The ambition of the National Planning Framework, published in 2018 by the government as part of Project Ireland 2040 was clear: to plan for the evolution of our island in line with the rest of the world. It focuses on improving the quality of life for all citizens through the evolution of its cities, through 10 strategic outcomes including compact growth, strengthening rural economies and communities, enhancing connectivity, transiting to a low-carbon economy and sustainable mobility, and sustainable management of our environmental resources.
Since its publication, both city and county planning authorities have introduced new development plans that detail how they will achieve these goals. However, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, housing and climate crises have slowed their progress. With no time to waste, the pace of change needs to be accelerated. Now is the moment when we start transforming our cities, becoming a more sustainable, inclusive and better society.
This can be achieved through compact growth, repurposing our cities and town centres with high-quality urban residential neighbourhoods where people can walk or cycle to work, school, shops and local services, parks, space, and nature – enjoy life on their doorstep, without getting into a car or using public transport.
This is the model already being achieved across Europe in cities such as Freiburg, Aarhus, Cambridge and many others. This week, city planners from across Europe are coming together to present and discuss their experience at the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland/Academy of Urbanism’s “Reimagining the City” Conference in Galway.
The intention is to draw upon their expertise and that of Irish urbanists, together with people in Galway, to envisage how Galway can be transformed from a low-density sprawl that is congested by traffic, into a sustainable and attractive city to live in. Presentations will be made on plans for several new urban neighbourhoods on existing brownfield lands within the existing city, including around Ceannt Station and Galway Docks – bringing people to live and work in the city centre.
Inspiration can be drawn from other European port cities such as Hamburg, Antwerp, and Trieste, which are integrating their working port areas into the urban fabric with linear parks and innovative leisure activities
Galway Port has a vital role in Galway’s future, providing lands needed for energy generation for the city – such as wind turbines and waste-to energy plants – and logistical/distribution services for the growing region. Integrating these and other “industrial” areas into the city involves a shift away from traditional, single land-use based planning. Inspiration can be drawn from other European port cities such as Hamburg, Antwerp, and Trieste, which are integrating their working port areas into the urban fabric with linear parks and innovative leisure activities, while Copenhagen has incorporated a visitor centre and ski slope into its waste-to-energy plant.
Zurich has gone a step further with residential and start-up businesses being developed around functioning transport depots and railworks. This is possible using smart technology and good rail connectivity, underlining the need for flexible, innovative thinking on how we plan our cities and towns.
Increasing density is possible within existing towns and neighbourhoods without the need for new, costly infrastructure and in ways that make them very attractive places to live and work, while retaining their existing heritage, character and quality. Well-designed, infill development of unused open areas and back-land sites can be inserted into the existing urban fabric.
Quality of place
Key to all urban development is quality of place – that people have access to a variety of parks, nature, and biodiversity close to where they live, that they can walk along tree-lined streets with good-quality paving and be able to have a normal conversation rather than be deafened by noisy traffic. This can be achieved by a network of green corridors along rivers and waterfronts.
A great example is the transformation of the River Saone and Rhone in Lyons, which now has very popular linear parks that extend from the historic city centre, connecting neighbourhoods and extending into the countryside. Lyons also has a superb food market where local people sell their produce grown either within or immediately around the city, supported by community allotments. A similar approach would transform Galway, attracting more local people into the city centre and improving the city’s ambience and identity.
Looking at other cities shows what is achievable, and what others are offering in a very economically competitive world. Economic investment is attracted to places where people want to live and can enjoy a high quality of life, but it can be inclusive and accessible to all. Leipzig is an excellent example of a city achieving this through qualitative assessment and affordable housing programmes that are improving existing neighbourhoods.
The key to achieving this is open governance and a flexible planning system, designed to deliver greater efficiency and effectiveness
Reimagining Irish cities and towns is just the first step of the process. Achieving it involves a co-ordinated, proactive approach all-round. This requires raising awareness and actively including all those interested in improving where they live and their quality of life; a concerted effort by public authorities to support and lead the process with fully resourced professional teams; using the inventiveness, creative thinking, and added value of design professionals. These can quickly transform our cities and towns for the future.
The key to achieving this is open governance and a flexible planning system, designed to deliver greater efficiency and effectiveness. Rather than tweak the current legal-based planning system as proposed, the Government needs to take a big leap forward for Project Ireland 2040 to succeed.
Philip Jackson is a project director at Scott Tallon Walker, leading its urban design and master-planning team, and a director of the Academy of Urbanism.