As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, Hobbs, New Mexico, has been chosen as the site for a new purpose built ghost town.  The $1 billion euro venture will be a large urban research site, having no residents, and will be used to ‘test everything from intelligent traffic systems and next-generation wireless networks to automated washing machines and self-flushing toilets.’  The 15 square mile development will form the ‘Center for Innovation, Technology and Testing’.  The aim is to become a locus for smart city research and to attract significant R&D investment into the area that will use the facility to develop and test their innovations in city infrastructure, vehicles, domestic and commercial appliances and so on.

Could we use our ghost estates to foster such economic development?  Partially, maybe.  On the negative side, ours are already largely built and would need a lot of retrofitting, are too small in scale for city-wide testing, and nearly all have residents living on them or adjacent to them.  Still, it might be possible to use one or part of one for smart homes/living research.  An idea that someone might want to explore, perhaps.

Rob Kitchin

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Newstalk Radio broadcast a documentary ‘Deserted Village’ this morning at the convenient time of 7am (thankfully available as a podcast and repeated tomorrow at 9am).  Made by Jane Ruffino it examines the bubble and bust in Leitrim, in particular looking at property development in the county.  The focus is on two villages – Keshcarrigan and Newtowngore – and the town of Ballinamore.

Rather than examine the unfinished estate and empty one-off phenomena from a macro, abstract scale, the documentary provides a human face consisting of a number of frank and open conversations with residents, farmers, builders and developers.  What becomes apparent is that there were ‘no heroes, no villains, no happily-ever-afters’ and that everybody ultimately lost in the property frenzy – but that people are getting on with their lives and whilst resentful of the haunted landscape of excess property still love the place they call home.

Well worth a listen.

Rob Kitchin

P.S. the guerilla gardening piece we blogged about on Tuesday took place in Keshcarrigan.

Just published: NIRSA Working Paper 67 – Unfinished Estates in Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland by Rob Kitchin, Cian O’Callaghan and Justin Gleeson.

Abstract

In the wake of the global financial crisis, and the ongoing financial and fiscal crisis in Europe, much attention has focused on Ireland and its beleaguered economy given its status as one of the PIIGS and the fact that it had to be bailed out by the troika of the IMF, EU and ECB in November 2010.  Whilst much of the gaze has been directed at Ireland’s banks and the strategy of the Irish government to manage the crisis, a substantial amount of interest, both nationally and internationally, has been focused on the property sector and in particular the phenomenon of so-called ‘ghost estates’ (or in official terms, unfinished estates).  As of October 2011 there were 2,846 such estates in Ireland and they have come to visibly symbolise the collapse of Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy.  In this paper, we examine the unfinished estates phenomenon, placing them within the context of Ireland’s property boom during the Celtic Tiger years.  We detail the characteristics and geography of such estates, the various problems afflicting the estates and their residents, and the Irish government’s response to addressing those problems. In the final section we speculate as to the fate of such estates given the approach adopted and the wider political and economic landscape.

Full paper is here.

 

There’s been a fair bit of discussion in the media as to whether unfinished developments will be demolished.  The Mullingar Advertiser is reporting that a six acre site in village of Ballynagore, Westmeath is being returned to greenfield status by the local authority at a cost of 40,000 euro after local residents pressed for action.  The site presently comprises three almost complete bungalows that were erected in 2009 (I’ve had a look on Google Street View and I think the photo is the site as of May 2010) and was due to double the size of the village if completed.  The site has been described as dangerous posing health and safety concerns, with several large holes and an absence of secure fencing preventing access.  There have been reports of anti-social behavior, with the houses badly vandalised.  It was also unsightly, with several graffiti tags.

Unfinished estate, Ballynagore

There seems to be some confusion as to who owns the site and the person believed to be the developer is refusing to engage with the Westmeath County Council.  Given the lack of cooperation the Council is using the Derelict Sites Act to take action, including knocking down the three bungalows.  At present, the Mullingar Advertiser is reporting that it seems unlikely that the Council will be able to recover the costs of demolition.

Whilst it is good to see Westmeath County Council being proactive in tackling the site, it also raises a couple of questions including:  Why is there confusion over who is the owner/developer? Why can’t the bond be drawn to down to contribute/cover costs?  If the developer has defaulted, why can’t the bank be called on to cover costs?  Is there any possibility of the site transferring to local authority ownership in lieu of costs?  It seems a shame to knock three almost complete bungalows, six kilometres from the M6 at Kilbeggan, but clearly they are in a poor state of repair and the local authority feel they and the site are past saving at this point without the developer’s input.

