2040 plan depends on Cork acting as Dublin counterbalance

The success of the Ireland 2040 strategy will depend on the extent to which Cork succeeds at an increasingly important national role, argues William Brady.

A conceptual image of a proposed redevelopment by developer Kevin O'Sullivan for the Port of Cork site.

THE Government recently published the draft National Planning Framework, (Ireland 2040: Our Plan), a long-term strategic planning framework to guide national, regional, and local planning and investment decisions. It has very interesting things to say about the future of the State, about regional development, and, perhaps most significantly, about Cork’s role as a centre of national and international significance.

Ireland 2040 represents an ambitious attempt to guide development and manage growth in a responsible manner. It is an example of a creative, future-oriented approach to “place-making” at a grand scale; this ambition should be applauded and supported. An initial analysis of the document suggests Cork is set to play an extremely important national role; indeed, I would argue that the success of this new national strategy will depend on the extent to which Cork succeeds in meeting this challenge.

Over the last number of years, we in UCC’s Centre for Planning Education and Research have been contributing to this national policy discussion in a research capacity, and have engaged with Government departments, State agencies, the wider planning profession, and more recently with the IMF and European Commission. We have been advocating that Cork is Ireland’s only real prospect for delivering a strong counterbalance to Dublin and have been making the case that Cork’s experiences in planning at the city-region scale provide a useful model for Ireland’s other cities. We were also commissioned by the National Economic and Social that Council (NESC) to prepare a major report on spatial planning and infrastructure in the Cork region as part of that organisation’s submission to Ireland 2040.

We argued that Ireland’s most urgent macroplanning issue was the continued overconcentration of development and economic activity in the greater Dublin area and the consequent underperformance of the regions and the second-tier cities of Cork, Galway, Limerick, and Waterford.

Ireland is Europe’s most imbalanced economy in its spatial distribution of jobs and people, and Ireland 2040 highlights effectively the implications of doing nothing to address this problem.

Worryingly, the scale of imbalance between the capital and the regions is widening, and this represents the fundamental planning challenge: How to radically improve the performance of the regions without undermining the growth prospects for Dublin as a global player.

The proposed strategy for cities in Ireland 2040 is one of its most significant features and represents one of the most important urban policy developments in the history of the State. This is based on having a series of strong cities driving regional development, using the principles of compact settlement, co-ordinated growth, and a rejection of dispersal and sprawl as acceptable development formats.

Ireland 2040 outlines a clear hierarchy for the urban centres outside the capital, with Cork being promoted as the State’s second city of international scale, fulfilling a nationally important role in counterbalancing the greater Dublin area. Limerick, Galway, and Waterford, in turn, are designated as key regional centres, and important locations for supporting the regional development agenda.

Cork City alone is expected to accommodate population growth in the order of 55% [115,000], which equates to the combined growth of Limerick, Galway, and Waterford cities over the next 25 years.

This is a huge challenge for Cork; accommodating another 115,000 people in Cork City means achieving an average annual growth rate of 2.3% over the next 24 years; by comparison, the average annual rate of growth over the last 24 years was only 0.8% [34,600 total]. This is an enormous development and regeneration opportunity, requiring the provision of thousands of new homes and jobs in appropriate locations across the city region.

However, Ireland 2040 is not just concerned about population growth per se — as a planning vision, it is equally concerned with how and where this growth will occur. It takes a very strong position in tackling suburban sprawl and dispersed development, and for the first time introduces national policy that prioritises the use of undeveloped and vacant sites in the urban centres; for Cork, these national targets will require the provision of additional housing to accommodate 2,400 people every year up to 2040 — within the existing built-up area.

Ireland 2040 quite correctly promotes policy for much more compact cities and towns, promoting developments in line with core planning principles relating to quality of life, access to services and public transport, place-making, employment-led growth, and environmental quality. By introducing defined targets for limiting suburban sprawl and dispersal, it is taking an ambitious step, and it means revisiting the way in which our urban areas have been evolving over the last few generations.

This is timely because there is a real danger that in the attempts to solve the current housing crisis, there will be pressure to overlook the need for sustainable, appropriate forms of development. In my view, there is very little to be gained by trying to solve the housing crisis simply using a broken model based on “delivering units anywhere” rather than “making successful neighbourhoods”.

Cork’s track record over the last 40 years in promoting an innovative approach to planning for a compact city within a prosperous city region has been crucial to its success; in fact, this is one of the reasons it is now subject to this important designation within Ireland 2040. The compact city model referenced in Ireland 2040 is nothing new; it has been part of the planning vision for Cork since the late 1970s; this is based on the idea of a high-density urban core, a clearly defined built-up area, with a series of satellite towns and employment centres distributed across the metropolitan area, all encompassed by a high-quality green belt providing a unique landscape setting and strategic amenity and interspersed by a series of high-quality road and public transport connections.

This vision has largely been maintained as the guiding principle for development for Cork until recent times. Cork is widely regarded internationally as being one of the more innovative city regions when it comes to planning at this scale. This was largely the product of co-operation between the two local authorities and buy-in from government, State bodies, as well as local development and environmental interests. Ongoing collaboration will be crucial for Cork’s future success, and the current deliberations about the boundary clearly need to be resolved quickly.

Perhaps now, after almost five years of deliberation, it is time to provide some certainty about Cork’s local government arrangements; Ireland 2040 creates huge incentive for this. It is worth pointing out that regardless of where the boundary is ultimately placed, the city and county councils together will still be partners in continuation of this entire city region project.

Fortunately, Cork already has a template for delivering the scale and form of growth [in population and employment] that Ireland 2040 proposes. The integrated planning approach provided by the Cork Land Use and Transportation Study 1978 and the Cork Area Strategic Plan 2001 means the region is already well-equipped to fulfil this important national role.

This is a robust long-term planning vision, which promotes the kind of development envisaged in Ireland 2040 — regenerating the city centre, and accommodating substantial population and jobs growth across the metropolitan area, from the Docklands, Tivoli, the rail corridor between Monard, the city, and eastwards to Midleton, and through sensitive expansion of the satellite towns. This means the scale and type of growth envisaged in Ireland 2040 for Cork can be accommodated using this template and without recourse to wholesale suburban sprawl, the erosion of the green belt, or undermining the key environmental and cultural qualities of the region.

If Cork wants to become one of Europe’s best midsized city regions, it has to enshrine quality of life and quality of place right at the centre of its growth strategy. It must also resist a “growth at all costs” approach because international experience shows us that livability and place quality are essential conditions for economic prosperity in today’s world.

I was encouraged by the scale of ambition and the commitment to partnership contained in the city and county councils’ joint submission to Ireland 2040 [Cork 2050] — it made a convincing case to Government about its credentials and its prospects, based on the proposition that Cork, as a major metropolitan centre of scale and quality, was ready to support Ireland’s need for balanced development. It suggested also that the Cork model of city-region planning, which has served the region so well, would be maintained and even upgraded, to secure the future success of the entire region.

It seems the Government has now accepted this bold proposition from Cork, and responded in kind with a very strong designation in this national plan. All eyes right now are on Cork.

  • William Brady is an experienced town planner and lecturer in UCC. Based in UCC’s Centre for Planning Education and Research, he is involved in research and teaching on the master’s programme in planning and sustainable development



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