In the unabridged version of John Moran’s speech to Engineers Ireland’s annual conference in Limerick last April, he argues here, in Part II, that If Ireland wants to remain competitive on the global stage, it needs to develop and implement modern spatial strategies and related planning rules quickly – even if it does not suit all of the interests vested in a continuation of the status quo. (Part I can be read here.)

Putting the east on a diet

Firstly, anybody who sits in Dublin traffic for more than an hour or more to get to work knows we are not coping well with our huge structural challenges of population growth and eastward drift. Take a look at the slide, pictured right, and which was featured as the main image in Part I. This is a map of Ireland by population. It does not make a pretty picture. I am going to be ridiculously simple and general in the bit that follows to try and illustrate the point. Take a look at this other slide, pictured left, (with thanks to Vishaan Chakrabarti and his excellent book 'A Country of Cities'. This is the traditional way cities were developed, with a core central business unit. Work, retail, culture and administrative services in the centre. Where it 'succeeded', people other than the very rich had to live outside as high retail rent values crowded out affordable housing. Thousands commuted from further and further in the search for affordable 'family housing'. Then, in turn, schools and services, followed by mobile jobs moved to the city suburbs where the people were – and then the centre decayed. This is the story of Limerick as much as anywhere else. It was the story of Dublin, too, up to the 1980s and, while Dublin has started to roll back the clock downtown, it remains incredibly congested, as most commuters make their way into its prime city centre where most things are still located. Compare this to the next slide, pictured right, which takes a more modern approach. Here you see several districts or nodes well connected with public transport. Each node has its own equally good public services, housing and commerce and easy access to missing services distributed across other nodes of the city. Requisite density in each node allows for the creation of vibrant communities and the delivery of public services without the large city impact of one-way commuting patterns every morning and evening and ever increasing rents in the centre. In between nodes are top-of-the-range public parks and facilities (not suburban sprawl), so that the whole city scale remains attractive. As the population needs to grow, extra nodes can be added without significantly disrupting the equilibrium, and as each node is equally attractive in terms of where to live, then property remains affordable for more and for longer than in the central business model.

More balanced regional development required

If Ireland wants to remain competitive on the global stage, it needs to develop and implement similar modern spatial strategies and related planning rules quickly – even if it does not suit all of the interests vested in a continuation of the status quo: greenfield suburban landowners, car park owners, people living in low density housing in urban areas, and even car drivers. Dublin, particularly, needs to succeed and improve dramatically its own urban fabric. But for that to happen, and for important social cohesion reasons, we also need to see greater regional development as our population and economy expands. We need to develop our country almost as if it were in total one of those nodal cities mentioned previously. Instead, though, of just building Dublin as a nodal city, let us take advantage of the tiny size of our island to have our regional cities each operate as nodes in a new alternative to Dublin. But, at the same time, we live in a world of limited resources and each node requires a certain scale. Consequently, we can only have a very limited number of nodes (maybe even only one done well) in the first development phase, each operating as a centre for its own hinterland.

Offer two different urban lifestyle choices

We do not have the luxury of starting with a clean sheet of paper but it does seem to me that we can easily move to offer two different urban lifestyle choices to sustainably accommodate the majority of our population growth and arrest the eastward drift. Approached this way, Ireland will restrict the number of one-off houses dramatically and offer two choices for the majority of people looking for a place to live, work and play – either the capital, or our Atlantic Economic Corridor (AEC) city cluster. And looked as two alternatives, they do stack up nicely. There will always be some who prefer the bustle of a concentrated one million plus city just as there will be others who prefer the feeling of a slightly smaller one as long as the availability of services and job opportunities are not second class. The government controls the placement of public services and so holds the key to dictate the result; and jobs tend to follow talent, so once people follow the good services, the tide swings. When you look at the cluster of AEC cities – as a whole not individually – their claim on public services to be more centrally located therein becomes comparable to Dublin's claim. Either option now has a population base of some 1.5 to two million. They each have three universities. The AEC cities have a broad range of economic sectors and names from Medtronic, Apple, Regneron, Dell, Troy Studies, Pfizer, J&J, and so on.

