The front cover of U2’s 1981 album, October, features the band members standing on front of the Grand Canal Docks in Dublin. In keeping with the same theme, the  scene is put to motion in the video for ‘Gloria’, the second single from the album. At the end of the video, the camera zooms to the sky to overlook an area that has now all but disappeared. The landscape presented is a bleak one of the Grand Canal Docks and surroundings heading towards post-industrial redundancy. When viewed now, within the context of all that has been built since, the presentation of the Docks becomes a powerful reminder of the Dublin from which U2 emerged.

Although secondary to themes such as love, loss, and faith, Dublin has been a regular feature of both the lyrics and visual effects of U2 over the last 30 years or so, presenting the everyday landscapes and spaces of the city to a global audience. Their rise to fame preempted the property boom of the 1990s/2000’s, and by the time Dublin had gone from bust to boom and back again their connection to the city that they are from had moved from that of a point of reference and emotional attachment, to being one that was visually and culturally inscribed within the spaces of the city. Over the years, this association has shifted from what Niall Stokes cites as the sea of North County Dublin in ‘The Ocean’, to the more overt mention of the ‘seven towers’ of Ballymun in ‘Running to Stand Still’, and on to what, for now at least, remains only as the mythical creation of the U2 Tower overlooking The Liffey.

For much of the 1980s, the references to Dublin were predominantly lyrical and audiovisual. For example, following on from the above-mentioned October, and, later the video for ‘Pride’, the opening scene of Rattle and Hum from 1988 changes from a live performance of ‘Helter Skelter’ to ‘van Diemen’s Land’. Here, the camera moves over a cliff and then suddenly shifts to the almost vacant post-industrial space of the Point Depot just prior to its transformation to a concert venue. For the duration of the song, the camera drifts in and out from images of the band to various Dublin landmarks of the time, including the Guinness ships with Liberty Hall standing boldly in the background, the now demolished Gasometer, the Pigeon House chimneys, and then back to Grand Canal Docks.

As U2 became more renowned, their relationship to Dublin began to change. Perhaps the first inscription of the band within the space of the city is the informal development of the graffiti wall in the area of the Windmill Lane studio (and, later Hanover Quay). Then, gradually, in as much as U2 set out in a raw post-punk format, and went on to become a sleek global rock act, their relationship to a rapidly transforming city began to change in tandem with such an evolution. The early 1990s heralded a new dawn for both the band and Dublin. Here, just as the architects responsible for the transformation of Temple Bar were taking reference from newly emerging design influences, such as IBA-Berlin, U2, now in the middle of their embrace of all things European, from the Trabant to ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’, were buying their own bit of ‘European Dublin’: The Clarence Hotel.

While the Clarence sat neatly within the redevelopment of Temple Bar in the early 1990s, its planned transformation of the mid to late 2000’s was symbolic of the dawn of a new level of desire within Dublin. Gone were the contextual insertions and careful treatment of the historic fabric of the area, in came international star-architect Norman Foster to create a bold new Clarence Hotel topped with a ‘Sky catcher’.  The facades of the demolished buildings may have been retained, but the new Clarence was  to fit directly within the new language of ‘iconic architecture’ which was then gathering momentum. However, if the redevelopment of the Clarence was certain to stand out from its surroundings, it would be dwarfed by the plans to develop the U2 Tower in the docklands.

Foster and Partners, U2 Tower Render. Source, Irish Independent

The story had now come full circle. The docks no longer represented the yearning to break out of the mold, but the desire for U2 to become inscribed physically in the space of the city, with a commanding view of the newly emerging landscape. That both the U2 Tower and the Clarence were designed by Norman Foster* reflected the strength of two powerhouses from separate elements of the globalised cultural realm. The U2 Tower was to become the symbol of the shifting nature of both the meanings of Dublin’s landscape and that of ‘culture’ in our society and city. That which had been outside and cutting-edge was now centre-stage. Culture was the future of the city, and here it was, in a sense, almost growing; 120 metres, then 180 metres in height.

