March 2015

The problematic of rural Ireland and the rapidly emergent conditions of an increasingly urban-focused economic recovery has recently hit the headlines and moved front-and-centre in the concerns of both the media and government. RTE aired the “The Battle for Rural Ireland” documentary featuring the forlorn parents of emigrants and boarded up rural towns followed by the all too familiar, and equally depressing, ‘debate’ on Claire Byrne Live. The column inches of newspapers have similarly carried numerous commentaries on the flatlining rural economy and rural depopulation with the chair of the government’s CEDRA commission, established to champion rural development, decrying the painfully slow progress in implementing its rural job creation strategy.  Dr. Brian Hughes on this blog and in the national media has been to the fore in arguing that the notion of balanced regional development is a fallacy and that “the future is urban” – something which the political class is loath to accept. Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has declared 2015 “the year of rural recovery” where the fruits of economic growth will be spread equally across the land. Minister Simon Coveney was also on message pointing to the resurgence in agriculture and that reports of the demise of rural Ireland had been greatly exaggerated. The IDA has even been mandated to develop new strategies to convince multinationals to invest outside of major cities while the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation proposes to publish new Regional Enterprise Strategies. Ireland’s uneven economic geography – temporarily masked by the property bubble – has re-emerged as a major political battleground for the upcoming general election and the trite urban versus rural ‘Punch ‘n’ Judy’ show, which has disastrously hampered the national territorial planning agenda for decades, appears set to continue in perpetuity. Such is the political uneasiness that, just like in 2002 when the publication of the NSS was delayed by a general election, it is unlikely that the proposed new National Planning Framework (NPF) will be seen any time before 2017. Plus ça change.

It is of course an inescapable reality that for a country where the entire economic foundation is built upon attracting mobile international capital in high-value knowledge economy and export-orientated sectors, such as ICT and financial services, that Ireland’s future is urban. The international experience and literature on why this is so is voluminous, requiring little explanation here. Worldwide, urbanisation is progressing at an unprecedented pace. Unless there is a major shift in national economic philosophy or global conditions, no amount of strategising or rural broadband schemes will permit Ireland to buck that trend. Simply put, capital will locate where it is most profitable and that invariably means in cities. However, rather than continuing to flog the dead horse of a specious urban/rural dichotomy it would be perhaps more productive in the context of developing the new NPF to instead conceive of a new understanding of what urbanisation means in 21st Century Ireland.  We continually persist with outdated notions that ‘up in Dublin’ is some spatially discreet, densely agglomerated and bounded entity roughly delineated by the M50 motorway. Equally, we tend to mawkishly cling to 19th century romantic notions of rural Ireland as sparsely populated verdant and pastoral countryside ‘bright and cosy with homesteads’. Neither exists, and these crude morphological or population-centric typologies are extremely misleading lenses into the recent dynamics of Irish urbanisation. Instead, it would be more instructive to reconceptualise urbanisation as a dynamically evolving process which is taking place at wider spatial scales with ever-increasing reach and extending outwards into broader operational landscapes, including new forms of land-use intensification, counter-urbanisation, logistical chains, commuter hinterlands, core-periphery polarisation and uneven development. Both rural and urban are increasingly interwoven, shapeless, formless making it difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. Distinctions that made sense in the past have become entirely moot.*

The 'Real' Urban Ireland

The Real Urban Ireland (Source CSO 2012, Pg. 25)

Maintaining the contested urban/rural political soapbox serves only as a comfortable façade for a body politic to beat their chests and engage in a disingenuous performance of seriousness towards the welfare of ‘Rural Ireland’ while the inevitable reality unfolds around them. As a consequence, in a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem, we have unwittingly managed to produce the worst of both worlds – places that are neither city nor countryside – and much of the unplanned spatial chaos we have inherited today. Somehow, along the way Irish policymakers seem to have conflated economic spill-overs with sprawling ex-urban zones of high accessibility as a prescription for halting rural depopulation (what Fianna Fáil’s Eamon O’Cuiv approvingly terms the ‘melting ice-cream effect’). Therefore, perhaps the biggest mistake the new NPF could make is to continue with this hackneyed straitjacket of the urban/rural binarism and the notion that Ireland can be analytically carved up into two distinct spatial categories for intervention. The ignored challenge facing ‘Rural Ireland’ is, in fact, that it is in variously advanced stages of becoming urbanised. If we continue to relegate ‘Rural Ireland’ as being outside the urban condition then we will forever misdiagnose the problem. As a result, we will persistently fail to frame the appropriate policy responses to address the implications of these ongoing processes for the future forms and pathways of urbanisation and, more generally, for the organisation of the built environment. Perhaps it’s time to confront an uncomfortable premise – ‘Rural Ireland’ no longer exists.

