, features and editorials for the period 1960 to 2015 where the words ghetto, housing and Ireland appear together.

While initial usages in Irish newspapers were concerned with the sectarian housing policies in Northern Ireland, later usages of the words show significant concern among policy makers and others for the potential and the reality of social housing to become like a ghetto. It is evident that ghetto emerges as a euphemism for housing segregation based on class. It is also more than a euphemism, as I will show. A wide variety of individuals, from politicians to government officials to members of the public, cite examples of concentrations of public and social housing in Irish towns and cities as something to be avoided in any new programme. Usage of the terms ghetto and housing together from about 1992/3 in particular onwards implies that mistakes have been made in the past in concentrating public housing because it leads to undesirable, yet unspecified, social problems. My content analysis shows how the development of public housing and planning problems are represented from this time as attempts to avoid ghettoization. Content analysis is a way in which to draw out significant themes from a corpus of text across time periods and can be used to show how specific ideas are represented together (Limb and Dwyer, 2001).

The Irish Newspaper Archive found the phrase ‘ghetto’ near ‘housing’ in 316 results in the period 1920 to 2018.  An Irish Times Archive search for the words ‘ghetto’ and ‘housing’, confined to Ireland, for the period 1960 to 2018 was also done. This second search yielded 243 results. In both databases a shift in usage over time is apparent. The word ‘ghetto’ alongside housing only appears with any frequency from the 1960s when it was used to describe the housing of nationalists and Catholics in the sectarian state of Northern Ireland. Discounting this particular usage and its usage to describe historical events in other parts of the world, a number of themes emerge from this brief overview of their usage together. The first theme identified in my analysis is that housing planning by local authorities, by its very house building activity, has created ghettoes. A selection of these usages shows a close association with public housing in particular. It is important too that such usage is found across a wide range of actors from across political parties. As early as 1972, aspiring Labour Party candidate (later minister) Ruairi Quinn wrote about Ballyfermot as a “poor community, a working-class ghetto with a high factor of crowding” (Mar 1 1972) having earlier described it as “a gross distortion of normal community in our society”. In 1976, a new private housing development in the Kildare town of Celbridge was offering a “mixed community within the development” in which the developer “anticipates the end of the ‘ghetto mentality’ that has disfigured many other Irish housing developments” (April 9 1976). When the 19th century housing at Mountpleasant in the south Dublin suburb of Rathmines was demolished in 1979, locals blamed the Corporation’s own policy for turning it into a ghetto through neglect (Mar 5 1979). In 1985, in the Donegal News, Fianna Fáil Councillor Bernard McGlinchey was recorded as warning that the town of Letterkenny could have social problems like the Dublin suburb of Ballymun unless “there is a rapid rethink on housing policies”. He sought the Council’s plans for the Ballyboe area of the town to be re-examined for fear that “The Council [would] site more houses in the area when the next allocation comes” and that it was “frightening that we are creating a ghetto in that area”. A total of 59 Council houses were planned alongside some private houses in a nearby site.

In 1986, with a new surrender grant scheme in place, Ray Burke TD, then a Fianna Fail spokesman, warned that the £5,000 given to local authority tenants to purchase a private house out of their own area was “creating a ‘ghetto’ in a Dublin housing estate”. He claimed that this policy resulted in higher unemployment and poverty in the district of West Tallaght. Other opposition deputies pointed out that only tenants in employment could avail of the grant and so those left behind were “becoming more concentrated with the unemployed, and an undesirable demographic imbalance was taking place.” This concern was echoed in a later report on house building activity during an upper house debate on small business (April 18 1986). The implication here is that the Council was creating concentrated areas of poverty by following national policy. Before 1990, the ghetto is used in an anticipatory manner, something to be avoided but only sometimes discernible as a problem.

The second theme identified is that public policy needs to avoid the ghettoes created in the past. By the mid-1990s, ghetto was being used in a near-historical framework as is clear from a 1996 Irish Times series entitled The Roots of Crime. The journalist frames the problem of crime as one of definition: “we are no longer defined by our green fields, but by urban ghetto areas which [police] call ‘hostile territory’” (Jan 22 1996). Later that year, a conference for local authorities heard how some of these authorities “use housing estates to hide rural poverty, creating ghettos on the edge of towns”. These council-established areas “had been, to some extent, ghettoised by virtue of their location outside the central areas of small towns” said consultant Trutz Haase. While this refers to much smaller urban areas than Dublin, the identification of an unspecified ghettoisation caused by public housing itself is evident. More especially, ghettos are identified by their own nature and characteristics rather than via their relationship to other policy measures of class formation.