Then, as though almost over night, all that emerged was a hole in the ground, and the Grand Canal Docks and surroundings took on a new feeling; one half vibrant, the other half vacant.

Philip Lawton

*The Foster design replaced an earlier design. For discussion and copies of various news stories on this, see here.

Last Friday, John O’Connor, the Chairperson of An Bord Pleanala,  gave the closing address at the Irish Planning Institute’s conference in Galway.  The speech received some coverage in the Irish media over the weekend (see Irish Times, RTE), although it was trumped by Morgan Kelly’s latest proclamation setting out why Ireland is heading for further woes.

The full speech is available on the An Bord Pleanala’s website, along with the powerpoint slides.  As noted in the media reports, the speech was a frank assessment of the work of An Bord Pleanala and the planning system during his tenure.  Here are some highlights.

Laissez-faire approach to planning

There is a theory that there is an element of chaos in the Irish character that makes us sceptical of regulation or planning.  “Rules are there to be broken if you can get away with it”.  This may account for some of our very serious failings over the past decade.  It may also explain why the Irish body politic has been reluctant to embrace fully real spatial or land-use planning.  This would mean drawing up and agreeing visions for physical development at the national, regional and local levels, involving difficult choices based on objective criteria for the public good and then insisting on adherence to these plans.  Unlike other countries, even when statutory planning documents are adopted a laisser-faire approach often prevails and many vested interests – landowners and developers – see plans as something that can be got round or changed.

On local authority decision making

For the future, it would greatly increase the public credibility of the planning system if local authorities were seen to vindicate their own development plans in their decisions on planning applications.  Far too often, the Board find itself refusing permission for developments permitted locally on grounds of contravention of the development plan.  In some cases, one can see the pressure being brought on local decision makers to grant permission even if it conflicts with the development plan.  But these decisions breed scepticism and frustration on the part of the general public.  After all, the courts have pronounced the development plan to be a contract with the community and the local authority itself – not An Bord Pleanála – should be seen as its strongest defender.

On one-off housing

“Over the years, the issue of rural housing has always figured prominently in my discourses with successive Oireachtas Committees on the Environment.  While only a small proportion of one-off housing applications come before the Board on appeal, it became clear to me, early on, that there was a need for national planning guidance because of the widely varying and often internally inconsistent, not to say lax, approaches being taken by county councils around the country.  I publicly called for National Guidelines and these were introduced in draft form in 2004.  While the Guidelines have brought more consistency and objectivity to the issue, the proportion of local authority decisions reversed by the Board on rural house appeals is higher than the general run of appeals.  It is evident from the Board’s perspective that councils are taking widely different approaches in interpreting and applying the Guidelines.  One can observe cases of undue pressure being brought on planners to recommend permissions.  There is often a lack of transparency in decision making that can lead to huge frustration on the part of third parties and other applicants who are refused permission.”

Land zoning

The greatest failures in Irish planning and the issue that has brought the system most into disrepute revolve around the zoning of land.  The zoning of land for appropriate and sustainable uses is at the heart of planning and if this departs from proper principles the whole system is in difficulty and this extends to the property and land market and the construction industry.  At the publication of the Board’s 2008 Annual Report, I said that the excessive and unsustainable zoning of land had been a contributor to the property bubble and its aftermath and that if we were to return to realistic development planning some of this zoning would have to be reversed.  For this reason I welcomed the provisions set out in the 2010 Act which introduce the idea of a core strategy for the development of each development plan area that respects the national and regional contexts.  A more sustainable, coherent, evidence-based and objective approach to zoning will avoid a repeat of the disorderly sprawl of inefficient and wasteful development and restore credibility to the planning system as a whole.  It will also lead to less lobbying by vested interests, better planning decisions and probably less need for appeals to the Board.  We also need to avoid a repeat of the situation where perfectly good established business and community uses were displaced by more “profitable” new development.

