The research involved an in-depth examination of 79 Irish settlements varying from villages and towns to small cities and examined water, transport, energy, food and waste management efficiencies.
According to Professor Richard Moles, director of the University of Limerick Centre for Environmental Research and co-author of the study, the average Irish household’s impact on the environment was greater than in many EU countries.
“There is an urgent need to plan for a more sustainable future in order to reduce our dependence on imported fuels and to allow us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Most previous studies on urban sustainability relate to cities alone. This is sometimes justified on the grounds that it is likely, that by 2050, half the human population will be living in cities but this also equally implies that the other half will not. Studies on sustainability of smaller settlements are needed to help the drive towards national and global scale sustainable development,” Mr Moles added.
Settlements studied were located in three clusters: Athlone and Mullingar (midlands), Sligo (north-west) and Limerick (mid-west).
The goal was to benchmark the current sustainability achieved by Irish villages, towns and cities outside the greater Dublin region and to identify options for sustainable development of these settlements to counterbalance the recent rapid growth of the Dublin area.
Some 4,000 householders completed a questionnaire as part of the research project.
Resources were made available by the EPA to support data collection over 18 months and five researchers collected data on about 300 attributes in the 79 settlements.
“On average, Limerick households were most sustainable among the group surveyed. But Limerick was not the leader across all areas of investigation. While the transport ‘footprint’ was low, journeys to work, shops and schools tended to be quite long in many parts of Limerick and traffic congestion is a problem in this and many other larger urban areas,” explained Prof Moles.
“The city scored poorly in relation to environment but this has improved since the research with the opening of the new waste water treatment plan. Proportionally more people eat out in Limerick and this increased the food footprint, as restaurants carry a relatively high environmental cost,” he added.
According to the study, settlements with the least sustainable households were found in smaller, more isolated villages and small towns and in satellite towns near larger urban areas, especially those that had grown quickly in recent years.