Gavin Daly

* Neil Brenner, ‘Implosions/Explosions: Towards a study of planetary urbanization (2014)


‘What if Dublin’ superimposes possible future of the Markets on to existing everyday reality

A public-engagement installation running throughout the St Patrick’s Day festival entitled ‘What if Dublin’ aims to directly ask citizens of Dublin about what the city could be. The approach is a relatively straight-forward one: benches with imagined futures have been located in five locations throughout the city centre. On each bench is a piece of information about the specific location with an image of possible transformations placed on a screen. Viewers are then asked to engage in discussion via twitter. In opening up the possibility of citizen engagement, ‘What If Dublin’ challenges both existing power structures and us as citizens to think about what type of city we desire. This in itself raises deep-rooted questions about the political economic structures of the city and the politics of citizen engagement.


Challenging the Capitalist City? ‘What if Dublin’ reinvention of land-assembly site on Abbey Street

In asking questions about a variety of spaces, whether they be about the re-use of vacant sites, the transformation of former public toilets, or the possibilities for new public spaces, the ‘What if Dublin’ project taps into what could be referred to as a ‘political economy of place-making’. The asking of what at face-value may seem like the relatively straight-forward question of ‘what if’ opens up questions that go to the very core of our political and economic system. To take one example, reading a city’s spaces through its levels of vacancy and dereliction points to the dominance of a highly speculative approach to city-building, where vacancy emerges through a never-ending seesaw of disinvestment and reinvestment. With such processes at the core of Dublin’s social and spatial reality, it is hard to escape the direct connection to the transformation of public space, whether it be the gradual erosion of public services such as public toilets, or, indeed, the wider socio-economic transformation of the city.

In projecting a design-led approach of promoting public engagement, ‘What if Dublin’ raises the broader need to question an approach dominated by land-assembly and market-oriented city-making. Yet, we must also recognize that spatial imaginaries do not happen in a political vacuum. Design and related forms of engagement are part of a much wider set of processes that have deeply rooted economic, political and social dimensions. In seeking to question our future city, we must also ask what type of city ‘we’ desire. This in itself is perhaps one of the hardest questions we can ask ourselves, and is only a short step to asking who has the right to define who the city is for and what form it should take. In the words of David Harvey, drawing on Robert Park:

… the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of daily life we desire, what kinds of technologies we deem appropriate, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire.”

The opening up of public dialogue around different spatial typologies by ‘What if Dublin’ allows for discussions that go beyond surface images, and opens up the potential to question directly the forms of politics that city might necessitate for an open, engaged and ‘just’ city. Yet, in so doing, we must be aware of the politics of our own desire. Spatial renderings are embedded with a set of political meanings or economic imperatives that can often come to represent the interests of one core group over the interests of wider society. ‘What if Dublin’ can be read as a call to embrace the multifaceted politics of urban space. That is a debate worth having and one that is urgently necessary.

Philip Lawton

Extended precis (PDF of full paper)

The publication of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government’s ‘non-statutory’ Planning Policy Statement (PPS) in January 2015, heralds the prospect of the replacement of the National Spatial Strategy (2002-2020) with a National Planning Framework (NPF). The PPS emphasises that future Planning Strategy should be both evidence-based and plan-led.

As a contribution to these developments, this paper presents a demographic approach applied to the spatial planning context for current housing needs and points to compelling reasons for developing Ireland’s cities whilst curtailing the ongoing proliferation of villages, small towns and one-off housing, and for services provision, infrastructural priorities and related policy issues.

The paper’s first consideration is that of Ireland’s imperative for its emerging housing strategy: to improve its economic competitiveness which is compromised by its small-scale urban content. The State’s modest-sized settlements, with their inevitable diseconomies of scale, present economic handicaps to the provision of both public and private sector services. Unsurprisingly, they are the subject of current services-rationalisation, often of a controversial nature.

