• 08 Apr 2021

We Must Think Local for a Sustainable Future by Claire McManus, RIAI Spokesperson on Housing

By Claire McManus MRIAI, RIAI Spokesperson on Housing
Published in the Sunday Business Post on 4 April, 2021

A balanced Covid-19 recovery is unattainable without investment in our towns and villages

The last year has seen huge changes in how we live, work and travel. While the debate about the long-term future of working from home continues, it is apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to reimagine our towns and villages. But this reimagining will not happen without investment and commitment from many stakeholders, primarily central and local government.

The historic and prolonged denudation and decline of our town and village centres risks being the greatest obstacle to restoring employment, social cohesion and civic morale. This must be reversed through adequate resourcing of local authorities and supports for local communities and small businesses.

Town and village centres need architectural planning, expertise and excellence to become sustainable economic hubs. It is time for a design-led strategy to transform our towns into beautiful places where people can both afford and want to live and work.

In its recent submission to the Public Consultation of the Review of the National Development Plan, the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) highlighted the need to make planning and development work for recovery while also achieving a sustainable, liveable future for both urban and rural communities.

The submission, Designing a Lasting Localised Recovery: Plan Better, Design Better, Build Better, called on government to explicitly prioritise capital spending for well-designed town and village-centred investment and delivering effective and regionally balanced recovery.

Policy makers can now correct mistakes accumulated over decades in regional and local development, and city, town and rural planning that have led to long commutes, high house prices and spatially imbalanced growth.

Public investment must meet three challenges in the coming decades:

  1. it must meet UN and EU Green Deal carbon reduction targets,
  2. planning and development frameworks must account for demographic and related changes with regard to household size, housing mix, education, healthcare and others,
  3. it must be sustained at higher levels to correct for past under-investment.

The last recession, triggered by the financial crisis in 2008, impacted severely on capital investment, employment across construction sectors and the provision of housing. Since then, we have seen chronic under-investment not just in housing, but in equally important public infrastructure.

Significant public funds must be earmarked for town-centre, housing and supporting amenity renewal, and individual Government departmental budgets should serve the overall aim of rejuvenating towns and villages.

Local/Regional authorities must be given resources and architectural expertise to ensure a town-centred recovery and liveability that is lasting and climate friendly and to initiate holistic cross disciplinary review of public spend - catching value opportunities, that might otherwise be missed, in existing and proposed budgets.

Making use of current resources is the most sustainable form of growth. Previous unplanned, sprawling development must give way to adoption of a proactive plan-led approach to achieve compact and sustainable use of existing underused building stock, as well as vacant and infill sites in the hearts of our towns, villages, suburbs and inner cities.

The promotion of over-the-shop living should be prioritised, by overcoming both planning implementation, regulatory and financial obstacles.The National Retrofit Scheme must prioritise vacant site and underutilised urban property development while the establishment of a National Placemaking Agency would tackle dereliction. Our larger towns and cities require intelligent approaches to urban design, planning and construction.

This includes funding and support mechanisms to enable a wider range of approaches to housing provision than those currently in train, concentrating more on ‘small-scale’ urban infill, building refurbishment and retrofit, and development of a cost-efficient construction system based around ‘circular economy’ principles that can deliver affordable housing in compact, walkable neighbourhoods, supported by much improved public transport infrastructure.

More sustainable forms of development require higher up-front time and financial investment, but they have lower long-term environmental costs. This investment will pay future dividends with respect to reducing other social and economic costs such as long commuting times, ongoing servicing costs and carbon taxes, which must outweigh the current focus on delivering lowest cost options.

We must resource the design and construction of high-quality, high-performing buildings. Investment programmes in these areas will improve quality of life and support the transition to a zero-carbon economy by 2050.

It is important to focus on getting the best solutions to revitalising our towns and villages and to support those working in this area. The RIAI offers a free online resource, the RIAI Town and Village Toolkit, which provides practical advice, references and successful case studies of places that have, with architectural and urban design expertise, positively overcome challenges.

2017 RIAI Awards Winner - Clonakilty 400 Urban Design Masterplan Phase 2 by Cork County Architects
2017 RIAI Awards Winner - Clonakilty 400 Urban Design Masterplan Phase 2 by Cork County Architects

Towns such as Clonakilty and Westport are thriving communities and internationally recognised as best practice in planning and development, with public benefit and wellbeing at the core. The development and viability of these towns have been well managed by a professional team, including municipal architects, working together with the support of the local community to design a better outcome.

Ireland has suffered in the past from a lack of long-term planning, a lack of synthesis between local and national policy priorities, and a lack of coordination between local and national policymaking structures.

We have an opportunity now to correct some of the mistakes of the past and create a different future for our citizens.