Tuesday 25 September 2018

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NPF: a new way of thinking about Cork and other places

Wednesday, 25th April, 2018 4:55pm

People who haven’t read Ireland’s new National Planning Framework (NPF) yet, may be surprised that it doesn’t have any maps in it. Or that it doesn’t make precise predictions about property prices, housing affordability or the future of individual towns, villages or neighbourhoods.

If it doesn’t zone any land for development, or make any controversial decisions about incinerators, bungalows in the countryside or data centres (hint: it doesn’t!), then how useful can it be?

Well, to start with, by announcing this new long-term spatial strategy for Ireland as a package with funding for key infrastructural projects in different parts of the country, there is now a practical focus on delivery.

This means that even though some of these projects are not new ones, people can now seem them as part of a bigger picture; a joined-up and integrated vision of what sustainable patterns of development in Ireland might look like in the long run.

However, the success of an initiative like this should be measured not only in terms of the number of projects that are funded and built.

It also has a more subtle set of purposes aimed at serving the common good and taking seriously the challenge of sustainable development. These include bringing about a shift towards spatial coherence in how we look at our cities and regions; developing coalitions of interest (among private sector, public sector and community actors) for consistent-decision making; and acting authoritatively as an antidote to kind of ad hoc and short term thinking that has not served us well in the past.

It is well recognised that the over-concentration of development and economic activity in the greater Dublin area is Ireland’s most pressing spatial planning challenge.

A continuation of these trends will have significant negative economic, social and environmental impacts for all citizens – undermining the broader aspiration of regional development whilst also threatening Dublin’s success has a capital city.

The NPF has made an important statement about how this issue can be confronted. And perhaps its most important feature is the proposal to build up a network of strong cities – to provide a more appropriate balance of development across the state – using urban growth centres as drivers of regional development.

This is important because it recognises the importance of having strong cities to support a more balanced and equitable distribution of development everywhere. It firmly shifts the conversation towards an appreciation that a resilient future - for rural, peripheral and urbanising areas alike - is inextricably tied up with the ways in which our city-regions are planned and managed.

Importance of Cork

Cork is an interesting case study to show the potential for this new way of thinking. In fact, within the NPF, Cork is set to play an extremely important national role: the success of this entire new national strategy will arguably depend on the extent to which Cork – city and county - succeeds in meeting this challenge.

Much of the recent commentary around these parts has tended to focus on ‘What’s in this for Cork?’ and there has been plenty of discussion about the list of capital projects for the city and wider region.

As we have seen, strategies like this are not shopping lists, and it is much more important to think about ‘What is expected of Cork?’

The various projects mentioned (such as Docklands and city centre redevelopment, the new town of Monard, the Dunkettle interchange, M20 and North Ring Road, potential light rail/public transport measures) should not be seen as a random list of projects being bestowed on Cork by a benevolent Government.

Instead, it is much more helpful to understand this as a kind of a contract between the Government and Cork, with commitment required from both sides.

The Government is prepared to support a number of key ‘growth enablers’ to support Cork’s growth prospects; the responsibility on Cork’s side will be to manage that growth properly. This is where the planning system steps in.

The NPF 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.

Cork city alone is expected to accommodate population growth in the order of 120,000, which is close to the combined growth of Limerick, Galway and Waterford cities over the next 25 years.

Another shift in the national conversation therefore, is the way in which the NPF has, for the first time, established formal planning at the metropolitan scale.

It has been suggested indeed, that the concept behind the forthcoming Metropolitan Area Spatial Plans (MASPs) has largely been modelled on the Cork’s long experience of planning at the city region scale.

As a planning vision, the NPF is also concerned with how and where growth will occur, and it takes a strong position in tackling suburban sprawl and dispersed development.

For the first time, we have national policy that prioritises the use of sites in the urban centres. Experts have long understood that the re-use of derelict or under-used land is more sustainable than greenfield development and sprawl, yet never before have we had formal targets for building on previously used land.

In urban Cork, these new statutory targets will require the provision of additional housing to accommodate up to 2,800 people every year up to 2040 – all within the existing built up area. This is an enormous challenge for development and regeneration, and it is unlikely that Cork will be able to accommodate this level of growth without a major change in how development is coordinated across the metropolitan area.

The National Planning Framework can be especially influential in making this change. It will help to curtail excessive suburban development in the green belt, to direct growth towards locations close to existing and planned services, and to give priority to established city and town centre locations, and along public transportation corridors.

We in Cork are fortunate that we already have a template for this approach to spatial planning.

The 1978 Land Use and Transportation Study (LUTS) and the 2001 Cork Area Strategic Plan (CASP) have long provided a robust framework for sustainable growth.

They provide a long-term planning vision, which promotes the kind of development envisaged in the NPF – i.e. regenerating the city centre and accommodating substantial population and jobs growth across the metropolitan area, from Docklands, Tivoli, the rail corridor between Monard, the city and eastwards to Midleton, and through sensitive expansion of the satellite towns, such as Ballincollig and Glanmire.

Good planning requires us to resist a ‘growth at all costs’ approach. International experience shows us that livability and place quality are essential conditions for economic prosperity in today’s world.

When broader issues such as changes in climate, demographic patterns, and civic engagement come into the mix, the need for a more sophisticated set of discussions about our common future becomes crystal clear.

Spatial strategies such as the National Planning Framework are important because they help to bring about a significant shift in this direction.

Cork is in a unique position to take a lead.

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