In 1999, the Tuam Herald recorded that the Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute (IAVI) had expressed concern that the Government’s new Planning Bill would hinder the development of affordable housing because it encouraged building by local authorities to shorten their housing waiting lists instead of making private housing more affordable. Their statement, broadly in support of the bill, felt that “ghettos may be created within future housing developments with ‘affordable housing’ being segregated by a high wall from the main site and accessed independently…”. “Quality residential enclaves” in these areas would undergo price increases because they will not have the social housing element of the mooted bill nearby. The concern of the IAVI was for (private) first-time buyers and the lack of flexibility in densities envisaged under the bill. By 2000, a new Fingal Council plan to expand the older suburb of Blanchardstown was written about by the Irish Times’s environment correspondent as “littered as it is with ghettoised low-density estates, both public and private” (Nov 23 2000).  Other accounts from the 1990s show how the phrase ‘mixed tenure’ came to dominate discussion of large new housing developments at the edge of Dublin.

In the period 2002 to 2006, about 300,000 new houses were built in Ireland. Like the word ‘ghetto’, the term ‘mixed tenure’ is a code word used to describe mostly private housing with some element of social and/or affordable within a scheme. Both terms obscure the class relations that are materialised within urban space. Fears of “ghettos in the making” are allayed by building developments with a majority of private housing with some element of affordable and social housing. This bracketing of public within large private developments came to dominate home building in Ireland (through policy instruments of an increasingly centralised state) until the debt-laden crises that began in 2008. There is evidence then to suggest that the word ghetto is used in newspaper reports of housing policy in two ways: firstly that local authorities, through policy instruments not always of their own making, created ghettos in public estates. These areas are unspecified but identified invariably with public housing. Secondly, and as the 21st century begins, that new housing developments (all tenures) need to avoid the mistakes of the past where public housing ghettoes were built. In a feature on the new suburb called Ongar on Dublin’s north-west fringe, concern was expressed that higher densities would bring about ghettos (December 2 2006). Later-expressed fears about ghettos are not exclusively related to public housing but to newer suburban forms and populations that are seen not to be integrating with other communities. Where public housing is aligned with the fear of a ghetto aids the expansion of private housing over a longer time frame. The Planning and Development Act 2000 in particular instituted a defined proportion of each new housing development to be designated as public housing. This housing tenure’s marginalisation as time goes on solidifies the place of public housing as a small part of housing provision more generally. Furthermore large concentrations of public housing become strongly associated with ghetto-creation in a way that was not evident before the 1980s.

Eoin O’Mahony (@EducGIS)

Connolly Quarter

Densification. It’s all the rage. Everywhere, everyone agrees we must densify, “build up, not out!” the now familiar slogan goes, upzoning and compacting our urban footprints, all in the cause of increasing housing supply, boosting competitiveness and avoiding sprawl. Influential apostles of this mantra, such as David McWilliams and Ronan Lyons et al. (typically, always economists), effuse that our cities must go ever higher, easing restrictions on building height, while the populace must simply accustom itself to living in smaller housing, if it wants housing at all.

And it’s certainly working. Following Minister Eoghan Murphy’s diktat on building heights, we have seen a preponderance of new development proposals across our cities of such perpetual sameness, branded and bland homogeneity, a form of ‘Zombie Urbanism’, where the dull compulsion of economic and political space merge toward the elimination of all differences.

The new ‘Connolly Quarter’, for example (pictured above), proposed by Ballymore Group on lands owned by state body, CIE, in Dublin’s North Inner City proposes 741 build-to-rent apartments in towers of up to 23 storeys, including  228 studios, 256 one-bedroom, 251 two-bedroom and just 6 three-bedroom units all aimed at the “upper end of the private rental market”.

Here in this rationalised, functionalised and, above all, ideologically planned and designed space everything will look nice and urban, but in terms of social and community life, it’s monotonous, sterile and dead. Elite tenements where you literally live to work. I guess we are supposed to just count ourselves lucky that ten percent of these units may eventually trickle down as social housing or, that by providing high-end housing, it will free up supply for the poor. All hail the supply gods.

It was not so long ago that the North Inner City was in the news for other reasons. The Mulvey Report, commissioned by the government in response to a string of gangland violence, concluded that “there was a strong and deep local community sense of being ‘left behind’ during the Celtic Tiger period in relation to the IFSC/Docklands developments and the ‘false promises’ given and a real and genuine concern that this will be repeated” including “the possibility of further ghettoisation in the area between centres of affluence along the Quays and the ‘legacy’ areas of urban/community neglect and deprivation.” (p.13).

Mulvey recommended a carefully planned and integrated strategy to overcome the widespread and perceived sense of inequality and of a divided city epitomised by the stark contrast between the “modern architecture, world leading businesses and high worth residences within hundreds of metres of a large concentration of social housing with little or no business activity within the community” (p.13). The plan was to carefully link the ‘place’ and ‘people’ aspects of the local area to improve social cohesion and wellbeing, through the bottom-up and grassroots harnessing of community and heritage assets.

