#Densification


Back in 2009, at the height of global financial crisis, John Lovering in a hard-hitting editorial in International Planning Studies declared that, finally, it had happened.

The recession marked ‘the end of planning as we had known it’. There was no going back. The neoliberal model of urban policy-making, “it’s inequities, it’s harmful social and cultural effects, it’s disastrous impact on the environment and its economic unsustainability” was dead.

Except of course, like previous crises, it wasn’t.

Phoenixlike, the strange non-death of neoliberalism emerged unfazed. The Irish planning profession, anxious to deflect from its complicity in the Celtic Tiger and unsure of what else to do, slavishly followed along as every manner of idiotic mass tourism hotel, student housing scheme, build-to-rent apartment development, co-living unit and high-rise office block was approved, each testament to the parasitic power and private fortunes of international capital wrapped up in some Orwellian supply-side doublespeak of what is good for us.

Fast forward ten years, and there has been much talk again recently, in light of the COVID19 crisis, of the urgent need for a deep structural change in the planning and organisation of our urban environments. We have seen some promising signs in this direction as cities across Europe, including Dublin, seize the opportunity to repurpose streets from private cars to pedestrians and cyclists – initiatives long held back by reactionary interests – and a greater acknowledgement of the real value of green spaces, clean air, noiselessness, social cohesion and nature in urban liveability. These may be temporary, but demonstrate what is possible.

The pandemic has also laid bare the recrudesce of a planning system that has once more been reduced to a reactive, short-term and opportunity-driven activity which is likely to see the our cities littered with overcapacity and stranded assets.

The economic impact of COVID19 is, as yet, unknown but projections suggest it is likely to be severe and turbulent. As in 2009, the planning profession is about to be again sharply thrust up against what is probably its chief intellectual weakness – what to do when the land market is rendered largely inoperative? In such a situation the pattern of land-use will have to be determined administratively, but planning, as a body of knowledge, offers no ideas as to how this might be done. Paralysis ensues.

Like all cultural shocks, the COVID19 disruption presents liminal spaces, moments of cultural rupture, to rethink and do things differently, and to listen to alternative voices from outside the mainstream proposing hitherto unthinkable solutions – but who are almost always ignored – that radically challenge our take-for-granted worldviews in ways that is impossible through incremental change.

In order to make the best of this opportunity, planners will first have to wake up to the inexorable socio-ecological realities and discontinuities that will transform their identities in the 21st Century and recognise that, as Lovering advised, the best place for many of the policies pursued over the past decades is in the bin.

First to go should be the speculative, pseudo-planning ‘compact city’ doctrine and the much-purported groupthink amongst developers and urban growthists that urban regeneration needs to be hyper-densified in order to be sustainable, but which has thus far failed to regenerate much beyond the bottom-line of the property developers, financiers and consultants.

Alternative pathways abound, leaning on insights from the peripheries of orthodox received wisdom. The City of Amsterdam, for example, has recently adopted a new holistic strategy for transformative urban action based on the pioneering ‘Doughnut Economics’ of British economist, Kate Raworth.

The Amsterdam ‘City Donut’ presents a long-term planning policy vision which seeks to supplant the growth-orientated and competitive commodification of the city with ‘a thriving, regenerative and inclusive city for all citizens, while respecting the planetary boundaries’ to tackle climate breakdown and ecological collapse. To this end Amsterdam has joined the Thriving Cities Initiative (TCI), a collaboration between C40, Circle Economy, and Doughnut Economics Action Lab, which works with cities pursuing such a transformation.

Such dissident thinking, which has long been ‘beyond the pale’ for Irish policy elites, resonates with the open letter, signed by more than a thousand academics and experts from more than sixty countries, calling for Degrowth – a democratically planned yet adaptive, sustainable, and equitable downscaling of the economy – to be put at the centre of the COVID19 response, to build a more just and sustainable society and prevent further crises.

The Degrowth urban manifesto seeks to give the city back to its people, radically reorganise transport and mobility, (re)naturalise and decommodify the city, and, rather than densify, significantly increase space dedicated to green space, tree cover; biodiversity and urban ecosystems; and public housing, with a focus urban mobility on cycling, walking and public transport. These ideas reflect new ideas emerging from ‘post-growth’ planning thought which emphasises, solidarity, wellbeing, connectedness, empathy and a lifestyle based on principles of sufficiency.

