During the period of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland experienced an unprecedented level of growth and prosperity.  One of the most significant outcomes of this boom was the transformation of the built environment.  Housing estates sprouted up like weeds throughout the countryside, while cities and towns were increasingly characterised by the spectacle of speculation and spectacular transformations in the property sector.  The advocating of the creation of regional ‘Gateways’ and ‘hubs’ in the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) was central in driving a re-emphasis of Irish spatial policies on urban areas, with the major force being towards the development of a number of strong clusters of cities and towns to counterbalance the economic dominance of Dublin.  Within this system the imperative was on local authorities to produce development strategies that linked up with the ideals of the NSS, in order to draw down funding earmarked through the specifically formulated Gateway Initiative Fund.  Local authorities were therefore encouraged to plan in an ‘entrepreneurial’ manner; producing strategies that sought to guide development and investment, instead of planning acting as a controller and regulator of development.  Thus Irish towns and cities produced a series of plans that were concerned with growing their urban areas through investment in business, retail and residential spaces.  New developments of apartments, office blocks and shopping centres became a barometer of success indicating the growth in importance of different towns and cities.

In the larger cities, this often took the form of large-scale strategies to transform significant parcels of land.  Dublin was the first Irish city to play around with urban strategies of this ilk.  Docklands regeneration and the transformation of Temple Bar into a cultural or ‘creative’ quarter provided the basis of much of the new growth and investment in the city during the 1990s.  At the beginning of the 2000s similar strategies were launched in places like Cork and Limerick.  Like the plans for Dublin, those for Cork and Limerick were heavily dependent on private development sector investment, while still being reliant on central government to finance the upgrading of infrastructure that such projects required.  This is indicative of a general trend globally towards viewing cities as drivers of economic growth and as sites which compete with each other for investment.  Many critics have suggested the highly unequal geographies that such entrepreneurial urban policies create – both in terms of winner and loser cities, and winner and loser areas within cities.  Ireland has similarly been affected by these trends.  During Dublin’s property and investment boom existing working class populations were increasingly marginalised by new developments geared towards an influx of upwardly mobile middle class workers in the city’s emerging financial and knowledge industries.  More generally, the state’s support of the property industry pushed up average house prices to unsustainable and indefensible levels, which the now plummeting prices in this sector is testament to.

Following on from the recent recession, the assumptions that underpinned this model of urban and economic development have been fundamentally challenged.  Post Celtic Tiger Ireland is increasingly haunted by the spectre of an over-inflated property sector that fuelled the excesses of the boom.  The primacy of property development and speculation to the apparatus of the Irish economy, combined with irresponsible lending practices by banks and poor policy regulation in both sectors, has left a banking system bereft of credit, choking with ‘toxic’ debt, and a landscape charred with these aborted plans and failed spaces.  Within a context where capital funding has been removed and developer and investor confidence has plummeted, as banks balk under ‘toxic debt’ and flagrant corruption and the National Asset Management Agency has been established to resuscitate the bloated property industry, an urban ‘growth agenda’ no longer seems tenable.  Nevertheless, this rationale continues in the wake of recession.  Political and popular discussion is still concerned with getting the economy ‘performing’ again as opposed to dealing with social problems created by both the recession and the growing inequality of the boom that preceded it  Late bloomers like Limerick and Cork are now characterised by a silent echo where the spectacular growth plans used to resound, as mega-developments along the waterfront fully poised to proceed a year and a half ago are now conspicuous though the absence of any media fanfare surrounding them.  The entrepreneurial urban growth model was based on just that: the continuation of urban growth.  As the current moment suggests this was an unsustainable demand.  So far the state’s response to the crisis, in terms of recapitalising the banks and the establishment of NAMA has been an attempt to resuscitate this same system in its old form.  As we are now all feeling the sting of the over reliance on these type of policies, we should be questioning do we want a return to this boom-bust cycle, bearing in mind that the next recession will be just around the corner.  If not, then what are our alternatives for our cities and towns?  What priorities do we have and what development agendas do we now need to be pursuing?  The spatial impacts of the economic crisis warrants consideration, lest we fall into the trap of seeing the economy as ‘up in the air’ as opposed to written on the ground.

Cian O’Callaghan

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