The outgoing spatial NSS planning policy is based on the definition of Balanced Regional Development (BRD) which is self-contradictory. In a modern economy, the optimal performance of the State is critically dependent on that of its primary contributors and of their large settlements’ ability to generate urban agglomerative spill-over: not on the BRD definitional illusion of achieving the full potential of each area. BRD is the opposite to achieving settlements of ‘Concentrated Lumpiness’, which would be characterised as centripetal agglomeration: of dense, efficient centres of population and their associated clusters of employment.

The outcome from the 2002-2020 National Spatial Strategy is that its BRD policy has encouraged excessive village and small-town proliferation. Over a fifteen year period to the last census, there has been a 30.6% growth in the proliferation of settlements of less than 5,000 since 1996, but especially so in for smaller town and village categories. Thus future spatial planning should place emphasis on the selective locations for new housing so as to complement and promote urban agglomeration. New house types are likely to introduce double-duplex and other innovative features of urban design, reducing the need for car ownership whilst encouraging more sustainable forms of transportation, suitable for short commutes.

The paper also differentiates between the requirements of the two principal areas of State: the Greater Dublin Area (GDA) and the Rest of State (RoS) areas. It finds that in 2011 there are many striking contrasts between the two areas. Dublin has nearly eleven times the average population size of the four RoS cities. The overall average settlement size for each of the seven categories of towns and villages is also greater in the GDA.

GDA house vacancy rates in 2011 were between just one-third and one half of those of the RoS areas, a contrast that has increased since then. This places an increasing need for focused housing supply-demand research. The wastefulness and inefficiencies of higher levels of current housing vacancy, directly corresponds to the remoteness of a county from its nearest city and particularly so in its further distance from Dublin.

Given the fragile sizes of Irish urban settlements, the emerging spatial planning and development imperative should especially facilitate the growth of larger, selected, populated towns and some cities, so as to counteract the extent of small-settlement proliferation in the RoS villages and Non-Nucleated populations. The housing crisis and affordability issue is also linked to the unsustainability of long and medium-distance commuting, given the census evidence and the geography of daytime working population and to Ireland’s economic competitiveness.

The research notes that from the most recent indications of prospective developments in Ireland’s spatial planning strategy, there is still little evidence that the authorities recognise or appreciate the need for an urban agglomeration ‘top-down’ approach, where the alternative focus continues to be dominated by rural generated ‘bottom-up’ strategies, making the task of achieving urban agglomeration difficult. Thus there have been few opportunities in the RoS area to exploit and take advantage of urban agglomeration forces.

Unfortunately, Ireland has always had a spatial record of eschewing its cities. In 1969 the first ‘modern’ spatial strategy, the Buchanan Plan’s objective of achieving an accelerated growth of fifteen or so of the provincial cities and larger towns was politically rejected. Subsequent ‘politically dominated’ planning strategies have sought to ‘give a little to everyone in the audience’ instead of implementing a policy of concentrating the State’s limited capital resources to a few chosen locations which have the potential to grow at a much faster rate than the norm and thereby ‘capture’ the benefits of scale, of critical mass and of urban agglomeration.

The irony is that if today’s Ireland had such ‘concentrated lumpiness’, this policy direction would have considerably mitigated the depth of the recession that has visited so many of its small towns, villages and open countryside. Agglomerative ‘spillovers’ from larger Regional cities and large towns remains the only certain way to counteract rural decline. Ireland has yet to learn that painful urban economic lesson.

Because of the bias favouring town growth, exacerbated by the population deflection from unaffordable housing in the cities, especially for Dublin, their aggregate growth has been much lower than might otherwise have been expected. During 1996-2011 the State population increased by 26.53% whereas the cities grew by just 16.42%, – i.e. even less than the 17.72% for the non-nucleated rural areas and towns/ villages of 5,000 and under.

This paper concludes that the capacity to generate ‘spill-overs’ are currently constrained, limited perhaps to Dublin and to the CASP area surrounding Cork City. Thus, it should come as no surprise that due to the defects of past strategic spatial planning policies, rural emigration is rife and economic downturn is magnified for regions which do not have large towns but especially cities.

