Carl O’Brien has a nice series of pieces in the Irish Times on the crisis and Irish towns.  He started on Saturday with a portrait of Youghal (How do you fix a broken town?) and today has a piece on Charlestown (The leaving of Charlestown).  Three other towns will be covered this week – Longford, Drogheda and Dun Laoghaire.

This passage is from the Youghal article and nicely sets out the issues facing the town and many others in the country, and the challenges we face in terms of how we plan and try to revitalise urban settlements with respect to economic development, retail provision, housing, community, sense of place, etc.

“Youghal’s town centre is dying. Unemployment has soared with the closure of old industries, and the economic centre of the town is in danger of collapse. Young people are leaving in search of work elsewhere. Poor planning decisions at the height of the boom have also left it with unsightly and largely empty apartment blocks.

The downward spiral of a town like Youghal is only a single tragedy in a much larger story. Crippling unemployment, financial insecurity and emigration are exacting a heavy toll on towns like it across the country. Statistics and indicators of economic growth or joblessness tell you only so much. They don’t show the carnage that results from the collapse of industries, or the shattering experience of joblessness.

Towns like Youghal are filled with the stories of people struggling to find work, or battling to hold on to it, of families under strain or torn apart by emigration, of generations-old family firms biting the dust.

What is worse is that the decline of these communities isn’t just explained by the sad and inevitable legacy of history. There is a sense of neglectful, or indeed deliberate, public policies by local and national government that squandered opportunities and laid the foundation for their decline.

Yet there are also stories of hope, of new businesses setting up in the teeth of the recession, of jobless people retraining and carving out opportunities for themselves, and of towns rediscovering a resilience that few realised they had.

The future of these towns is uncertain, though one thing is clear: with the Government’s coffers empty, and increasing uncertainty about our ability to lure foreign investment, they will need to draw on their inner strengths to remake themselves and prosper once again.

The big question here is, ‘how do towns and local authorities rise to O’Brien’s challenge of remaking themselves?’  There are no easy answers, but we need to start on this path to try and head off further decline.  Up until now, the government focus has been on the macro-scale – the banking collapse, IMF/EU bailout, the budget deficit, smart economy, etc.  The fallout from these macro concerns, however, is felt on the ground in local, everyday life.  Our policies need to reflect this and to be working at a localised scale; to be addressing what is happening to people in their immediate surrounds.  We have a very long way to go to translate macro policies with tackling how the crisis is manifested in towns, villages and rural communities.

Rob Kitchin

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