Supporting growth and an irrational belief in ever rising asset values has, of course, always been the primary and unquestioned motivation of urban planning. It shall come as no surprise that, just as it was in the aftermath of the 2009 crisis, embracing new ethics and post-materialistic values will be stringently resisted by the old order who, as long as there are no viable alternatives, will engage in predatory delay insisting that the solution to the crisis is to work even harder at business-as-usual. Neoliberal urbanism has, after all, demonstrated extraordinary asymmetric capacity to crimp and contain disconfirming alternatives .

However, these are ideas whose time is coming. Nature is foreclosing our culture. To return to Lovering’s exhortation, planners will not be leading the action here, however “if they can shed the myopic habits of recent years and recapture the broader social and ethical inspirations with which the very concept of planning in modern times began, then planning might once again become worthy of the name”.

We cannot afford to waste the opportunity of crisis once more. Resigned realism is the best way to ensure the least transformative outcome.

Gavin Daly

@gavinjdaly @irelandplanners

*This blog has also been posted on Planners Network Ireland. If you wish to add your voice to other progressive planning voices, please sign-up!

Connolly Quarter

Densification. It’s all the rage. Everywhere, everyone agrees we must densify, “build up, not out!” the now familiar slogan goes, upzoning and compacting our urban footprints, all in the cause of increasing housing supply, boosting competitiveness and avoiding sprawl. Influential apostles of this mantra, such as David McWilliams and Ronan Lyons et al. (typically, always economists), effuse that our cities must go ever higher, easing restrictions on building height, while the populace must simply accustom itself to living in smaller housing, if it wants housing at all.

And it’s certainly working. Following Minister Eoghan Murphy’s diktat on building heights, we have seen a preponderance of new development proposals across our cities of such perpetual sameness, branded and bland homogeneity, a form of ‘Zombie Urbanism’, where the dull compulsion of economic and political space merge toward the elimination of all differences.

The new ‘Connolly Quarter’, for example (pictured above), proposed by Ballymore Group on lands owned by state body, CIE, in Dublin’s North Inner City proposes 741 build-to-rent apartments in towers of up to 23 storeys, including  228 studios, 256 one-bedroom, 251 two-bedroom and just 6 three-bedroom units all aimed at the “upper end of the private rental market”.

Here in this rationalised, functionalised and, above all, ideologically planned and designed space everything will look nice and urban, but in terms of social and community life, it’s monotonous, sterile and dead. Elite tenements where you literally live to work. I guess we are supposed to just count ourselves lucky that ten percent of these units may eventually trickle down as social housing or, that by providing high-end housing, it will free up supply for the poor. All hail the supply gods.

It was not so long ago that the North Inner City was in the news for other reasons. The Mulvey Report, commissioned by the government in response to a string of gangland violence, concluded that “there was a strong and deep local community sense of being ‘left behind’ during the Celtic Tiger period in relation to the IFSC/Docklands developments and the ‘false promises’ given and a real and genuine concern that this will be repeated” including “the possibility of further ghettoisation in the area between centres of affluence along the Quays and the ‘legacy’ areas of urban/community neglect and deprivation.” (p.13).

Mulvey recommended a carefully planned and integrated strategy to overcome the widespread and perceived sense of inequality and of a divided city epitomised by the stark contrast between the “modern architecture, world leading businesses and high worth residences within hundreds of metres of a large concentration of social housing with little or no business activity within the community” (p.13). The plan was to carefully link the ‘place’ and ‘people’ aspects of the local area to improve social cohesion and wellbeing, through the bottom-up and grassroots harnessing of community and heritage assets.

Instead, following decades of disinvestment and stigmatisation, we are now seeing the rapid resurgence of the seemingly never-ending spread of a market-driven policy of gentrification – what Neil Smith calls ‘generalised gentrification’. As rents have exploded, private capital is flowing back to where the rate of return is highest in a systematic attempt to recommodify and retake the inner city from disadvantaged communities in the form of balkanised student housing schemes, exclusive hotels, speculative high-end build-to-rent units and upmarket offices. Islands of privilege in a sea of displaced exclusion.

In seeking to close down any criticisms, visualisations depicting the everyday life of successful, creative professionals and highly-paid millennials ambling around their trendy new cosmopolitan quarter against the backdrop of hazy blue skies, and all the resplendent transformative qualities that the development will allegedly bring to the area when completed, are increasingly being mobilised as key discursive devices, such that any objection is curbed. For who could really be against it?