Full paper

Dr Brian Hughes, DIT


Apple’s decision to establish a data centre is an undoubted boon for Athenry, a small town that, like so many other small towns and rural areas, has seen little substantial investment in recent years. Data centres employ small numbers but 100 permanent jobs will make a significant impact in a town that in 2011 had 4,000 inhabitants, 1,265 jobs and an unemployment rate of 18 per cent. The development was celebrated by An Taoiseach, who sees it as another step in the right direction “… as the Government works to secure recovery and see it spread to every part of the country”. This comment should be understood in the context of the recently launched framework for the development of regional enterprise strategies and the IDA’s stated aim of achieving a better distribution of investment across Irish regions. But what does Apple’s investment in Athenry really mean for the future of small towns and rural areas? Should it be regarded as a potential path to future economic growth for small towns and rural communities or should it instead be seen as a one-off event?

The answer is, neither. Nationally, (and globally) we are witnessing a concentration of employment in urban centres, notably the largest metropolitan centres. Edgar Morgenroth at the ESRI has calculated that in 2011 overall jobs were 11 per cent more spatially concentrated compared to 2006. My own research has shown that in 2012, County Dublin accounted for 71% of all employment in new foreign operations in Ireland (the situation has improved somewhat since).

This preference for larger urban centres has proven to be most evident amongst those knowledge economy companies that the IDA has been so successful in attracting: the born-on-the-Internet companies, digital content developers, financial services, business services, and so forth. These companies require connectivity, both in terms of international airports and Internet-ports. They look for large pools of educated labour and, therefore, like to be located near universities. Educated workers also tend to prefer to live in vibrant cities that possess a high degree of connectivity.

Apple’s decision to locate in Derrydonnell near Athenry should be seen as a special case (though not a one-off event). The main attractions of Ireland for data centre investment include favourable corporation tax, connectivity to the transatlantic Internet backbone and, last but not least, its climate. Cooling is a major cost factor for data centres and companies can achieve significant cost savings by making best use of Ireland’s low-temperature ambient air. Until recently, data centre activity in Ireland was heavily concentrated in the periphery of Dublin, close to the Internet backbone that connects the business parks along the M50. But, after Rackfloor’s decision to locate in Limerick, Apple in Athenry is evidence of an incipient dispersion process that can also be observed abroad. For example, Google is constructing a mega data centre in Eemshaven, arguably the most peripheral spot in the Netherlands. The reason is that high bandwidth connectivity is becoming available in more locations and companies like Apple are establishing their own content networks, allowing for rural locations – where property prices are relatively low – to now become attractive sites. Data centres are able to operate in small towns because they require a relatively small number of IT service workers – I estimate 50 IT service workers of the 100 permanent jobs, with the remainder occupied with support functions and security.

There will be other date centers and other informational economy projects locating in small, or even smaller, urban centres. But there are about 100 urban centres in Ireland that are larger than Athenry, the vast majority of which did not receive any foreign investment in the last decade. And there are another 100 towns and urban settlements that are smaller than Athenry. The point is that small urban centres in Ireland should not focus on foreign investment. Neither should IDA Ireland be asked to promote foreign investments in every town in Ireland. Clearly, the current trend in concentration of foreign investment is too strong and, as stated in its new five-year plan, the IDA is correctly, and energetically, adopting a strategy supporting greater dispersion to the regions. But this cannot, and should not, take the form of investment in every regional town. We must face up to the fact that the character of inward investment has changed and that the time when the IDA could parachute a low value-added assembly plant in every small town in Ireland has gone.

We need to reconsider the space-economy of Ireland, and the roles of urban centres of different size, in the context of the new environment. Concentration of foreign investment in a select number of sizeable regional urban centres, and in Dublin, should be encouraged. If we concentrate social and economic infrastructure we can make these centres attractive for foreign investment. These centres will enjoy cumulative processes and their growth will benefit the wider region.

The centres will function as major regional employment centres for their hinterland. That will involve commuting for some. Currently 38% of the population of Athenry are already commuting into Galway. Provided that we invest in high quality public transport and infrastructure, there is nothing wrong with this.

Clearly, some areas will be outside the commuting range of the large centres. But all urban centres will potentially have an important economic and employment role. Foreign companies account for only 9% of employment in Ireland. Smaller regional centres should focus on indigenous opportunities such as indigenous private enterprise, public sector jobs, farming, off-farm employment, and tourism. Indeed, the indigenous sector beyond Dublin is performing very well, with 70% of net job gains of Enterprise Ireland clients over the past year occurring outside Dublin.