In the last number of days, The Irish Times has launched a competition seeking to designate the best place to live in Ireland. I have to admit to having mixed views about this competition. On one hand I feel perplexed about the need to attempt to measure the attributes of place to the extent to which, ala the X Factor, one place can be deemed ‘the best’, yet on the other hand, it forms a useful example of how to enrich discussion and debate about the importance of place and place attachment in Ireland. Each of these perspectives are discussed in turn below.

While to a certain extent, people shape the places in which they live, the everyday realities of place are also the outcome of processes that are largely outside peoples control and which have a significant impact upon their everyday lives. This, as emphasised through blogs such as IAN, is something that is currently a painful reality for many living with the consequences of the combination of poor planning and rampant speculation of the last number of decades. Perhaps it might thus seem like a positive move to attempt to measure the factors which contribute to those places which are deemed to be successful and then, in due course, attempt to replicate the factors which contribute to such. However, when it comes to the notion of place, it becomes difficult to measure what exactly success is, not to mind what is deemed to be the ‘best’. At its worst extreme, such sentiment pits people living in particular places against each other based on notions of superior or inferior choices about where people should live.

The manner in which people select a place in which to live is based on a wide range of factors, including proximity of job, shops, schools, and transport networks, but also including less measurable factors, such as personal ties, position in the life cycle, and attachment to particular localities. Moreover, the extent to which people can choose their place is directly connected to particular social and personal circumstances, often largely outside the control of an individual or, indeed, an entire population. Place is thus something paradoxical, where various factors are in constant tension with each other. This is something that is acknowledged by Maureen Gaffney, a judge for the Irish Times competition: “In the course of my work, I have been in many deprived communities that seem to have little enough going for them: no beautiful open spaces, no theatres, no inspiring public buildings. Sometimes, they seem to have little in the way of social capital. And yet the people living there will often have a very powerful sense of their own place and community.” When under pressure, community solidarity is strengthened yet the living environment is a daily struggle. It is thus somewhat telling, but perhaps, in light of the last number of decades, unsurprising, that those attributes which are sought after in the competition do not include the role of high quality affordable accommodation in shaping place (this is something that may however be acknowledged by the judges in making their selection).

In summary, I find myself wondering to what extent the desire to select the best place to live is useful in the context of the current difficulties facing many people in Ireland, particularly given the manner in which such challenges have become played out within place. I should however acknowledge that the competition is perhaps a more light-hearted endeavour than I have so-far given it credit for and that I should perhaps also wait for the outcome to make a final judgement on it. Furthermore, there are, of course, also positives associated with The Irish Times competition. Most importantly perhaps, and as emphasised by the early entries, it serves to celebrate the attributes which contribute to our notions of ‘place’ and ‘home’ and illustrates the importance of such concepts in understanding how we relate to our built environment, whether that be in Youghal, Limerick City, Stoneybatter or Strandhill. To take one example, a comment on Edel Morgan’s blog about the competition by someone identifying themselves as Kate Q eloquently describes a particular time and place as follows: “When I was little (being a girl) a small funfair would arrive at our seaside village every summer. For us (children) it was quite wonderful – out of this world; very extraordinary. “Swinging boats” for small people – vivid colours – swirling images; some kind of higher, double-decker swing boats for bigger people, and a rifle range – there were probably more “things” but that is what I remember – as well as non-stop music, which when I think of it now, all the songs reeked of nostalgia, wafting up and out from the funfair all day until quite late…” At the end of the comment (which I have not given full justice to here), we are told it refers to Laytown Co. Meath in the 1950s.  Such sentiments – and this is perhaps the most positive aspect of the Irish Times competition – illustrate the importance of bringing notions such as place back to the centre of debates about planning in both the urban and rural environments. Getting the balance right between regulation, place attachment, and transformation is one of the key challenges in shaping the future of the built environment in Ireland.

Philip Lawton