In a paper from 2010 entitled ‘Can Planning Affect the Economic Crisis? Barely, and not unless planning changes radically’, the esteemed Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University, Peter Marcuse outlined potential for change within the planning profession. As is evident from the title, the paper deals with the potential role for urban planning in the context of the global financial crisis, with discussions of the role of cycles of investment in the built environment brought to the fore: “Planning is hardly an independent force in urban development; our long history shows how dependent, indeed, generally subservient, planning is to the market, barely influencing it at the margin. “The Market” is not considered an actor, and we avoid facing reality when we glibly speak of “the market” doing this or requiring that. There are specific actors in the market: developers, builders, bankers, Wall Street traders, investors, residents of various kinds, marketing firms, tenants and owners, and of varying economic positions, of various enthnicities, with various preferences. All significantly influence and are influenced by public portrayals of what is desirable (and what is not desirable) in cities.” When presented in such light, current debates about the future of planning in Ireland are worthwhile, but there is a danger that in seeking to redress the inadequacies of the last number of decades some key issues may be overlooked.

As is evidenced by a number of posts on this blog in recent weeks and days (see here and here), a strand of debate is currently emerging around the future need for housing, and where that housing should or should not be built. Moreover, while there remains a significant level of vacancy in most parts of the country, a form of rhetoric is emerging which upholds, if not furthers, a particular mythology around housing as being, above all else, a commodity, with quality of life either implicitly or explicitely related to market forces. One specific example of this is the manner in which The Irish Times Property Supplement every so often seems to deem the supposed shortage of ‘good quality family homes’ on the Dart line and elsewhere in Dublin as being a symbol of some impending crisis. It is perhaps somewhat inevitable that those areas that have historically been sought after in Dublin will be the first areas in which market demand will return, yet on a  fundamental level there is perhaps no better time in our recent history to challenge the dominance of the market within housing provision.

The current discussion points to a need for a broadening of the debate about the form that future planning policy will take in Ireland, and, more specifically, how it relates to the provision of housing. In short, where to build, what to build, and who to build for will become key factors within the evolution of planning in the coming years. There is no doubting the link between poor planning regulation and the current challenges facing Ireland, yet there is a need to ensure that we are not blinded by the search to get back to more ‘sustainable’ forms of settlement while ignoring a wide set of other issues. Returning to Marcuse; “… whether the “bubble” is centred in residential construction, high-rises or low-rises, in the central business district or the inner- or outer-ring suburbs, is only a question of where the bubble will appear or how it will look, not in whether there will be a bubble of some form somewhere”. Thus, there are a number of dangers attached in seeking out a solution by solely looking towards where we should or shouldn’t build housing in the future, whenever that future may be. In as much as it is important to support more sustainable forms of settlement patterns, there is also a danger of misplacing the image for reality, and ignoring the dangers of running for shelter in the rhetoric of high-density urban development in the ‘right places’ as the cure for all urban ills, or, indeed, simply accepting that market demand will return to some places prior to others. The social consequences of the boom years, and indeed a prolonged period of severely imbalanced approaches towards the built environment, as linked to negative equity and half populated and abandoned estates, are only really now beginning to become manifest, and are likely to dominate the social agenda for years to come.

Not withstanding the importance of debates about the availablity of housing and zoned land, it also seems important to ensure that such a debate is not dominated by market-oriented discussion of supply and demand. There is a clear need for policy attention to examine such issues from a social perspective without simply focusing on what the market does or doesn’t do. The entire connection between housing, planning, and market forces needs to be fundamentally addressed. This begins with a shift in perspective from one which upholds housing as yet another cog in the wheel of the market to one which views it first and foremost as a social good.

Philip Lawton

Peter Marcuse blog posts are available at: http://pmarcuse.wordpress.com/

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