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Indeed, in the aftermath of the recession, the triumphant dominance of a market-driven supply-side polemic has become remarkably effective in censoring dissent alongside an alarming rise of intolerance in national discourse of differing viewpoints or opinions in the planning system, with so called ‘NIMBYs’ habitually berated for allegedly impeding supply. To criticise is to be subjected to a form of gaslighting and routinely discredited for consigning countless thousands to a life of homelessness. After all, it is the role of ideologies to depoliticise and secure the assent of the exploited and dispossessed through the colonisation of commonsense values, ideals and priorities.

Cuttings from the Ronan Real Estate Group/Colony Capital newspaper advertisement and #growupdublin social media campaign seeking building height policy changes. 

In the process, neoliberalised public policy initiatives, so favoured by the current government, such as the ‘fast-track’ Strategic Housing Development planning process, present further restrictions on opportunities for public participation and meaningful debate. The final ideological coup de grâce is the proposed new Housing & Planning Bill 2019 which seeks to dramatically rollback public access to justice in planning cases via the courts.

None of this is to say that urban consolidation is unimportant. We have seen so much sprawl, and all of problems it brings, that it is hard to see how its malign impacts can now be reversed. In fact, despite the present emphasis on urban containment, in a parallel universe offstage from the contentious and loud debates over our city skylines, business-as-usual urban dispersion continues apace, with little evidence that the new found emphasis on density will reverse it anytime soon.

However, it is also incumbent on planning professionals to look beyond the inveterate econocratic ‘growth machine’ dogmas currently shaping our cities, and to consider the real structural dynamics at play, and who benefits, which are often beyond the grasp of their inhabitants. Like the living dead, these zombie doctrines are alive in our heads and our language, but no longer visible to us in understanding our urban realities.

In truth, the densification/supply nexus is now being usefully exploited as a ploy to unwittingly conflate the needs of society with the needs of capital so as to legitimise the conditions for maximising profit and to conquer and shape urban space for the short-run priorities of finance, of capital, of economic and political elites, of those with power, a situation which is not unique to Ireland.

A more perceptive critical understanding of present-day urbanisation is particularly important at this specific historical juncture. Our built environment is long-lived and the impacts of the urban form we create today will be multidecadal, stretching into the lives of many generations and into a future of unknown resources, pollution and unstable climatic conditions, including probable major inundations of all of our coastal cities.

One of the chief justifications for the compact city ideal is the claimed environmental dividend particularly for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through, for example, increased efficiency and use of sustainable transport modes. However, this enthralled enthusiasm for so called ‘sustainable urbanism’ is contradicted by multiple empirical studies which demonstrate that there is no such correlation.

This literature instead argues that the inured idea that ‘density is destiny’ may actually run directly counter to the problems we are trying to solve, but gains no traction in planning debates or urban conversations. Indeed, higher density urban forms are, on the whole, more, not less, consumptive of resources than medium- and lower-density development, with affluent, high-density areas dominated by small and single-person households having, by far, the highest environmental impacts.

As discussed by Brendan Gleeson in his book, The Urban Condition:  “Straightforward density advocacy has the potential to mask and distort the real geography of environmental burden that derives from unequal consumption capacities and patterns” (p.115). The fetishised hyper-densified green city ideal is therefore, in reality, an ecological fallacy, an impossible utopia, and simply the latest fix to align the elite rent-seeking interests that dominate neoliberal urbanism with the resurgent environmental agenda.

What should be at the forefront in planning debates is, not densification, but what type of city we wish to create. Most of the low-density and sprawling built environment that has evolved over the last century will still be with us at the end of this century. We are not starting from a blank slate and, even if planning could implement rapid change, it is unlikely that this could reduce emissions of the scale and urgency required, as it is largely beyond its levers to control, diverting our attention from real urban challenges.

This points planning’s purpose towards the field of adaptation. That is, to propose that new development in cities, towns and suburbs must be planned, designed and, crucially, retrofitted for people as progressive, humane, accessible, liveable, equitable, green and just spaces for downscaled consumption within planetary boundaries, and not just sites for maximised urban production and profit. Density is not our destiny. Our future should be built around a renewed ‘Right to the City’.

Gavin Daly