Sharing much shorter commuting times to their nodal centre

But, most of all, the AEC cities propose a much more desirable and affordable quality of life, sharing much shorter commuting times to their nodal centre and sitting on the doorsteps, not of the Wicklow Mountains and Newgrange, but Connemara, the Burren, surfing in Sligo or Lahinch, the Ring of Kerry, Ballyhoura, West Cork, Blarney Castle, Tramore – I could go on. Importantly, though, it is not each city competing with Dublin on its own – an unfair battle it seems these days even in Gaelic football. Each acts more like a district in the one urban AEC conglomerate – just as Leixlip, Silicon Docks, Cherrywood and Citywest act today for the capital. And it probably takes more than an hour to get between most of these, too. By providing an alternative to our only real option now (Dublin), we get to buy Dublin time in order to provide for a more limited but continuing growth as it turns itself into its own nodal city with places like Cherrywood, Heuston Quarter, Tallaght, the Dublin airport zone being allowed to develop. For sustainable growth of the Atlantic Economic Corridor, the key to reducing demand to live in the one place (and therefore reduced price inflation in all of the cities) for housing and commercial space is improved connectivity. Take a look at this map, pictured right; with one motorway added, we see just how different the world looks for places such as Tralee, Cork, Waterford, Portlaoise, Galway and Ennis – all within one hour of the centre of this non-Dublin region of interconnected places. And since it is hard to speed up travel any further on the roads, you need to do something to speed up the connectivity of this new hub; for example, a high-speed railway linking Dublin to Limerick, pictured below left, and thereby reducing times to Cork, Killarney and Galway, too. That is the real step-change infrastructure of the future. As with the road infrastructure and the rail infrastructure working together and meeting in Limerick Junction/Cahir, we open up a whole new logistical centre for the country at that point. This allows public services to be relocated along, or at the other end of, the trains (ideally in one central location), which can service both inhabitants of the Dublin capital region and the AEC region. We then start to see a country develop where administration centres and commercial centres may not all need to be in the one place. Hopefully, you see an entirely different vision of how our country could operate.

Capital spending

But, critically, we need to be ambitious about our destination from the outset. And let us be clear, ambitious plans will simply not work if there is not significantly greater commitments to funding them. At present, we build and provide infrastructure following demand, rather than use it as a disruptive tool to encourage people who have not yet decided where they want to spend their lives to choose another location. This must change. We can trumpet significant spending on large projects, like Metro North or even the M20 but when it comes to spending allocated to remodel the main street in Limerick, no more than about €8 million is available. Other regional cities do not fare much better. Think about it – only €80 per person living here for a so-called transformative change that would last for decades. That is derisory. The National Planning Framework must really take a very different approach to allocation of money and services, and delegation of responsibility to the regions for the spending of it. Why should it be that the best museum, the best hospital, the best university should automatically be targeted for the centre of the capital rather than the centre of the AEC? This is not the way it is in many other countries. We are, perhaps, overly influenced by our two nearest neighbours – the UK and France, where the capitals dominate. But looking west, the US and Canada have multiple cities with different functions. Take smaller countries like, say Denmark or the Netherlands, and we see something much more balanced, too. Since we are here in Limerick for this conference, let us imagine a scenario in which in Budget 2018 a brave decision were made by Paschal Donohue to fund connecting Dublin to Limerick more efficiently by public rail transport, becoming more and more rapid as resources can be freed up. Then, the Budget delegates to a local regional government, the funding to spend whatever billions are required in the short term to create a new 21st century modern urban living experience in a piIot city on the banks of the Shannon: 1.) A zero C02 city; 2.) A city with a block on expansion into greenfield areas until the existing urban footprint has densities that allow for sustainable living; 3.) Allows for much cheaper delivery of services, maybe even free broadband; 4.) Affordable housing and adequate social housing; 5.) Where cars are the least desirable way to get around; 6.) Where the health services are better than anywhere else in the country; 7.) Where education is the most diverse, most technologically advanced of any place in the country and; 8.) Where the parks, cultural offerings and public realm along the riverside and into the countryside are world class and free to all. And while we are at it, challenge and empower the local politicians, fully, by allowing them to charge much more in local property taxes and rates for the privilege of living here to fund better facilities. Decisions by Dublin-based politicians should then be restricted to engineering a fair situation where regional services and national services not needing to be in Dublin can be funded and located to fairly service the four designated AEC cities of Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Galway. Once the pilot is planned and under way in Limerick, the same should be done, in quick succession, with Waterford, Cork and Galway, with hard work being put into improving their interconnectivity. Driving a pilot within a broader framework of reform and improvement is the easiest way to make this a reality if all the pieces are done in the one city at the same time. It is much easier to get this city right first, rather than trying to fix all of the others – including Dublin – at the same time.