Instead, following decades of disinvestment and stigmatisation, we are now seeing the rapid resurgence of the seemingly never-ending spread of a market-driven policy of gentrification – what Neil Smith calls ‘generalised gentrification’. As rents have exploded, private capital is flowing back to where the rate of return is highest in a systematic attempt to recommodify and retake the inner city from disadvantaged communities in the form of balkanised student housing schemes, exclusive hotels, speculative high-end build-to-rent units and upmarket offices. Islands of privilege in a sea of displaced exclusion.

In seeking to close down any criticisms, visualisations depicting the everyday life of successful, creative professionals and highly-paid millennials ambling around their trendy new cosmopolitan quarter against the backdrop of hazy blue skies, and all the resplendent transformative qualities that the development will allegedly bring to the area when completed, are increasingly being mobilised as key discursive devices, such that any objection is curbed. For who could really be against it?

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Indeed, in the aftermath of the recession, the triumphant dominance of a market-driven supply-side polemic has become remarkably effective in censoring dissent alongside an alarming rise of intolerance in national discourse of differing viewpoints or opinions in the planning system, with so called ‘NIMBYs’ habitually berated for allegedly impeding supply. To criticise is to be subjected to a form of gaslighting and routinely discredited for consigning countless thousands to a life of homelessness. After all, it is the role of ideologies to depoliticise and secure the assent of the exploited and dispossessed through the colonisation of commonsense values, ideals and priorities.

Cuttings from the Ronan Real Estate Group/Colony Capital newspaper advertisement and #growupdublin social media campaign seeking building height policy changes. 

In the process, neoliberalised public policy initiatives, so favoured by the current government, such as the ‘fast-track’ Strategic Housing Development planning process, present further restrictions on opportunities for public participation and meaningful debate. The final ideological coup de grâce is the proposed new Housing & Planning Bill 2019 which seeks to dramatically rollback public access to justice in planning cases via the courts.

None of this is to say that urban consolidation is unimportant. We have seen so much sprawl, and all of problems it brings, that it is hard to see how its malign impacts can now be reversed. In fact, despite the present emphasis on urban containment, in a parallel universe offstage from the contentious and loud debates over our city skylines, business-as-usual urban dispersion continues apace, with little evidence that the new found emphasis on density will reverse it anytime soon.

However, it is also incumbent on planning professionals to look beyond the inveterate econocratic ‘growth machine’ dogmas currently shaping our cities, and to consider the real structural dynamics at play, and who benefits, which are often beyond the grasp of their inhabitants. Like the living dead, these zombie doctrines are alive in our heads and our language, but no longer visible to us in understanding our urban realities.

In truth, the densification/supply nexus is now being usefully exploited as a ploy to unwittingly conflate the needs of society with the needs of capital so as to legitimise the conditions for maximising profit and to conquer and shape urban space for the short-run priorities of finance, of capital, of economic and political elites, of those with power, a situation which is not unique to Ireland.

A more perceptive critical understanding of present-day urbanisation is particularly important at this specific historical juncture. Our built environment is long-lived and the impacts of the urban form we create today will be multidecadal, stretching into the lives of many generations and into a future of unknown resources, pollution and unstable climatic conditions, including probable major inundations of all of our coastal cities.

One of the chief justifications for the compact city ideal is the claimed environmental dividend particularly for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through, for example, increased efficiency and use of sustainable transport modes. However, this enthralled enthusiasm for so called ‘sustainable urbanism’ is contradicted by multiple empirical studies which demonstrate that there is no such correlation.

This literature instead argues that the inured idea that ‘density is destiny’ may actually run directly counter to the problems we are trying to solve, but gains no traction in planning debates or urban conversations. Indeed, higher density urban forms are, on the whole, more, not less, consumptive of resources than medium- and lower-density development, with affluent, high-density areas dominated by small and single-person households having, by far, the highest environmental impacts (See also Næss et al. 2020).

As discussed by Brendan Gleeson in his book, The Urban Condition:  “Straightforward density advocacy has the potential to mask and distort the real geography of environmental burden that derives from unequal consumption capacities and patterns” (p.115). The fetishised hyper-densified green city ideal is therefore, in reality, an ecological fallacy, an impossible utopia, and simply the latest fix to align the elite rent-seeking interests that dominate neoliberal urbanism with the resurgent environmental agenda.

What should be at the forefront in planning debates is, not densification, but what type of city we wish to create. Most of the low-density and sprawling built environment that has evolved over the last century will still be with us at the end of this century. We are not starting from a blank slate and, even if planning could implement rapid change, it is unlikely that this could reduce emissions of the scale and urgency required, as it is largely beyond its levers to control, diverting our attention from real urban challenges.

This points planning’s purpose towards the field of adaptation. That is, to propose that new development in cities, towns and suburbs must be planned, designed and, crucially, retrofitted for people as progressive, humane, accessible, liveable, equitable, green and just spaces for downscaled consumption within planetary boundaries, and not just sites for maximised urban production and profit. Density is not our destiny. Our future should be built around a renewed ‘Right to the City’.

Gavin Daly