Developers and Banks

I find it extraordinary that huge decisions about land purchase were made by developers without any apparent input from planners and, even worse, vast sums of money were lent by banks to facilitate development projects without any apparent planning advice.

Landscape

Landscape is a case in point and I do not believe that the planning system has done enough to protect the unique Irish landscape, which is a cultural, environmental and economic asset of inestimable value: once destroyed, it cannot be restored.  Can we continue to build one-off houses all over the landscape in the quantity and of the type we’ve seen over recent years?  In our drive for renewable energy are we striking the right balance between wind farms and the landscape?  We have noted how the scatter of houses throughout the countryside has forced essential infrastructure, such as power-lines, into more sensitive landscapes.

Regrets

While we did refuse permission for many developments we regarded as unacceptable, my greatest regret is that the Board did not take a stronger stand against residential developments that were based on bad zoning, remotely located and of poor design quality.  I did realise at the time that some of the developments coming before the Board, particularly residential schemes, were questionable and indeed at publication of various annual reports I referred to concerns about the poor standard of some of the developments in tax incentive areas, the appropriateness of the suburban type schemes being attached to towns and villages around the country and to the sustainability of the zoning policies of many local authorities.  However, the Board often found itself in a difficult position because in our planning system if the land is properly zoned in the development plan and serviced there is a presumption in principle that development will be permitted and to refuse could mean local authorities being faced with claims for compensation by landowners.  While it is a fact that the Board did refuse many schemes that fell short of adequate planning or design standards, often in the teeth of local and media criticism, it did permit some which with hindsight it might have refused.  Here I’m referring to schemes that although fully zoned and serviced were too large for the town or too remote from services and to poorly located and designed apartment developments.  Perhaps a few shopping developments that were too large or too remote from town/city centres got through.  In the early days of wind farm developments in bogs I think the Board may have underestimated the risks of peat-slides but in latter times assessment of these risks has become much more rigorous.

Economic recovery

Economic recovery will require us all to become more efficient in the use of resources in order to increase competitiveness and get a greater return from the severely diminished level of resources we have.  Planning has a vital part to play in ensuring the most efficient use of existing infrastructure and that new infrastructure is provided in the most effective and efficient manner possible.  This will require that development be directed to places where infrastructure already exists or can be efficiently expanded.  This principle should apply whether the infrastructure is provided by public bodies or private companies.  The future operational costs of infrastructure e.g. the long term costs of pumping water services should also be factored in.  The need to maximise the return from public investment in infrastructure must be factored into the current debate in relation to densities and in particular residential densities.  Current difficulties should not dictate a return to an unsustainable spread of low density development.

Property tax

I would also like to think that, in the future, planning would be better integrated with other policy areas.  Taxation and fiscal policies should support the kind of good planning I’ve been talking about.  This is why I’ve been advocating a land value tax for some time.  The Celtic Tiger era clearly indicated that the demand for property and in particular residential property was determined more by financial considerations than by population projections or demographics.  The land use planning system cannot determine or control that demand in a free market economy.  It is essential if we are to avoid a recurrence of the boom/bust cycle that demand is not artificially inflated by financial incentives and considerations.

Housing policy

Commonsense alone would dictate that local authority Housing Strategies should be fairly radically revised to take account of the utterly changed housing market and socio-economic conditions.

Reform of Planning Authorities

In An Bord Pleanála we have a good overview of the operation of the planning system across all of the 88 local planning authorities.  In the context of public sector reform, it has become clear to me that, while acknowledging the need to retain their local democratic character, many of these authorities have administrative areas that are much too small and fractured to constitute meaningful planning units in terms, for example, of efficient infrastructure provision, the strategic location of future development or the management of water catchments.  Equally, they cannot be expected to have at their ready disposal the full range of skills and experience demanded by a modern planning service which must operate under an increasingly complex body of planning and environmental legislation.  For these reasons I welcomed the recent report of the Local Government Efficiency Review Group in relation to the structures and management of local planning administration in Ireland.  They provide the opportunity for a more rationally structured and better skilled and managed planning service which would be able to offer the best planning advice and provide the analysis and assessments of projects that are required of a modern planning service governed by increasingly complex and extensive legislation.