Ditching suburbia and one-off living

But a key to this new approach is that for reasons of affordability of public service delivery; mental and physical health; inclusive communities; and the rest, we also need to show that a more desirable alternative to housing stock exists, rather than relying on a car-dependent suburbia model. Not everybody will want to move into a city. But, by quickly making our urban spaces more attractive and exciting, our new population growth will likely vote with their feet (like people all over the world) and turn their back on suburbia (sometimes presented on the outskirts of towns without even a train station). Given a real choice, they will very likely want to move to more attractive housing close to work, and that offers amenities such as a good education for their children. Amenities and services serving this purpose will also be key improvements for the many deprived communities that already exist in our inner city areas. Remember, above all, free health services, culture and sports facilities in accessible city spaces are available to all, and not just those who can pay for expensive tickets or afford a car to get there. As we re-engineer for happier, more content liveable, walkable communities, the positive dividend is huge. Compare somebody who commutes one hour to work to somebody who can stroll down the street in less than 15 minutes, dropping off the kids along the way to school. They work six years for every five years of the second person. That means they work six extra years in an average lifetime. That’s six years’ extra free time, whether you earn the minimum wage or €100,000. Now that’s a good way to improve happiness – and you might even get to better know your neighbours and local shopkeepers and just feel happier in a more secure community).

Coping differently for an aging population?

This works, too, for ageing populations. By 2046, Ireland will host a lot more than one million persons over the age of 65 (compared with a little more than 500,000 today), including, I hope, myself. As I grow older, I have no interest in living in an isolated house in the country, fearful of a fall or a burglary. I want to be able to live in a town or city without a car in my daily life, close to amenities, shopping, doctors, surrounded by a top-notch public realm and fun things to do with my friends. A driverless, shared vehicle to rent for a couple of hours for a special trip (where public transport will not work) or to explore an unspoilt rural countryside. A high speed train to go from the centre of the AEC to the centre of Dublin in one hour and onwards to Belfast. To listen to some of our politicians and interest groups, you might think I am some outlier, but the reality is there are many others who share that vision, too, rather than living in car-dependent suburbia or rural Ireland. Happier, walkable community urban spaces mean healthier people, too, as they grow old.

And the young too

And, at the other end of the spectrum, increasingly, young people and others all over the world are turning their backs on suburbia and want to live in more dense urban spaces. Millennials crave social interaction with their peers – and not just on smartphones, but in casual meeting spots, whether at work or in public. Those of us who grew up living in suburbia or rural Ireland, and were hooked on cars, need to recognise this if we want Ireland to retain and be attractive for our kids and the world’s talented kids. And we all know urban spaces drive innovation and economic growth more successfully than less dense, rural hinterlands.

Reinvigorating rural hinterlands

Once we have moved successfully down that path and started to save money by reducing the per capita cost of service provision, we can then start to have a less emotional and more evidentiary debate about the best way to revitalise and protect rural Ireland, remembering that if we are being honest we’ll accept that the best way to maintain rural Ireland as an amenity to be enjoyed by all is to stop adding more people to live in it. With our regional cities operating much better than today, their surrounding hinterlands will be able to do more than just be commuter beds for Dublin, but can rely on their rural traditional industries and their nearby successful 'big city'. Remember, as we distribute more than a million people over this AEC city cluster, each of the rural hinterlands can develop with the benefit of a city of some 300-000-500,000 nearby (not 80,000 as at present). But, I am not advocating the forceable relocation of thousands of people as some have suggested. It is worth noting that very few of our rural areas have actually experienced population decline in the last number of decades. It is just the population has spread out into the countryside rather than be built up in villages and towns as happens in other countries. I am really asking that we put a limit on the increase of this sprawl and build to accommodate our population increases within our cities and larger towns with the result that, on average, our population becomes (like so many other countries) more urban, and, consequently, public services, per capita, become cheaper to deliver.

The need for a change of mindset

Putting this in place will, however, require a complete mindset change so that we reward (not penalise) those willing to chuck the idea of two cars and a garden outside the front door, to live the compromise of density rather than choose individualism as their preferred model of living. We must be sure to create affordable homes in those city areas so everybody can choose to live there, not just the rich or those already in place. Our chances of doing all of this will be much improved as we will not be doing it closer and closer to Dublin's O'Connell Street – with ever rising prices – but over a limited number of equally serviced and attractive urban choices. Failure to act quickly means we risk social unrest from the unfairness of our existing system or, at best, we will continue to lose ground to those other European cities that are successfully redirecting their growth and more efficiently delivering their public services. Re-engineer it well, and not only do cities like Dublin prosper but many other cities and towns of Ireland adjusting to this new model can prosper, too. And, of course, an additional advantage notable in the city of sport is that a more even population distribution east and west will make the Munster-Leinster rugby or Cork-Dublin GAA challenges much fairer, too. Remember, cities can be fun too! Author: John Moran, social entrepreneur and former secretary general of the Department of Finance. The views expressed are personal and not to be attributed to the European Investment Bank in any way. (Read Part I of the series here.)