What the story does make clear is that some unfinished estates are now starting to be levelled and returned to greenfield status.  It’ll be interesting to see the extent to which other sites follow suit.

Rob Kitchin

Some interesting comparisons between the blighted neighbourhoods of US cities and the future of the so called ‘Ghost Estate’ have taken root in public debate over the last year, most recently in the Sunday Business Post where David McWilliams raised the issue again in his article ‘Ghettoisation of the nation’ (23/11/2009 Link). Here he bleakly promoted a common idea now in circulation that the Ghost Estates are ghettos- in -waiting, magnets for anti-social behaviour, and ripe for abandonment from homeowners who may no longer pay their mortgage due to rising unemployment.

There’s no doubt that empty and partly occupied residential estates have become a potent symbol of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. No doubt either that vacant homes touch some part of the psyche and can act as a loci for anxiety or ‘trauma’. But are the pronouncements about their demise to quickly made? And is their imagined future as a Ghetto overstated? In his recent piece, McWilliams’s subtly evades what urbanists understood about ghetto formation.

First of all, drawing attention to the consequences of mortgage foreclosure in the US as a lesson for what to come in Ireland is misleading. Certainly the rise of foreclosures in the USA is linked to rises in unemployment, particularly amongst poor non-white communities, but their sudden increase occurred in the near absence of a social safety net for their occupants, and because of highly inflexible banking system which is unable to negotiate to those in arrears to live in situ and restructure their payment – two forces which are not at work in Ireland. The statistics bear this out. Whilst the falls in the values of property and the rise in unemployment in Ireland have mirrored the situation in some states in the USA, house repossessions here – despite recent increases – remain fortunately a tiny percentage of the Irish housing scene. Moreover, even in the event that foreclosures rose here very significantly, because of the way in which Irish public services are funded (mainly on central rather than local taxation), financially speaking, mortgage foreclosure are delinked from the budgets of Local Authorities, social services, education or the police. This means that the prospect of these estates being abandoned by the state and left to go to ruin is unlikely. It follows surely that new ghetto formation or urban blight will not occur in Ireland on the basis of foreclosure in the way it has happened in the American rustbelt.

Secondly, a quick glance at the experience of urban blight in other countries presents a scenario which offers a poor match to the conditions of the presented by unoccupied estates in Ireland. Urban blight is strongly associated with areas with high levels of long term unemployment, high percentage of people dependent on welfare, high turnovers of population, concentrations of crime, drug abuse, vandalism, environmental contamination, insufficient social infrastructure, structural deficiencies of buildings and functional deficiencies of neighbourhood.  Many have been temped to jump to conclusions that the Ghost Estate is somehow at the beginning of the process.  But what needs to be appreciated is that urban blight will only kick in once these characteristics reach an intensity and scale which is endemic and long- term, and only when both the market and the state have withdrawn for a considerable length of time.  The extensive urban blight in cities like Baltimore, St Louis or Detroit were not created overnight but by long term economic restructuring and by an even more long term planning regime in post-war US that boosted the development of suburbia with low tax, flexible credit arrangements, a pull factor that drew largely white populations out of the urban core to live in edge-city neighbourhoods. The same process, underwritten by institutional racism trapped largely poor and black Americans into social housing in the old city cores, areas that could not generate tax-income and as a consequence fell into a spiral of decline.

To suggest the Ghost Estate problem in Ireland will amount to a problem of Ghettoization on par with the desperate situation in the US misjudged speculation. It’s some leap to compare Irish Ghost estates on the outskirts of villages like Roscarberry, Co. Cork or Edgeworthstown, Co Longford with Baltimore. Rather here we have a different housing ecology, with a different political and economic context.  To put it another way, the solutions to address the Ghost Estates in Ireland are less than a thousandth of what it will take to address the social problems of our own deprived urban areas.  The ‘overhang’ in unoccupied units is large, but a mixture of demand from new household formations, and market price correction will soak it up eventually.  The actual percentage of the vacant units that will eventually fall into dereliction will not constitute a national crisis.

These empty housing estates then are better understood as part of the peculiar geography of the NAMAscape, whose topography still needs careful mapping and interpretation. So? No Ghosts. Just Estates. A problem? Sure, but one not best addressed by McWilliams’s bleak dystopian vision of the city (I’m thinking about what consequences such ways of thinking had for the destruction of Georgian Dublin in 1970s), but by creative, imaginative and innovative housing policy which is still, despite the crisis in government finances, not outside our grasp.

Denis Linehan