On planners

While the planning system in this country has had its problems, I think that, overall, the planning profession has served the country well.  Many of the development plans and local area plans are written to a very high standard and good work by planners has resulted in excellent outcomes in terms of urban renewal, urban design, streetscape improvements, high quality industrial parks and the more integrated approach to development of new areas as typified by the SDZs.  However, I still think the influence of the planning profession within local authorities has been less than it should have been.  For example, why did so few planners secure the key Director of Services positions in the Better Local Government reforms?  On the face of it, planners should be well grounded by their training to aspire to policy development and management positions (e.g. to take the wider longer term view, to synthesise different elements, to focus on outcomes, etc.).  I think that the IPI should give some thought to this issue because it is by entering some of the more senior positions that planners will achieve the level of influence that they should have in local government as a whole and consequently on the quality of development.  Generally speaking, although there have been some notable exceptions, the planning profession has been less assertive in responding to situations where the principles of sustainable development need to be defended or promoted, than other professions have been when their core values are under threat.

The choice of location for major projects – whether public or private sector – should have a much stronger planning input.  Planners should be part of the site selection process – and not seen as people to be brought in to make the planning application afterwards.

There is plenty there for the IPI, planners, and local and national government to reflect on and respond to.

Rob Kitchin

The Heritage Council has just published its report – Proposals for Ireland’s Landscape.  From the Heritage Council’s perspective, the Irish landscape is a core cultural resource, a source of identity, and a sustainable economic  resource through farming, forestry, tourism and heritage – it is both our inheritance and our gift to the future.  They argue that over the boom years we lost sight of this, building one-off McMansions all over the countryside, built on floodplains, constructed estates, retail parks, industrial units, etc, in, and routed roads through, inappropriate locations that impact on the natural/cultural landscape and the lives of citizens in negative ways that leaves a poor gift to future generations.

“Things are always in flux, and the accelerated pace of building and development witnessed over the last decade in Ireland has left a mixed legacy of successes and failures that we are going to have to live with for the foreseeable future. Greed masquerading as ‘development’ visited an enormous amount of unwanted and unnecessary change on the Irish landscape during this period. [These developments] are permanent reminders of what happens when profit is put before people. …  Even if there were no economic crisis, the utilitarian approach to the landscape witnessed over the last decade would still have been unsustainable because it is onedimensional and exploitative, both of the finite bank of natural resources and of people.  We can no longer be passive about landscape management or the capacity of nature to forgive our excesses.”

They have five proposals as part of the National Landscape Strategy for moving forwards that re-prioritises landscape and sense of place as a resource in the here-and-now and a gift for the future drawing on the European Landscape Convention (ELC):

  1. Establishing a Landscape Observatory of Ireland (LOI)
  2. Introducing a Landscape Ireland Act
  3. Landscape proofing of existing primary legislation, government programmes and policies
  4. Promoting a vibrant research and learning culture on landscape
  5. Increasing public participation, accessibility and the use of local knowledge in landscape management

They would like to see landscape proofing to become an active part of local and regional planning, be community-led and participatory, and be central consideration in the work of state agencies such as NAMA (which is predominately concerned with economic matters, rather than landscape inheritance).

The extent to which citizens will want to prioritize landscape over their sense of entitlement to build where they like is debatable, and is likely to divide communities between the imperatives of individualized and collectized inheritance.  Nevertheless, the Heritage Council is right that this is a debate we need to conduct and work through to decide on the landscape gift we want to leave the next generation.

Rob Kitchin